Legos, Play, and Narrative
by DANIEL BOSCH.
SCENE: THE TORCH-LIT office-hewn-from-rock of Skepticus, the principal chamber of his retreat, high above the city. A long work table, strewn with papers, books, scrolls, pens, pencils, and quills; at its center, a laptop computer sits open. At left of the computer, a small pile of Legos, some affixed to each other, but none made into any recognizable object. A low stool stands at attention beneath the table.
The almost-music of an invitation to Skype, quite loud. By its third refrain, Skepticus comes hobbling out of the bathroom, anxiously tugging at his toga as he approaches the computer. He reads the screen and taps the touchpad to accept the call. The chiming stops.
Voice of Fidelis, from the computer: Skepticus, my friend! Is this a bad time?
Skepticus: Speaking to the laptop. His toga falling open. Umbilicus’s mother will call in a few minutes. Would you please stop using Skype to reach me? With all the “distance education” I’ve had to take on, sometimes I feel my whole life has gone virtual, Fidelis.
F: Cover your right nipple.
S: Oh! Shit. Thanks. Pulls toga across his chest
F: You told me he was coming along, sweet boy. He’s six, right? You have him reading The Fables of Aesop?
S: In translation, of course. And next week we start Spiegelman’s Maus books. But I’m worried.
S: Umbilicus’s mother is curtailing his imagination. It has to stop. And I’ve prepared a tutorial I hope will set her straight.
F: What’s she done?
S: She’s bought Umbilicus several sets of Legos.
F: I love Legos!
S: Is your email open? I’m sending you a picture.
F: Yes, of course.
Skepticus leans slightly to reach the touch pad. He clicks with his right hand as with his left hand he continues to adjust his toga. A brief pause.
This one is fabulous, Skepticus! The detail is incredible!
S: The devil is in that detail, Fidelis. What do you mean by, “this one”?
F: You know, the toy. The “scorpion”!
S: You said you love Legos. Did you mean to say you love the clever things people make out of Legos?
F: Can’t I love both?
S: Some of the things people make out of Legos are not very lovable.
F: And someone got up on the wrong side of the cave floor this morning!
S: What is it you really love, my friend? Is it Legos the medium, used to its fullest potential? Or do you love the products the Lego Group suggests we try to make? And what about other mediums you say you love? Do you love bricks or townhouses? Stones or statues? Television, or “Real Housewives”? The Congressional Record, or the “poems” made out of it?
F: It depends, Skepticus! Pause. I don’t love latex, but I’ve been very happy to see a condom.
S: And it was the nature of the end to which that latex was put that made you happy.
F: The end to which that latex was put always makes me happy.
S: Fidelis, if you wish to stimulate my imagination with regard to your more intimate uses of Skype, you will no doubt succeed. But Umbilicus’s mother is due to call me in fifteen minutes, and I intend to keep that appointment. He finally has his toga properly arranged.
F: Of course, Skepticus. My apologies! Do go on.
S: When Umbilicus’s mother calls, I mean to use the history of Legos to demonstrate for her how the power of the imagination may be—has been—deliberately compromised.
F: With respect, Skepticus, “the power of the imagination” is a very hard thing to pin down.
S: Which is why I’m using Legos as my evidence. Who hasn’t held a Lego brick? Everybody can understand how the imagination works with—and is frustrated by—this particular medium.
F: But what’s a mother to do? Everybody, as you say, is pro-Lego.
S: Ideally, a mother is supposed to empower, and set free, her child’s imagination.
F: But would you have parents forbid their children from using any medium you feel is less-than-completely virtuous?
S: I do have grounds for such a proscription.
F: You’re not serious.
S: I am.
F: No more Legos?
S: Not the kind that displace the imagination.
F: Go on. It’s your turn to try to stimulate my imagination.
S: And no more prurient interruptions! Here comes Exhibit B. I had my cousin ask her three-and-a-half-year-old to build a Lego “duck” without any guidance, neither parental assistance nor any image of a duck other than one they could conjure in their imagination. Reaches to touchpad. Clicks. Look what he came up with.
