Politics & Policy

Banning Legos

And building a world where "all structures will be standard sizes."

Perhaps you’ve heard about the schools that have banned tag. Or dodgeball. Or stories about pigs.

If so, you won’t be surprised to hear that the Hilltop Children’s Center in Seattle has banned Legos.

A pair of teachers at the center, which provides afterschool activities for elementary-school kids, recently described their policy in a Rethinking Schools cover story called “Why We Banned Legos.” (See the magazine’s cover here.)

It has something to do with “social justice learning.”

My vision of social justice for children of elementary-school age is as follows: If you’re tagged, you’re it; if the ball hits you, you’re out; and pig stories are fun, especially when told over microwaveable hot dogs.

But I try to keep an open mind, so I read the article on why Hilltop banned Legos.

As most aficionados know, Legos are made by a Danish company. The company name comes from the Danish phrase leg godt, which means play well. “Lego became a national treasure and one of the strongest brands in the toy industry,” wrote The Economist last year. “Its colorful bricks are sold in over 130 countries: everyone on earth has, on average, 52 of them.”

In their Rethinking Schools article, teachers Ann Pelo and Kendra Pelojoaquin describe how the kids at Hilltop built “a massive series of Lego structures we named Legotown.” I sensed that something was rotten in the state of Legotown when I read this description of it: “a collection of homes, shops, public facilities, and community meeting places.”

My children have spent a large portion of their young lives playing with Legos. They have never, to my knowledge, constructed “community meeting places.” Instead, they make monster trucks, space ships, and war machines. These little creations are usually loaded with ion guns, nuclear missiles, bunker-busting bombs, force-field projectors, and death-ray cannons. Alien empires have risen and fallen in epic conflicts waged in the upstairs bedrooms of my home.

Perhaps kids in Seattle, under the careful watch of their latte-sipping guardians, are different. But I don’t think so.

At Hilltop, however, the teachers strive to make them different. “We recognized that children are political beings, actively shaping their social and political understandings of ownership and economic equity,” write Pelo and Pelojoaquin. “We agreed that we want to take part in shaping the children’s understandings from a perspective of social justice. So we decided to take the Legos out of the classroom.”

The root cause of Hilltop’s Lego problem was that, well, the kids were being kids: There were disputes over “cool pieces,” instances of bigger kids bossing around little ones, and so on.

An ordinary person might recognize this as child’s play. But the social theorists at Hilltop saw something else: “The children were building their assumptions about ownership and the social power it conveys — assumptions that mirrored those of a class-based, capitalist society — a society that we teachers believe to be unjust and oppressive.”

Pelo and Pelojoaquin continue: “As we watched the children build, we became increasingly concerned.”

So they banned the Legos and began their program of re-education. “Our intention was to promote a contrasting set of values: collectivity, collaboration, resource-sharing, and full democratic participation,” they write.

Instead of practicing phonics or memorizing multiplication tables, the children played a special game: “In the game, the children could experience what they’d not been able to acknowledge in Legotown: When people are shut out of participation in the power structure, they are disenfranchised — and angry, discouraged, and hurt. … The rules of the game — which mirrored the rules of our capitalist meritocracy — were a setup for winning and losing. … Our analysis of the game, as teachers, guided our planning for the rest of the investigation into the issues of power, privilege, and authority that spanned the rest of the year.”

After “months of social justice exploration,” the teachers finally agreed it was time to return the Legos to the classroom. That’s because the children at last had bought into the concept that “collectivity is a good thing.” And in Hilltop’s new Lego regime, there would be three immutable laws:

‐ All structures are public structures. Everyone can use all the Lego structures. But only the builder or people who have her or his permission are allowed to change a structure.

‐ Lego people can be saved only by a “team” of kids, not by individuals.

‐ All structures will be standard sizes.

You can almost feel the liberating spirit of that last rule. All structures will be standard sizes? At Hilltop Children’s Center, all imaginations will be a standard size as well: small.

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.

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