Keywords : Lego, Complexity, Patterns, Methodology, Kid's failure, Cognition

I think one of the best presents my parents ever gave to me were Legos. Those old, white and red 4x2x1 bricks; plain, simple, unbreakable yet capable for endless possibilities.

Where did these magical bricks come from?

I guess they brought them back from Scandinavia at that time. I think we went together to see a friend in Denmark at the time I was 5 years old or so. (I should try to scan some pictures to illustrate this, probably with Goudroune.)

The Lego concept

So what do you do when you are young and without a plan? Well, you build, you compose, you make everything on your own. That, I think, might be the fundamental difference with today's Lego. Today, you don't build with general bricks; you build with domain specific bricks that are hard to use in situations other than the original context. Consequently, I think the manual of any Lego box should be thrown away (except that if you want your kids to work for Ikea). But if you have a path to follow, the whole idea falls apart.

Throwing the manual away yourself!

I think what I did later on, when I received new Lego from boxes, was to build the original "toy" according to the manual then... quickly dismantle it to throw all the new pieces in my cubes. I had two Lego cubes, 40cm cubes, probably big enough for me to hide inside it. So there I was - with even more possibilities : new bricks = new paths to explore!

My failure as a kid

So that was fun but... why do I even bother to write about it? Because I failed. After watching this documentary on Art yesterday1 (7th of November 2008) I have to admit, I wasn't smarter than a bird at that time (yes, but let me hope that this has changed).

(add picture chateaulego from the very early days) No meta-tools, no process, no knowledge management :
the recipe to hit the wall of complexity

Being "bird smart"

Birds can use tools. In order to achieve a task - usually fetching food, they manage to use the tools they could find to solve the problematic situations. Most of the time, it is to extend their reach, to go beyond their physical limitations. However, something that's even more complex than those is their ability to craft tools. Some birds like the crow from New-Zealand, can build its own tools. In order to do so, they tear, with their beaks, a piece of leaf in a specific form before they move on to its target : a trunk with delicious worms that it can now obtain, thanks to its newly-built tool.

Back to France, on the floor of a warm house where a kid plays with Lego bricks. What is he doing? Is he just assembling bricks to build some small structures? For what we can see, there are small-scale cars, houses, and even tiny safes that can be used. Those are little tools or toys carefully crafted. But what can't we see though?

The ability to project in order to handle complexity.
What we can't see are the tools to make tools.

I admit it, I can not remember making anything in Lego that would have helped me to go further during the next session. Maybe once or twice I made some "brick organizer" in order to sort the different types of bricks. Maybe for a few times, I used some previous work to go further. Unfortunately I am pretty sure that I never had any methods to improve efficiency, to find new ways to establish systems that were more complicated and thus, advanced.

Playing with competence rather than seriousness

I failed to see that complexity would have a limit if I wasn't able to scale-up thanks to my previous achievements. What I could have done at that time :

  • organize bricks by function - thanks to Lego made shelf (I did some but didn't keep it for long)
  • keep useful modules, having re-usable structure of pieces - the equivalent of design patterns
  • a Lego robot assistant (which wasn't available at that time)
  • ...and plenty other things!

Basically, I stayed in a very "immediate" level and failed to see that my inefficiency to improve over time might impair my creativity.

What "old kids" do today?

The Lego community, especially in Scandinavia is very active. You can see kids (45 years old kids) exchange plans on how to build modules2. You can see designs being shared. Patterns being tested, etc. They went much further than I was able to because they understand the key aspects of complexity.

One can even appreciate Lego Safe is ultra secure by Conner Flynn on November 17th, 2008 for as a way better alternative to the safe I built years ago.

The lesson

Birds can fly. I didn't even build wings out of Lego. I'm a lost cause. Being able to look back on my own cognitive development is a very precious thing. Now I can see where I failed and learn from it.

Today I am applying what I failed to see then :

  • crafting tools instead of just focusing on the task at hand (building tools and meta-tools to be more efficient, ...)
  • taking notes regarding my progresses instead of just dwelling on what I can do at the moment (including failure, this very wiki and are the direct result)
  • learning socially instead of mainly focusing on what I did myself (communities, open materials, peer reviews, ...)
  • transforming good practices to method instead of relying solely on tacit learning
  • building with modularity in mind instead of dismantling and reconstructing

Note : one key difference though was the limitation of the number of bricks at that time. I could not keep my models indefinitely since my supply of brick was limited. Several alternatives were still possible for exploiting, though: drawing the modules, taking pictures, ...

Appendix 1 : what can parents do now?

Basically, it comes to the transformation of the conclusion to playful situations.

Appendix 2 : the perspective of a teacher

  • See the Dedicated page for the reflection of a 4 to 10 years old kif teacher own view.


  1. Ces drôles d'oiseaux (originally "Kluge Vögel" in German)
    1. Les ingénieux 6 novembre 2008 à 20:15
    2. Les fortes têtes 7 novembre 2008 à 20:15
  2. LUGNet alias the unofficial "LEGO Central" for fans according to Andrew Lipson

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