“When does a kid ever get to play with a stick anymore?” the late comedian/philosopher/all around cool dude George Carlin once opined in his diatribe on what he cleverly labeled “child worship.” To Carlin, today’s professional helicopter parents had become obsessively devoted to their children’s success, taking away the natural, unprompted act of play and replacing it with “play dates,” “recitals,” “practices,” and “lessons.” Thus, even the simplest, most spontaneous, freest expression of childhood innocence, wonder, and creativity had been rigidly planned, overscheduled, and over managed.
I decry the sorry state of American creativity and ingenuity often. This isn’t to say that we aren’t in a golden age of innovation, because technological disruption is proceeding at a lightning pace never before seen in human history. But we aren’t maximizing our potential, given the opportunities available to us. I feel that Carlin’s idea sits at the core of the problem: we have tried too hard to create great thinkers, and have thus deprived them of the tools to think. We diagnose a problem, like our crumbling infrastructure, and prescribe the solution that we need more STEM majors. That’s fine. Technical skills are a must when we strive to battle these dilemmas. But we miss the point when we belittle the arts. We take it a step too far by constantly insinuating that a STEM degree is the skeleton key to success, and Liberal Arts students are all doomed to work at Wal-Mart. We take it a step too far when we ask kids to join clubs and profession organizations, instead of just playing with their sticks. We take it a step too far when we demand high-standardized test scores and GPAs, and never ask these kids to solve problems independently.
We don’t lack smart people. In fact, millennials are the most educated generation ever. We have an overabundance of insanely educated, incredibly intelligent people. What we lack are visionaries. Creators. Rebels who drew invention blueprints or comedic doodles on your fancy standardized tests. We aren’t fostering that. We are demanding a way to quantify progress in the form of charts, tables, figures, and statistics instead of new creations.
Summed up succinctly, Legos explain the problem. Playing with Legos is all about designing, building,experimenting, thinking outside the box, destroying and starting over. It is about imagining, dreaming, thinking outside the box. It is about free styling and doing what you want. It teaches kids to think in three dimensions, to employ problem-solving skills, boosts motor development, and enhances communication as kids work in teams to build great monuments to their own originality.
And yet, the Legos of my childhood—the wide-open, free-build, box of assorted parts variety of Legos—have largely been replaced by the same troubling trend towards structure. There are too many well-defined Lego “kits” with careful instructions, and pre-defined shapes. Kids don’t need to build another Death Star, or another Hogarts Castle. What kids need is to struggle to build their wobbly tower, knock it over, and try again.