I think I could tell my boss to go to hell and quit my job and just construct elaborate marble runs for the rest of my life. (Although, now that I’m thinking about it, a book is kind of like a marble run — if you assemble it right, the reader drops in and flies through it…and maybe wants to go again at the end?)
I read about this 1966 LEGO ad in Alexandra Lange’s The Design of Childhood. In case you can’t read the copy:
Let somebody else’s child get his kicks tracking a little kid through a gun sight. Let somebody else’s child build a bomb shelter in the hollow of an old tree. Remember when the hollow of an old tree was just fun? Heck, war isn’t very adventurous anymore. We think there’s lots more adventure in a medical lab, or at the U.N.
A half century later, it seems remarkably progressive . I was reminded of this pamphlet from a 1974 LEGO set:
The urge to create is equally strong in all children. Boys and girls.
It’s the imagination that counts. Not skill. You build whatever comes into your head, the way you want it. A bed or a truck. A dolls house or a spaceship.
A lot of boys like dolls houses. They’re more human than spaceships. A lot of girls prefer spaceships. They’re more exciting than dolls houses.
The most important thing is to put the right material in their hands and let them create whatever appeals to them.
Again, it seems remarkably progressive, as does this 1981 ad, written by creative director Judy Lotas, who was inspired by the Equal Rights Amendment and her own daughters:
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.
That ad went viral in 2012 when LEGO started marketing LEGO Friends.
The response, when we see these ads, is often, “Why on Earth don’t they do it like this anymore?”
Many parents, including myself, lament the fact that there used to be more emphasis on free play and building from imagination, rather than pre-determined kits. Here’s Raul Gutierrez, of Tiny Bop:
The best toys — Tinkertoys, Lego, Play-Doh, Lincoln Logs — allowed us to build and rebuild almost endlessly. With my kids, I noticed that these kinds of toys have become increasingly rare. Lego bricks are sold primarily as branded kits. Instead of a pile of blocks that could become anything, they are now essentially disassembled toys. Instead of starting with a child’s imagination of what could be, play is now fixed on a single endpoint, predetermined by Lego’s designers.
But Lange points out that this golden age that we think of was actually just that: a golden age, a product of the specific time:
Today, the LEGO Group is often criticized for stoking the cycle of consumer desire, sequestering LEGO bricks in individual branded universes, and launching new sets on a fashion cycle, but this has been part of the company’s sales strategy for longer than people realize. The free play celebrated in their ads of the 1970s and early 1980s reflects a brief moment in American culture when the kindergarten values — embedded in wooden blocks — returned to the forefront…
We also lament the loss of that wonderful gender-neutral tone, which, according to this NYTimes article on how Disney has branded Frozen, was way more prevalent in the 1970s than today:
Princesses may seem like a permanent feature of the toyscape, but they were less common before the 1990s. “The idea that pink princess fantasy dream dolls have always been a part of girlhood is false,” says Elizabeth Sweet, a lecturer at the University of California, Davis, who studies the cultural history of toys. Sweet has found that the popularity of gender-neutral toys reached a peak in the mid-1970s. Since then, toy makers have embraced the market-doubling effect of pushing certain toys to boys and other toys to girls. Sweet says the level of gender segregation has never been higher. A typical big-box store might have four aisles of blue toys and four aisles of pink toys with an aisle of yellow toys in between. “Separate but equal,” she says. Legos, for example, evolved from simple packs of building blocks into play sets mostly sold to boys, often with brand tie-ins. In 2012, the company introduced Lego Friends, which are basically Legos for girls.
Here’s another NYTimes article from 2012 on gender-based toy marketing:
Gender was remarkably absent from the toy ads at the turn of the 20th century but played a much more prominent role in toy marketing during the pre- and post-World War II years. However, by the early 1970s, the split between “boys’ toys” and “girls’ toys” seemed to be eroding…
But by 1995, the gendered advertising of toys had crept back to midcentury levels, and it’s even more extreme today. In fact, finding a toy that is not marketed either explicitly or subtly (through use of color, for example) by gender has become incredibly difficult.
There are several reasons gender-based marketing has become so prevalent. On a practical level, toy makers know that by segmenting the market into narrow demographic groups, they can sell more versions of the same toy.
We want, so badly, for companies to stand for something good, and some companies do, but at the end of the day, advertising is about moving product, and while it can be idealistic and a force for good, is always the product of people trying to sell things to other people in a particular time and place. If you want better, more progressive advertising, build a better, more progressive world. Best not to get too caught up in nostalgia, but look back, see what’s worth stealing, and more forward.
A note on the post title, from Lange’s book: “LEGO” is a contraction of the Danish leg godt, or “play well.”
