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Build Your Own Lifestyle: Lego 70 years On


cabinet- maker called Ole Kirk Christiansen in a small village in Denmark developed it in 1932. Today it is a toy known in almost every country, has over 8000 employees worldwide, reels in $150 Million annually and has just recently opened its fourth theme park in South Germany. The short little noseless yellow men and the classic brick have certainly come far. But how does the Toy of the Century compete in this technological age of Nintendo’s, Segas and computers? And in doing so has it lost touch with its core basics, its simplicity from which it has built its success?

Samantha Derrick reports on the Legonisation of childhood

The girl with blonde hair and freckles in the front row nods her head subconsciously. Her hair is tied back neatly in pigtail plaits but wisps of hair have escaped the clips and now fall in front of her face; A typical bi-product of the numerous rides and activities already completed in her day at Legoland. She is just about to go for her first driving license. As she watches a video of Toby, the baseball cap wearing, eight-year-old Lego man, other 10 year olds in the room, tap toes and jiggle knees in anticipation. They cannot wait until the practical component of their driving exam. Outside in their very own Lego mobiles they get to test out their driving knowledge. Their faces are poised in seriousness as they negotiate difficult turns and give way at the round abouts. As a Legoland photo-driving license is on the line, this is serious stuff.

You can find it at any doctor’s surgery, toy store’s have aisles of its products and ask anyone and they will tell you they were a Lego kid as well. But now they are no longer just a brick; they have computer games, global popularity, and four theme parks, all in different countries.

"The benefit of Lego is the philosophy, which is very consumer friendly. People and children are always in the middle of what Lego does. The philosophy is vital and valued by all the owners and employees of Lego," said Legoland PR Officer Annette Uhlmann.

The philosophy of ‘Learning and development through play’ is apparent in the newly opened Deutschland Legoland themepark. When kids are not on any of the 40 Lego rides they are entertained and taught in the Lego learning attractions.

"Legoland is not just about making the kids consume. It is a mixture of entertainment and learning. We call it hands on minds on, we try to activate the children and the visitors to think, to use their brain, to learn and at the same time to use their bodies to be in the action" said Uhlmann.

You definitely have to think at the Mindstorm Centre. Outside a three metre high sculpture of the master of intelligence and scientific hero, Einstein, made from 350,000 Lego bricks, marks the entrance.
Inside the centre kids work with computers, building Lego robots, then programming them to get through the tricky maze that is situated on a huge table in the middle of the room.

In the Lego Fabrik (factory) kids can see how Lego is made and watch the six permanent Lego modellers work, (or is it play?) making, repairing and creating all the numerous Lego sculptures in the park.
At the Build and Test Centre minds are also challenged. Visitors have to build a tower that can resist the earthquake mat that shakes. And build a car out of Lego that can be raced and timed on the nearby track. Adjustments then must be made to make it faster. Do I add more Lego, give it bigger wheels, or simply make it only with red bricks to make it go faster?

When their mouths aren’t stretched from ear to ear in a huge smile, they are opened wide, chin scraping the ground in absolute awe at the skill and precision of all Lego sculptures in the park.

Miniland is the most intriguing. Built with over 25 million commercial Lego bricks you feel like a Giant walking through replicated models of German towns. There is everything, from a replica of the "Love Parade" in Berlin to the newly built, 300,000 Lego bricked castle of Neuschwanstein.
"If one single person was to build all the Minilands in the four themeparks he would need 69 years" marvels Uhlmann.

But from this kaleidescope of bright colours and abundance of plastic within a Disneyland atmosphere, one must wonder how Lego has managed for over 70 years to skip the onset of a toy generation gap.
It has definitely grown from the days of the small one-man furniture store in Denmark. In 1961 the company made a success just by the introduction of the wheel to its children’s toys. Today Lego products include complicated constructions of electronic cars, boats, buildings, robots, and… computer games.
But Trene Nissen from the Lego Company in Billund, Denmark insists that the growing complexity of Lego and its development of computer games is not moving the beloved brick away from its core basic philosophy.
"It (the introduction of computer games) is an attempt to follow the children of today…we do not believe that selling computer games in it self make us a bad company"