F: After brief pause. Got it!
F: Your cousin’s son is a prodigy, Skepticus!
S: Not at all. Let’s call this “duck” 1. I want you to compare it with the image I’m sending… now. Reaches. Clicks. Here comes “duck” 2, the result of parent-child collaboration.
F: Hold on. Now. I have it.
F: I’d say that “duck” 1 has more personality, or that its personality is less like a cartoon-stereotype, in spite of its Daffy-like black crown. Is irregularity what we mean by personality? Whatever. The yellow bill seems to refer to cartoon ducks, too. “Duck” 1 is fat— like a duck you’d meet in a restaurant. And isn’t it slightly off-balance, its left foot bigger than its right foot? I’d guess that maybe your cousin’s son couldn’t—or didn’t care to—remove that skinny yellow piece.
S: And “duck” 2?
F: “Duck” 2 is much more economical in its use of Lego bricks than “duck” 1. Again a yellow bill seems a nod to media images of ducks. “Duck” 2 has more handsome and consistent “plumage,” and its design, overall, is more elegant. The staggering of the legs and feet seems somehow like an advance on the design of “duck” 1.
S: Excellent! I am going to ask Umbilicus’s mother to imagine that “duck” 2 is less desirable than “duck” 1, not for any inherent reason, but only when it becomes the dominant model for imaginative play with the medium, when a child’s inability or lack of motivation to obtain such a “duck” constricts that child’s ability to enjoy their use of Legos.
F: But if she wants “duck” 1, she’ll have to set aside parent-child teamwork.
S: She has only to avoid a particular, pernicious, kind of teamwork. A strong parent should keep themselves from coaching their kid toward “duck” 2. I want Umbilicus’s mother to imagine that a sort of free space obtains between the ideal duck and the real “duck” her child builds, and that her child’s ability to choose his relationship to any given instance of the ideal is precious and worth preserving, like an endangered species, or a vast tract of open unsettled land.
F: An imaginary free space as a kind of natural resource? For you, I suspect, this space is not only imaginary, it’s really there, and it’s renewable, if we don’t mess it up. I think a lot of parents, maybe even Umbilicus’s mother, already buy this idea.
S: Then why are they buying those “scorpions? With the Legos I played with in the mid- to late-60s—tiny and small, rectangular and square bricks and flat panels in red, blue, yellow, green, white, and black—one constructed a not terribly duck-like “duck” of one’s own. Its modular, additive making, brick by brick—the felt sharpness of its corners and the lifelessness of its individual, abstract plastic elements, the near-conformity of its coloration to a modernist grid, all these characteristics, and more—enabled a more embodied, active, and open engagement with one’s “duck” and with Legos as a medium.
F: Umbilicus’s mother hasn’t felt that?
S: The Legos Group doesn’t just push parents to buy sets that are set to yield a specific object, they have started marketing pre-made, store-bought “ducks.” On their website— here it comes Clicks.—you can see—
F: Waiting for it. Now.
S: —marketing images like this one.
F: “The Lion King!”
S: Bingo. But His Majesty’s menagerie represents the transformation of Legos into a medium that requires, and so, induces, much less-imagination from the children who play with it. It’s a nice toy, but you can get a plastic lion at just about any good toy store. Such Lego animals aren’t really Legos, in a historical view, because they are not derived from the basic medium, but adjuncts to it. This “boy” hasn’t had a chance to invest the pre-fabricated “lion” he clutches so triumphantly with his own liveliness and vivacity. If there is a triumph here, it’s Lego’s. I suspect that if we could hear the child’s roar, the sound he makes would be his best simulacrum of a roar he’d heard on television or in a video game. Better he made a menagerie of creatures like “duck” 1. Take a look at this picture, Reaches, clicks. from a Lego webpage.
