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The secret to Lego’s enduring appeal

It’s a secret hiding in plain sight for anyone who has ever clicked Lego bricks together.

The secret to Lego’s enduring appeal
[Photos: Raimonda Kulikauskiene/Getty Images, Lego, Chronicle Books]
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In 2008, I wrote an article about a place hidden under the old home of Lego’s founder, now a small private museum called the Lego Idea House, in the town of Billund, Denmark. I called it the “Lego Secret Vault” because it contained every Lego set ever made. It was full of amazing treasures, but one of those sets—which my father gave to my brothers and me for Christmas, 1979—actually made me tear up.

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Those old Lego sets, I realized then, were not just plastic bricks in a box but time portals to days long forgotten. The article went viral online and soon—according to the head of the Lego Idea House, Jette Orduna—TV channels and newspapers from all over the world flocked to see the “secret vault.” Orduna remarked that all those journalists had the same reaction. “It doesn’t matter who they are; they come, and at the end, they all get emotional,” she said.

This unprecedented demand to visit the vault and the reaction to it were two of the things that made former Lego CEO and Lego Foundation Chairman Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen decide that the company needed a place for everyone to come and feel the power of the Lego experience firsthand. However, the third-generation company owner—grandson of Ole Kirk, son of founder Godtfred Kirk—wanted to create more than a nostalgic museum or a fun house full of Lego models. He wanted this place to be “the Home of the Brick,” to physically represent everything the company believes in. Kristiansen thinks that the colorful bricks transcend their simple nature as toys. And so the Lego House became his mission. He got involved in every aspect of bringing it to life because he believes it is his legacy and a testimony to how these bricks are a lot more than just pieces of plastic. For him, it all has a higher purpose, and the Home of the Brick needed to show it.

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For Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, the Lego brick is intimately tied to some of the dearest memories of hundreds of millions of people throughout the world for a reason—one that’s even larger than the joy of playing with a building toy. This higher purpose helps us become adults by transforming us—our minds and spirits, and our view of the world as we play. It’s a secret hiding in plain sight for everyone who has ever clicked Lego bricks together.

That secret is Learning Through Play.

[Image: courtesy Chronicle Books]
The Lego Foundation was established in 1986. It aims to build a future where learning through play empowers all children to become creative, engaged, lifelong learners. Through 25% ownership of the Lego Group, the Lego Foundation has helped fund programs that ensure children across the world learn and develop holistic skills. The organization was born of the theory and practice of learning through play, a scientifically researched method that says that human beings learn most effectively not by memorizing, listening, or seeing others doing things, but by playing.

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According to Tina Holm, research manager at the Lego Foundation, the philanthropic organization has worked for more than five years with academic researchers around the world—such as the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts—to codify this theory, an ongoing work that hasn’t been completed yet. This creative learning model, which they refer to as the “Journey,” goes through three distinct phases: a connection phase that makes people of all ages curious and motivates them, an exploration phase in which people test and try things, and a transformation phase in which people reflect and communicate.

Kristiansen, convinced that Learning Through Play is the very core of the Lego experience, wanted this methodology to be central to the Home of the Brick itself and its guiding ethos. In fact, the Lego Foundation joined the project to help the Lego House design team integrate Learning Through Play in everything. And thanks to this focus, everything clicked perfectly, materializing Kristiansen’s vision for the Home of the Brick.

[Photo: Lego]

How humans learn and create

The Learning Through Play model is based in five development competencies—social, creative, cognitive, emotional, and physical—and the three-phase learning process of connection, exploration, and transformation. The five development competencies actually served to organize the architectural space while the learning process guided the design of every single experience inside the Lego House and, more importantly, the rules that governed its design team’s creative work.

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To better explain how the three phases—connect, explore, and transform—work, I want to go back to Christmas morning, 1979, when my siblings and I got the Lego Galaxy Explorer and other smaller LegoLand Space sets.

In the connect phase, I became instantly enthralled by the model pictured on the box. It’s what the Lego Group calls the “wow” moment. My mind marveled at the amazing spaceship, the lunar station, the little astronauts with their smiling faces. Then I opened the box and saw the transparent round boxes with all those blue, gray, and yellow bricks, plus a large instructions booklet. As a child, this was when I understood that the objective of this set was to build that scene—it was the “Oh, I get it” moment—and what I was supposed to do with it. It’s what the Lego House team refers to as the understanding-my-role moment.

The explore phase starts with something called first fun. This happened when I opened the instructions booklet and started selecting and sorting the pieces I needed to put together the ship’s cockpit, imagining how each brick would contribute to the finished set. After that, the immersion stage took over. I became so engrossed with what I was doing that everything disappeared around me. My brain was working at full speed, interpreting the building instructions while using my eyes and hands to find specific pieces, clicking them together in the right way. As I completed segments of the spaceship, I had what the Lego House team categorizes as “a-ha!” moments, where I stopped to recognize the progress I was making and take in how everything was coming together.

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[Photo: Lego]

Fixing knowledge to our brains

The transform phase is what makes you grow as a human being, the part where everything gets organized in your mind as knowledge and skills. In this example, it begins with the end point moment, when I finished the model. My brain, after all those inputs and outputs, was satisfied. As I held the Galaxy Explorer in my hands, opening and closing its cockpit or docking bay, making a littler rover go inside that bay, or placing a spaceman in the little lunar outpost, my mind was processing and reflecting on everything I had done. Inevitably, the mental and manual challenges of the building experience translated into a feeling of pure joy, which served to integrate the acquired knowledge into my core self. This is what the method calls the lasting impression. Finally, there is sharing: the mere fact of articulating learned knowledge helps you further clarify it for yourself. According to Holm, research shows that sharing with others helps “fix” knowledge in our brains. My brothers and I showed off our accomplishments—a finished Galaxy Explorer—to each other and to my dad because that’s what humans do.

[Image: courtesy Chronicle Books]
Of course, I had no idea what was happening in my young brain until I came to the Lego House. Now, looking back at that and many other episodes, I can see how the logic of the Learning Through Play model has ruled every aspect of my creative journey through my young and adult life. If you analyze your own experiences playing with Lego bricks or anything else, you may see how this model applies to your life too.

Adapted with permission from THE SECRETS OF LEGO HOUSE: Design, Play, and Wonder in the Home of the Brick by Jesús Díaz, published by Chronicle Books and on sale July 27.

About the author

Jesus Diaz founded the new Sploid for Gawker Media after seven years working at Gizmodo, where he helmed the lost-in-a-bar iPhone 4 story. He's a creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce and a contributing writer at Fast Company.

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