February 14, 2014 11:00 am

A lesson in Lego

‘The bigger message it imparts is this: making things with your hands can be really cool’
Illustration of lego blocks by Shonagh Rae©Shonagh Rae

A few months ago I took a short holiday with my two daughters on Dartmoor. True to (British) form, it drizzled – constantly. So I braced myself for battles about how much television the girls could watch, or how many games they could play on my phone. But then fate – or a brilliant piece of innovation – intervened. The hotel where we were staying, Bovey Castle, featured a “Lego room service” menu, next to the normal food menu, which allowed guests to borrow Lego sets. My daughters dialled for some kits.

Three days later, the room was full of models, including a highly complex “Lone Ranger silver mine”, that featured crankshafts, pulleys and fiddly little buckets. My daughters brimmed with pride. Best of all, they barely watched any Disney Channel or minded the rain.

Is there a bigger moral here? I would love to think so. Last weekend The Lego Movie opened in North America and parts of Europe, to rapturous reviews and packed cinemas, earning some $69m in the first weekend alone. Having seen the movie, however, I was not entirely dazzled. It is striking to see that much Lego on a screen – the film features no fewer than 3,863,484 Lego bricks. It is also heartening to see an eight-decade-old Danish company reinvent itself, after earlier bouts of decline, by finding new focus buying intellectual property (hence the appearance of Batman Lego, Star Wars Lego and so on). But compared with some of the other brilliantly witty kids’ films, the dialogue seems clunky. So does the predictably feel-good message (that kids need to be resilient, ambitious and let their creative spirits fly).

That, however, is not the most important point of the film. The bigger message it imparts is this: making things with your hands can be really cool; creating real-life structures is (almost) as exciting as texting friends, playing computer games or watching American Idol. And right now that is a particularly valuable moral for American and European parents to hammer home.

Making fat profits by trading bonds or creating television shows seemed high status; making buildings as an engineer did not.

Over the past few decades, Anglo-Saxon culture promoted the idea that one of the fastest ways to achieve wealth and glory was to head to high finance or Hollywood. When I graduated from Cambridge two decades ago, most of my contemporaries wanted to be bankers, management consultants, lawyers or journalists; only a handful went into engineering or science.

I have a hunch (or hope) that there may now be a window for some of these values to shift – a touch. These days, in the aftermath of the great financial crisis of 2008, banking no longer looks quite so enticing; even professions such as law or the media seem less dazzling. This does not mean that old-style engineering or physics have become wildly trendy – yet. But the dramatic rise of Silicon Valley has made tech jobs look increasingly cool. And the dramatic resurgence of the energy complex in the US, due to shale gas, is even giving a new gloss to industry.

Parts of the educational establishment are trying to ride this wave. New York, for example, is pouring money into a new science campus for students, amid clarion calls to invest more in Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths). So are other American cities. There is even a growing trend for US schools to create “Lego clubs” which use the bricks to foster a fascination with engineering and robotics. Other engineering-style toys are emerging too – take a look at the Goldieblox construction kits for girls.

It would be naive to think this might shift values easily, at least not when countries such as the US and the UK continue to pay most of their engineers and scientists far too little. But I find it cheering that Lego notched up almost $4bn worth of revenues in 2012 (particularly since it was losing money a decade ago), that there are apparently 86 Lego bricks out there for every person on the planet, and that the number of Lego mini-figures in circulation will soon outstrip the world’s population. If nothing else, it shows that historical trends do not always go in straight, predictable lines – even when they involve fiddly plastic Lego bricks.

gillian.tett@ft.com

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