S: Lego sells this set under the name “Builders of Tomorrow,” but what is the place of the imagination in this version of “tomorrow”? The pile of multi-colored bricks at right is a medium—such as it is—and these bricks can, and do, “become”—such as they are—in the mind of a child-builder, anything. A single, unaltered Lego brick can, in the mind of a child at play, be a “car,” a “bumblebee,” and “volume S of the OED.”
F: As long as parents or older children—
S: —or commercial objectives—
F: —don’t intervene and teach them otherwise.
S: But televised and website-based advertising for sets like this one, and the boxes the sets come in, which are usually present while kids are at play, exert strong pressures on children to make objects that conform to the images at left—an “Eskimo”, two “penguins,” and a “helicopter.”
F: Any “space” still available to the child for imaginative play is compromised as soon as she sees such images.
S: And these images of yesterday have the Lego imprimatur. Children whose play with Legos is directed by these images will attempt to match what they construct from Legos to what they’ve seen. I remember watching my childhood friends’ play with specific sets; an attempt to match the picture on the box always came right away—their play with Legos was framed by attempts to make images exactly like the ones on the box. The story of their play was predicated on replication. It is from such a dreary sense of “play” I want to protect Umbilicus.
F: A lot of kids have trouble making an exact copy of the image.
S: And then kids tend to turn to an adult for instruction in how to make a proper “penguin” or “duck”! Especially for older children, Lego play will be more or less coterminous with the problem-solving constituted by the construction of an accurate copy of the images Lego used to sell the toy. Not all, but many such children will experience any discrepancy that exists between the “penguin” they have made and the “penguin” offered as a model by Lego as an impediment to their enjoyment.
F: Yes, but isn’t the problem-solving involved in building objects that match Lego’s ads at all valuable?
S: Within the clearly-defined, three-dimensional parameters of Lego building sets in their relation to specific (and provided) two-dimensional images, problem-solving or matching is a satisfying activity. It is good training for certain forms of inference based on visual and tactile observations.
F: And matching is a common activity in school.
S: But it cannot engage the full capacities of the imagination, and if it dominates play, play is less good. When Lego play becomes reproduction of commercial images, the development of a child’s imaginative capacity is short-changed.
F: Many of us have seen, Skepticus, how even when the kid gets an exact copy of the thing built, these Lego creations almost never stand up to imaginative play. Zeus help those parents when their kid loses even the tiniest one of the 235 pieces and thus considers their toy is broken!
S: And only a small minority of children will be explicitly encouraged—by parents, or older siblings, or teachers—to make-believe that a Lego-construction that differs from Lego’s marketing images is complete and perfect in its own right, and in no way less suitable for play. What could be more perverse than the substitution of a more personal and individual form of make-believe for a commercially-generated and profit-driven form of make-believe? Zero per cent of parenting should be done on behalf of the Lego Group.
F: You mean zero per cent of seven-year-olds need to turn their backs on “fun.”
S: I mean we ought to listen to what seven-year-olds tell us is “fun.” A lot of it will seem non-sensical, or silly, or less than useful, from a real-world perspective. But a strong parent will at least some of the time protect their child’s play from just such a real-world perspective. What I really want to get Umbilicus’s mother to do is to listen to her son tell his stories about the objects he makes. She doesn’t—and he doesn’t—need Lego’s stories.
F: Skepticus, I grant you that the special virtues of Legos seem to have been compromised. But I’m skeptical about your getting through to Umbilicus’s mother. It is hard to imagine today’s parents taking steps to protect a freedom they have not fully experienced. And doesn’t reading Aesop’s stories keep kids from imagining?