But the ‘hands on minds on’ philosophy in Legoland is not as obvious in Lego’s new computer games. The games move beyond the basic brick, some retaining the building bricks principle. But most take on the adventure and sports themes as any other computer game. But only with little noseless yellow men instead.
The Racer series games from Lego provide the player with a choice of circuit and car to be played out in similar fashion to most car racing games on the market. And the Bionicle computer game was established following the success of its building series. But here, no building is completed, just adventure level after level as the Bionicle robot fights his way to computer game victory. The games are available on Gameboy, PC, X-Box and Playstation.
"The world of imagination can take place anywhere, even on a computer screen," insists Nissen
Claire Vick, child psychiatrist for the Ashurst Hospital in South Hampton supports the use of Lego, but remains sceptical of its development of computer games.
"Lego is just probably getting on the money band-wagon".
Vick uses Lego with the children she works with, believing it play an important role for a child’s imagination, motor skills and concentrative development. But agrees that computer games have their negative effects.
"It’s a two-sided coin really, while computer games can help children to sit and concentrate, it reduces the one on one interaction with parents and their children that traditional Lego provides"
"This interaction is incredibly important for a child"
And most mothers agree.
On the mother’s chat room Coffeeclub, the topic was raised and most mothers believed without the same effects of the traditional building sets, Lego should stick to the bricks.
"Kids need more than a game to keep them occupied they need teaching and structure as well. I would say my boys learned so much from building Lego's and that they enjoyed doing it. If the game teaches the same concept it would be fine, but if not then maybe the company should just stick with the building blocks instead," wrote Julie Kiy
"I feel that kinetics (hands on) is more important since it helps the development of a child and how they learn later on in life" wrote Ally Marstoff
And Dragonmom agreed "I prefer the hands on, children play too many computer games as it is".
It is difficult to stay one step ahead of the competition, when the competition is the new generation with computers, electronics, and Sega playstations. Despite this, over the last decade Lego sales figures show that its popularity remains universal.
"Looking at the past five years the market for video games and consoles have taken market shares from the classical toy industry. Nevertheless from 1997- 2002 Lego Company has had an annual average market share increase of 8.6 percentages," said Nissen.

So how does the British Association of Toy Retailer’s Toy of the Century retain its’ success for over 70 years? Through developments other than computer games that do retain the simple philosophy from which Ole Kirk Christiansen built his success.
""We (Lego) provide a variety of experiences based on the same underlying philosophy; learning and development -through play. And this philosophy is at the very centre of how we do things at Lego
"Our Vision Lab is constantly spotting trends and tendencies around the world. This should make certain that we will continue to create products that are characteristic of our time and which have the right learning features," said Nissen

Only recently has Lego founded the Learning Institute. Here professionals, researchers, parents and Lego employees, discuss, research and lead forums on the latest learning initiatives for children. Trends are identified through direct involvement with children; their needs are then relayed to the Lego developers.
"We still believe that it is extremely important to know in what direction the world is moving and therefore last year we founded the Lego Learning Institute" said Nissen

But you don’t have to be a kid to ‘learn through play’ with Lego. In 2002, Lego launched its Serious Play Range, a package especially designed to assist companies and organisations develop effective business strategies.
"It's amazing what happens when executives build a 3-D model of their business, which they can take apart, change, and physically walk around and discuss. They begin to see possibilities that never would have occurred to them with traditional approaches", says Dr. Johan Roos, now Director at the Imagination Lab Foundation, which conducted the research leading to Lego Serious Play.
This is more than just suits sitting around a boardroom table, reliving their childhood by playing with Lego toys. Businesses construct different models of the business and the surrounding landscape (its suppliers, competitors etc). These models can be used to explore different scenarios, and provides a tangible prototype with which to develop a strategy.

And big businesses are taking the Lego serious play range seriously.
"It's fast, it's fun, it's effective," says Cliff Dennet, Head of Strategic Alignment, Orange Telecommunications Plc
And back at Legoland, parent Kurt Surber too takes his Lego seriously as he occupies his time in the Build and Test Centre with the spare Lego bricks. "I built that," said Surber pointing to a strange looking tower, about 50cm high with many big and small Lego bricks protruding from the structure at different and strange angles. "It’s a duck," explains Surber
... Oh.

Daughter Anastasia has almost completed every activity at the park but is still bubbling with energy.
"Lego is cool. It is just amazing because all these things are made out of Lego and I think it would be very hard to do…yeah but I think I could do it too"
Lego has grown. In many of Lego’s new ventures, the hands on minds on, learning through play philosophy is evident. But whether the new computer games really retain this philosophy when the only play occurs through a mouse and keyboard is negotiable. In its rush to keep up with trends, it has here sacrificed its philosophy.
To play Lego one building brick connects with another until an object or structure is formed. This structure could be complete, but with the connection of another brick a more complicated and often better structure can be formed. The original bricks and the meaning for building in the first place remains as its foundations. As Lego moves through generations, and is forced to compete with growing technological trends, its company should continue to mirror its product.

© Samantha Derrick October 2003 (Update May 27th 2004)

Samantha is an Australian student now studying in Germany.

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