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EDUCATION: With Peter Clague, Kristin School

Play Well

Kristin's Executive Principal, Peter Clague,
ponders whether we are raising our children as artists or artisans?

As far as I can recollect, my first car was blue. It was also yellow, red and green. It had eight wheels, one pair of which I stole while my brother wasn’t looking. I’m sure I crashed that car hundreds of times, but I never broke a single part. If there was ever a better childhood toy than Lego, I can’t recall it.

But ohhh, what has happened to Lego? Unlike a few other favourites (Meccano, Spirograph, Etch-a-Sketch anyone?), Lego is still with us, as popular and prolific as it was 40 years ago. But where parents once bought blocks by the bucket, they now buy themed sets. And though the pieces still interlock in the same ingenious fashion, they are almost unrecognisable from the basics that I knew. Themed sets come with everything from tiny prefabricated light sabres to interactive ATM machines. The single currency my siblings and I knew as we lay on the lounge floor trading pieces essential for our latest creations were blocks that varied only in height, width or length. If we had wanted a light sabre (had we even known what one was back then) we would have built it from scratch. Necessity really is the mother of invention. Invention was the key to Lego’s appeal for us. The fun of building, breaking, and rebuilding whatever took our fancy, that’s where the challenge lay. We learnt through trial and error, through testing and refining. More wheels don’t make things go faster – the increased friction actually slows them up. The walls of buildings need to interlock with each other occasionally or they fall over. Cats don’t like helmets. I may not have grown up to be a mechanic, a bricklayer, or a vet, but I gained some valuable understandings about how things work.
Contrast that with today’s experience of building a Lego set. Certainly there are still valuable skills and experiences to be gained: following instructions with care and the sense of satisfaction upon completion. But the words “I’m finished” are not something I have ever associated with Lego. Had we ever uttered them, our parents would have simply said “Well, build something else.” Today, many children would consider it sacrilege to convert their immaculate Jedi Interceptor into a homemade bulldozer or their Hogwarts Castle into a skyscraper. In many bedrooms, ‘completed’ Lego models sit on the shelf, an end unto themselves.
From creation to replication - therein seems to lie the change in Lego. Teaching our children to be artisans who can recreate objects, carefully and methodically crafting them from a template, is a useful skill. But encouraging them to be artists, with the confidence and creativity to create and refine original designs, may be more useful still. The ability to innovate is increasingly considered to be an essential quality in the modern life. Where better to acquire the confidence to build from scratch, the patience to experiment, and the resilience to learn from failures than on the playroom floor surrounded by a pile of multi-coloured bricks?
Which leads to the other insidious change – from collaborative to solo pursuits. My Lego memories are communal, they are of competition and co-operation. There were highest tower races, last-car-standing demolition derbies, joint construction projects and endless haggling as my brothers and sisters and I bartered for pieces from each other’s piles. It seemed no accident that the name Lego came from the Danish phrase ‘leg godt’ meaning ‘play well’. It’s true that, once built, a modern day themed set does provide the basis for interactive play. But does it replace the life-lessons of building together?
Then again, perhaps I’m just being curmudgeonly. Having recently seen the Lego Star Wars Wii game being played in virtual reality on a big screen, I should be glad that the solid little plastic bricks of my childhood still even exist. Nevertheless, I challenge parents to the following next time you are cleaning your child’s room:
‘Accidently’ drop two or three of their completed Lego models on the floor
If they still have the original instruction sheets, hide them
When they get home from school, tell them to rebuild it
Better still, challenge them to build something completely different.

by Peter Clague