Parents often have a love/hate relationship with LEGOs. They love the toy for its open-ended play value and ability to exercise their fine motor skills. That said, as LEGO grows in popularity and kids continue to collect more bricks, problems build up right alongside them.
Oftentimes, you’ll hear parents complain that their kids refuse to take apart any of their elaborate sets—so their home becomes a dust-collecting LEGO museum. Other children build sets but then take them apart to build their own creations. This may be seen as ideal but the dismantled sets usually end up in just one large bin. Eventually, children can’t see what kind of bricks that they have. Creative play is stunted and soon the kids are asking you to buy a new set.
It’s difficult to end this cycle but I’ve consulted with experts and parents of LEGO-obsessed children to find the best ways to tackle this problem of LEGO sprawl.
We straighten out their drawers, their desks, their bookshelves, and now we even buy rugs for their school lockers. Even though we buy toys for educational purposes, we usually require them to do all the clean up. Almost always, they should be able to, but LEGOs are different. There are few toys that kids can own that could easily number in the thousands. LEGO told Quartz there are about 70 LEGO bricks for every one of the world’s 6 billion inhabitants. And children around the world spend 5 billion hours a year playing with LEGO bricks.
If the collection becomes this large, throwing them all into a big bin makes about as much sense as using large garbage bags to store your clothing for everyday wear. In short, kids need to be taught how to organize their pieces in a way suits their building styles and their families’ needs too. The LEGO Group designers store their bricks in toolchest-like drawers organized by color, each housing one type of brick.
I’ve found that highly creative children will find sorting to be especially painful because they can look at a single brick as having so much potential. Categorizing them is like prematurely deciding that brick’s future and kids hate that. I told Megan Rothrock, former designer at the LEGO Group and author of the LEGO Adventure Book 1 and Book 2 about this problem and she shared this piece of advice: She usually asks the children about the size of their collection, and kids then describe the size of the large bins that contain their mixed pieces. She then asks them if they know what they could build out of it. “They all say no,” Rothrock said. Next, she asks them to picture what it could be like to pull out certain colors and the kids change their tune about the possibilities. “They say, ‘oh yeah, because I got these blue slopes, and these red ones’.” Rothrock says that once the kids start thinking about color, they’ll take off.
Cleaning and sorting need not be awful if you have a few good tools. Kids have a habit of spreading out their pieces all over so they can see them—but sometimes, they don’t clean it up and parents wind up stepping on them. Thus, products like Toydozer, which helps kids scoop up their pieces more easily, and Lay N Go (shown above), are great.
Last year, the Johnson family in Port Jefferson, New York, decided that they couldn’t store away their bricks even though their then 12-year-old daughter was playing with them less and less.
However, after visiting Nathan Sawaya’s The Art of the Brick exhibit at Discovery Times Square in New York City, they decided to make a sculpture very similar to a sculpture they saw there. The Johnsons felt that making a large sculpture with random bricks like Nathan Sawaya’s peace sign was one way to store LEGOs. This led them to create more sculptures like the Starbucks goddess which is now hanging in their local Starbucks.
As my family began sorting bricks just before the start of Christmas, we have learned a few things that affirm my belief that toys can be used to teach kids almost everything. Sorting our bricks has allowed us to see that we’ve accumulated over 20,000 bricks. (Disclosure: The LEGO Group has submitted products to me in the past but those bricks make just a tiny percentage of our supply. Most have been purchased by friends and family like every other LEGO-obsessed kid.)
Knowing this number has been helpful because now they can find out how much their used LEGO bricks are worth on the market; eBay listings show that 1,000 used bricks can fetch up to $50.
But it really isn’t about the money. What bothered me the most about the LEGO sprawl was this: They were not taking good care of what they loved the most. Even though I love their toys too, I decided that building sessions would temporarily be suspended until we got our bricks in order. If they quit sorting and I finish sorting their sprawl all by myself, I will choose which bricks will stay and which will go. Now, they know their bricks can possibly fund summer camp tuition—something we couldn’t afford last year. Still, how can you expect two boys, ages 7 and 11, to sort 20,000 bricks?
The truth is that I simply couldn’t “expect” anything. Sorting is a tough process that involves procrastination, decisions, do-over of decisions, muscle pain, and multiple trips to places like Home Depot and Michael’s. Parents would be best served if they understood how their child used LEGOs in order to teach how to best care for them. It’s no different or no less important than they way we teach them to put their homework carefully in their binder so that it doesn’t crinkle or fall out. As they learn how to do this, they’ll also learn their own working styles. My youngest can work fast if the task is clearly defined; my eldest son works fast when he’s under pressure.
Good toy maintenance will enhance other job-related social emotional skills. Once, my husband and I literally fought about how to best sort the LEGOs. It ended in a smashed build scattered all over the floor. The great part was that my kids had the honor of seeing my husband gracefully rejoin the team after coming to terms with how his method was not the best one. My son, who had seen his dad go in the wrong direction but had not said anything was also able to see how voicing his opinion at the right time can be an act of respect, even if it is unpleasant news.
People immediately ask me if the kids will be able to maintain the organization once everything has been sorted. I can’t say for sure but I’m confident that the lessons learned will be fruitful. Without a doubt, the kids are in awe of what they’ve collected. Furthermore, the neatly sorted compartments make the bricks even more attractive. They still complain heavily, but in the end they always choose to keep what they love most and go right back to organizing their beloved bricks.