S: After reading Aesop, Fidelis, a child will instantly engage images of “crows” and “foxes”—and even real crows, and real foxes, if they are given a chance—with narratives they construct and make-believe in. But in the case of the pseudo-realities offered by specific Lego sets, a fragile medium supplants the capacity it is meant to serve. I’m not by any means the first to worry this dynamic. Here’s Charles Baudelaire, in 1859, wishing that “the French mind” could have been protected from photographic imagery: Reading
During this lamentable period, a new industry arose which contributed not a little to confirm stupidity in its faith and to ruin whatever might remain of the divine in the French mind….If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether, thanks to the stupidity of the multitude which is its natural ally. It is time, then, for it to return to its true duty, which is to be the servant of the sciences and arts—but the very humble servant, like printing or shorthand, which have neither created nor supplemented literature. Let it hasten to enrich the tourist’s album and restore to his eye the precision which his memory may lack; let it adorn the naturalist’s library, and enlarge microscopic animals; let it even provide information to corroborate the astronomer’s hypotheses; in short, let it be the secretary and clerk of whoever needs an absolute factual exactitude in his profession—up to that point nothing could be better. Let it rescue from oblivion those tumbling ruins, those books, prints and manuscripts which time is devouring, precious things whose form is dissolving and which demand a place in the archives of our memory—it will be thanked and applauded. But if it be allowed to encroach upon the domain of the impalpable and the imaginary, upon anything whose value depends solely upon the addition of something of a man’s soul, then it will be so much the worse for us! (Charles Baudelaire, “Salon of 1859,” Révue Française, Paris, June 10-July 20, 1859. Jonathan Mayne, translator.)
F: Like Baudelaire, you hold that the seeming “absolute factual exactitude” of the “scorpion,” and to its lesser articulate degree, the “eskimo,” exceeds the needs of, even impedes the work of an active imagination.
S: And wasn’t Baudelaire right about our mass stupidity! That “scorpion” touted by Lego on its website? No one in their right mind would argue that it is realistic. Yet it is infused with the powerful commercial logic of “realism.” You said it. The “scorpion,” gains an ironic credibility with its “incredible” detail; even the fineness of the motions required for its accurate replication are associated with the an industrial approach to the complex nature of reality. Meanwhile the work of the imagination is set aside, in favor of the work of following directions. But in the interest of my argument, let us allow a photograph to “restore to our eye(s) a precision our memor(ies) may lack”—a moment when Lego really started to manipulate the market. Reaches and clicks.
F: Brief pause. All set!
F: Oh, she’s adorable!
S: Adorable, yes, but you’ve seen “Mad Men.” This image of a “girl”—everything about it—was made. In a zero-sum game, her adorability has to be held in proportion to how dangerous she is, how much money she stands to cost us that would be better-spent on other toys. Even so, I respect some of the work she’s designed to do.
S: This advertisement is essentially pedagogical, and some of Lego’s lessons are sound. Listen to the opening passage of copy, for instance. Reading.
WHAT IT IS
Have you ever seen anything like it? Not just what she’s made, but how proud it’s made her. It’s a look you’ll see whenever children build something all by themselves. No matter what they’ve created.
F: The voice of the ad sounds like one of my older brothers’ friends—“What it is, man!”
S: And Lego lends that voice to the side of progressive education, to teach the public how to relate to their own children’s uses of a medium that is still basically free from explicit, specific teleologies. The parent purchaser of Legos learns from the ad to let their children do what they want with the bricks, that whatever the child makes is beautiful, because the child is “making” a person who imagines as she plays.
F: What you’re saying is audible in the slipperiness of the word “it.” First “it” seems to refer to little Red’s creation, but the ad shifts the referent to her subjective pride, the joy in her face as she presents mom and dad with any “it” at all. Even if we don’t see what the child sees in her creation, we must see and value her sense of accomplishment.
S: Exactly! The ad re-writes a tired script. It won’t and shouldn’t stop parents from asking “What is it?”—the question is a prompt for children’s narratives, and when it is asked by parents who are willing to wait for, and to listen to, those narratives, they are three magic words.
F: I think I get it. A strong parent will not interrupt their child when the question “What is it?” elicits a strange or improbable answer—because that strangeness and improbability is precisely the best result of Lego play.