One handy thing about having young children is that it’s given me a good excuse to knock off work and play with blocks. I love building blocks. I could spend hours just building towers and letting my 2-year-old knock them down. It’s one of the purest delights I know.
For writer Lawrence Weschler, playing with blocks is a big part of his writing process, particularly when he’s working out the structure for a piece:
I procrastinate. I play with blocks. I have lots and lots of blocks, wooden blocks, and you should see the palaces I construct. Not giving the subject the slightest thought. Awash in pure formfulness. Puzzles and revelations surrounding structure. Days pass. Weeks, (Obviously somewhere in the back of my mind, I am sorting out structural issues regarding my writing as well, but not consciously.) At length, palace-building all the while, I begin to thrum around about structural questions in the piece: what if I led instead with X? And, hey, wait, it’s weird, but that P section rhymes with the T, S could go before P, and we could flip M and N. Hmmm. And this sort of thing becomes more and more interesting to me. Presently compellingly interesting. (The polarities reverse, and now the empty page is magnetized north and the rest of the world south: The house is burning down? Who cares.)
In The New New Journalism, he makes a point that his blocks are his own:
These blocks belong to your daughter?
No, my daughter is not allowed to play with these blocks. They are mine.
And what do you do with these blocks?
Well, my wife, who is an important human rights monitor, and my daughter, who has been off at school, will come home and see the elaborate cathedral I’ve built on the kitchen table. And they’ll say, “We see you’ve been busy today.” And I have!
Later, he’s asked how the block palaces he builds actually get translated into writing:
I tape large one-by-three-foot blank sheets together to create a kind of a blotter. I doodle and sketch a lot on the blotter. I make little diagrams to connect things. The point is to lay out and visualize the structures I’ve been thinking through when I was playing with the blocks.
There is something magical that happens when you move things around with your hands — it frees up your mind to think. (Just now I was doing the dishes and came up with the images for a talk I am working on.)
Weschler is not the only creative adult who plays with blocks — so does the designer Tucker Viemiester. When he found out his mom donated his old blocks to Head Start, he made her get them back so that he could have them for himself:
What Mr. Viemeister, who has brought the spirit of fun and practicality to a wealth of products, most famously the Oxo kitchen utensils, values most about the blocks is how plastic they are, even though they are made of wood. With Legos, he said, the play process is more tilted toward a goal: the house or ship or castle that you build and are finished with. The Unit Blocks — with nothing to hold them together, and difficult to move when assembled — encourage a more fluid, open-ended process that is never quite finished and easily started anew.
What’s interesting about building blocks is that they were not always such a commonplace item in the lives of young children. As Norman Brosterman writes in his fantastic book, Inventing Kindergarten, “it is something of a surprise to discover that, like kindergarten itself, they have not been with us forever.”
The kind of children’s blocks we think of today can be traced back to kindergarten’s inventor, Friedrich Fröbel, who included blocks as one of his “gifts” to students. He specifically designed them to be “plastic” in the way that Tucker Viemeister points out makes them so great. Froebel hated the way most kids’ toys and models in the nineteenth century were basically like the packaged pre-destined LEGO kits of today, where there is a “right” way to put them together, a final shape to build step-by-step towards, so he made his block sets pure geometry, “Nonspecific, open-ended, and symbolic.” Here’s a picture of some of the block sets from Inventing Kindergarten:
Later, Caroline Pratt, founder of City and Country School, and author of the great book I Learn From Children, developed the “Unit blocks” we know best today from preschool and kindergarten. She was trying to figure out a good way to bring the world into the classroom. She wanted to help children discover the world by re-building it in miniature.
The Unit blocks were her solution. In Ian Franzier’s introduction to I Learn From Children, he writes:
She had taught manual arts and knew hot to work with wood. From pieces of maple she made sets of building blocks in basic shapes, each shape in proportion with the others so they could adjoin each other in simple multiples…. [They] became the most widely used elementary-level playtime blocks in the country… She couldn’t patent her Unit Blocks — in them she had discovered something too basic to claim, as if she had invented water—but their acceptance by day care centers and nursery and elementary schools is by now close to unanimous.
Frazier points out that the blocks, which were designed to mimic architecture, ended up influencing architecture itself. This is exactly Brosterman’s thesis in Inventing Kindergarten: that kindergarten’s emphasis on geometry and abstraction had a part to play in the beginning of abstract art and modern architecture. (Frank Lloyd Wright, for example, was one of the first generation of students in Froebel-style kindergarten, and fondly remembered his Froebel blocks.)
So, if you’re feeling blocked… buy yourself a set of blocks!
(Above: pages from the Feb 12, 1945 issue of LIFE magazine.)