S: A strong parent will trust the Universal Building Set, and human nature, and as her child speaks she will look at what her child has made and listen for indications of how her child seized some and not other opportunities the medium presents.
F: I told you I love Legos!
S: But the Lego Group is in business, and even in 1981, Lego pandered to us.
S: The phrase “all by themselves,” for example. Little Red didn’t choose that large green panel as the base for her work “all by (herself)”—Lego knows that by color, relative size, and shape it is legible as an ambiguous signifier referring to a real world lawn or meadow. For the kind of play Lego is fostering, the Universal Building Set needs thin green planes. The scale of her creation, too, is dictated by both the budget of the family she lives with and the size of the humanoid “minifigures” Lego had just started to include in the Universal set. And if she was an “architect” in building this wonderful structure, she’s borrowed from a score of styles and engineering solutions she’s observed in the real world. Even her choice to give one minifigure a tree for a hat responds, in part, to the opportunities for and limitations on humor presented by the medium. The ad closes with another bit of nonsense: “LEGO Universal Building Sets will help your children discover something very, very special: themselves.” There’s no such thing as the “self ” Lego wants parents to get weepy about when they read that line. Need I remind you, Fidelis, that their Little Joan Harris née Holloway didn’t really make that thing? That if any real kid built it, she was thinking inside the box of Legos at least as much as she was thinking outside the box of Legos?
F: So ads for Legos propagate myths about individuals’ capacities for self-discovery in creative work?
S: Actually, it gets worse. In this same ad, Lego explicitly instructs parents to cut their children off from the deep end of imaginative play—at age seven.
F: Just when kids start to get really good at it making believe!
S: But Lego makes more money if parents keep their kids in the shallow end of the imagination, even when they are perfectly able to swim. The ad introduces a completely fictional dichotomy, in bold type. Reading
Younger children build for fun. LEGO™ Universal Building Sets for children ages 3 to 7 have colorful bricks, wheels, and friendly LEGO people for lots and lots of fun.
Older children build for realism. LEGO Universal Building Sets for children 7-12 have more detailed pieces, like gears, rotors, and treaded tires for more realistic building. One set even has a motor.
The moral and psychological-emotional credibility Lego gained at the top of the page by instructing parents to appreciate the child’s experience first, and the child’s productions on the child’s terms? It’s all spent by the bottom of the page.
F: But Skepticus, older kids do enjoy working with more intricate designs.
S: But their greater investment in “incredible detail” doesn’t have to come at the expense of, or as an alternative to, “fun.”
F: You know, some people—Umbilicus’s mother, perhaps?—may think that you are proposing self-esteem education. Isn’t it easy for most parents to jump from celebrating of their child’s imagination-infused narratives of process and production in a given medium to the celebration of any product that she makes?
S: May gods and goddesses bless the child who has learned to listen to herself as she narrates her decision-making with regard to her work in any particular medium. It’s parents’ responsibility to teach their child how to listen, to themselves and to others, but listening is distinct from praise. To be a strong parent you have to be able to distinguish between listening and praising. Praise must be more active; against the background of ordinary interactions, praise must stand out vividly, starkly.
F: Yes, I agree. Even if praise is silent—a nod, or a squeeze—it must be conveyed.
S: Set aside what a child thinks—people are only rational some of the time—if your child feels that your attention—or anybody’s—is the same as praise, is as good as praise, you have another, serious problem. Yet a child who has experienced genuine praise will know not to settle for attention, not when genuine praise is available. Little Red in the Lego ad is not looking to her parents for praise; she’s already celebrating her own creativity! She is looking for them to attend to the story of her making, the story of what those bricks mean to her.
F: Skepticus, can I tell you my story? About the deep end of imaginative play?
S: But Umbilicus’s mother—
F: Please? Children’s imaginations are more resilient than you think, and I can show you.
S: Oh, alright!
F: Do you know why there is no pornography built out of Legos?
F: Just kidding, my friend. Really! Forgive me! I couldn’t resist! Now, twenty years ago I was friends with a six year-old, Zachry, the child of a computer whiz who had been my house-mate during college. Whenever I visited with Zachry and his parents, Zachry’s alter-ego, “Blackry,” would show up. I knew when Zachry was Blackry because Blackry replaced almost all initial consonants with “schm-”, thus he addressed me as “Schmidelis.”
S: Schmidelis, I don’t think I have time for—
F: —but you need to hear this! I used to think Blackry’s speech tic was Zachry’s way of telling us he had had enough of convention, that he was some sort of conscientious objector, reminding us, concisely, that we don’t always have to go along, even with pronunciation. But now I see it as evidence of Zachry’s prodigiously playful imagination, which could transform sounds as well as sights and concepts.
S: Transform? How?
F: I’m getting to that. Now after I quit boxing, I became a pacificist, and I consider myself an advocate for non-violence, but Zachry’s parents outdid me. Pacificism guided them not only in their politics, but in their effort to structure a child-raising environment, and whether he was Zachry or Blackry, any son of theirs was forbidden to play with any toy that was made in the image of a weapon.
S: So no gun, or knife, or bow-and-arrow toys? No tanks or bombers?
F: Yep. And Zachry was pretty much down with this proscription, but Blackry abhorred it. So it was Blackry who discovered that the rear-end of a five-inch tall, molded-plastic unicorn would fit into his right palm like the butt of a make-believe handgun, and that its stiffly extended forelegs would serve as the forward grip of any Tommy gun or Uzi Blackry clutched in his imagination, and that the conical, comically twisted extrusion pointing the way from the magical creature’s forehead made as fine a gun-barrel as any designed by Winchester or Smith & Wesson. Neither Blackry nor Zachry, I can assure you, cared that his “gun” was light pink, or that it had a purple mane sewn with blossoms. Both boys took ecstatic pleasure in blasting Schmidelis to smithereens with hollow, poison-filled, full-metal jacketed “bullets” they fed the unicorn from great belts of imaginary and self-replenishing ammo they wore over their shoulders.
S: Hephaestus at the forge, Fidelis!
F: Do you see, Skepticus? Not even parents’ proscriptions can stop a child from reaching the deep end of the imagination.
S: So you think it’s futile to forbid Umbilicus to play with Legos.
F: Especially since you’ve already been training him. I think you want more for Umbilicus, and more for his mother, than to make-believe they live in a Lego-free zone.
S: You’re right. A strong teacher won’t try to avoid a crassly “realistic” reality. I’ve got to encourage his imagination to deal with it. I want Umbilicus’s imagination to be so powerful it can transform even the most commercial images, even when they come from Lego.
F: You mean there are Lego images more commercial than the ones you’ve shown me?
S: I have one last Lego object to share, Fidelis. Now I know what I’ll do with it! I’ll show it to Umbilicus’s mother, and tell her that, in spite of toys like this, we won’t give up, that she ought to buy one of these for him, in, oh, say, two years—when he’s eight. By then I hope she’ll be the strong parent of an even stronger child. Here it is. Reaches, clicks. Walks upstage center, away from the computer and the table, and offstage, through a small portal in the rock.
S: Shouting, from his “galley,” off stage. I want to know the Umbilicus who is strong enough to tell me, and his mother, what it is.
F: An Umbilicus who can construct his own narrative about anything! Skepticus returns from the galley, cup of coffee in hand.
S: Maybe even the tale of a grey and black, saw-toothed unicorn.
The not-very-much-like-music of an invitation to Skype. At its third chiming refrain, Skepticus hangs up on Fidelis, and accepts the incoming call.
Daniel Bosch’s collection Crucible was published by Other Press in 2002. His poems, translations, and essays have appeared in The TLS, Poetry, The New Republic, The Artsfuse, and Slate. His essay on Anthony Hecht was published last year in the Fortnightly. He lives in Chicago.