The brick debate

lego messToday I want to talk about one of the biggest issues that faces any parent. That’s right, we’re not going to talk about learning right from wrong, or the importance of sharing; today we’re going to talk about LEGO block organisation.

Here is the key question: do you sort by block shape and size or do you sort by colour? There seems to be little common ground to be found between these two positions (unless you do both, but that seems a tad excessive for all but the biggest Lego collections). Whenever I ask other parents they seem to polarise and there are clearly two very set camps on this issue. Of those who actually sort their children’s Lego (a lot don’t), you get one side opting for the easiest method for to sort (colour), and the other camp opts for the easiest organisation method for building (by size). I fall into the camp of thinking that blocks should be organised by shape so that when you’re making something, regardless of the colour of the blocks, you’ll at least have exactly the pieces you need to create the model you want.

However, for some, this seems to be a strange position to take. My wife insists that Lego be sorted by colour and even the Lego shop in Glasgow seemed to follow this system, sorting Lego blocks by colour (to an extent). That doesn’t make sense to me, and I’d love to hear anyone’s comments below to explain why organising by colour instead of the shape of the block is a useful strategy. Aside from making it easier for the person putting the Lego away (it is easier to discern colour differences than shape differences I suppose) I can’t see the point.

Maybe I’m missing something here; perhaps it’s easier to organise them and find the right block if you know which colour you looking for. However, when you’re packing about 10 to 20 different LEGO boxes into a drawer (all with very different colour pallets), then for me the easiest way to organise them would be by shape. That way you can follow the Lego instruction books, and even if the blocks are the wrong colour, then at least they’ll be the right shape, and after all isn’t this what you really need to be sure of  ending up with the model you want?

This is a quick wee post today about something that’s been bothering me for a while. This has basically come to a head because I’m about to put together some organisation boxes for my son’s Lego. I’m really hoping to get some feedback here so that I can make sure he has a perfectly organised collection of Lego blocks (well until his wee brother upends the boxes that is 😉 ) and any advice you have would be appreciated.

As always thank you for stopping by, and I welcome any comments you have below, all the best John.

P.S. Just had a look and ‘the brick blogger‘ seems to cover the bases well (and seems to confirm my suspicions)

Oh and if you’d rather have your Lego sort itself, then that seems to be an option too (though you’ll need to have the Lego MINDSTORMS EV3 Discovery Book (robotsqaure has a discount code for you if you follow the link). Here’s a video of the sorter in action:

How many people do you buy for at Christmas?

Found this picture over at 'Buried in Bricks'

Found this picture over at ‘Buried in Bricks

I can safely guess that most people probably buy for their kids and for their other halves but other than that there seems to be a lot of variation between people. Some buy for friends and their kids but miss out cousins and other extended family, whilst others seem to keep it all in the family spreading their spends sometimes very far.

I recently found myself on a netmums message board (sorry that’s probably some kind of mumsnet blogger sin I just committed) after a google search and was quite surprised at how much people’s gift buying varied.

It wasn’t just the cost (as you can imagine there was a lot of variation there as well), to be honest the thing that struck me the most was the differences in how people look at gift buying.

Most seemed to say that Christmas is a time for being with family and friends and enjoying their company but that’s where the unified voice ended. There were people spending a bucket load on their kids and then not really buying for anyone but one or two close friends and immediate family, then there were people who were very reserved with spending on their kids and themselves but who seemed to buy gifts for extended family and a host of friends.

In our house we buy for family we see a lot: grannies and grampas, great grannies and our siblings (and their partners and kids), we buy some bits and pieces for friends we’ll be meeting near Christmas, and obviously we buy for the boys, and my wife and I buy gifts for each other.

As something a bit different I thought I’d pop a survey in this post (it’s up top) as I thought it’d be interesting to see what different people do when it comes to Christmas shopping. What do you think, should people keep their spending close to home or should they spread their gifts far and wide? As always thanks for reading, all the best, John

The solution to annoying blind bags? More blind bags?

LEGO-Guess-How-ManyBlind bags are a little ridiculous, I’ve discussed this before and just yesterday ‘oglemylego’ decided to share that post over on reddit (among other places). As a result my blog has had another moment of fame (my last bit of reddit fame was for my post on kraggling). This little flash of fame is probably my biggest yet, apparently there are literally thousands of you reading today, which is just brilliant, thank you.

Now back to blind bags, I had expected the thread over on reddit to contain a lot of defence of blind bags, given that the Lego community over there are adults who are likely to notice the cost a little less than a child scraping pocket money change together after getting a little over-zealous in the sweet shop. However, it would seem that even adult Lego collectors, on the whole, don’t like throwing their money around blindly either.

So what’s the solution? Could we get away with a small viewing window which retains mystery but makes it easier to figure out what you’re getting (a great suggestion from ‘tobiariah’)? or is there another option.

Given that Lego is clearly wanting to keep the blind bag earning potential I doubt we’ll get them to change the dynamic all that much, so how about a compromise: Lego bit bags. A bit bag would contain a piece, or a few pieces that you just wouldn’t get in any regular set. It could contain things like an unusual door, some space-themed wheels, a superhero head, a collection of cool accessories, etc. etc.

Overall this could satisfy Lego’s apparent need to create a blind product, whilst keeping the cost down to an actual manageable level for a kid with pocket-money to spend. Also it would be more in keeping with Lego’s ‘master-builder’ ethos that it’s been promoting through the Lego movie.

Alternatively, legend tells that many many years ago, in toy shops throughout the land, Lego was sold in individual piece form. Our modern supermarkets would baulk at the idea of loose Lego lying around their stores but independents and toys specialists could happily display big collection cases. Seems a much fairer way to appeal to pocket-money trade than asking kids (and adults) to blindly hand over their cash.

As always I welcome any thoughts you guys might have on this in the comments section below and if you fancy keeping up with me over on twitter I’ll be very happy to see you over there. Thanks for reading (and welcome to my blog to all the redditors), Cheers, John

Teach your child to pick up the pieces

LEgo-city-collapseHuman beings fail, this is a fact, and to be honest of all the times in your life that failure happens it perhaps happens most frequently as a child. We call this trial and error, we see it as an important step in acquiring any new skill, but what about the skill of accepting failure, digesting those negative emotions, and starting all over again?

kragle legoRecently I received a comment on my post on kraggling Lego (kraggling = gluing it together), the commenter  pointed out that kraggling may be defensible if it avoids the devastation a child can feel at seeing a play set demolished. Basically their argument was that kraggling can prevent heartache. I get where they are coming from but this comment brought some ideas to the fore that made me realise what it is that I truly love about Lego: it allows for utter, unadulterated, and truly epic, failure or loss. You can spend hours working on a Lego set only to see it crumple in seconds. Sometimes the devastation is wreaked by a sibling and sometimes it comes as the result of a catastrophic accident as you try to place that last piece on and push just a little too hard.

The key thing for a child to realise is that no matter how much blame is thrown around (either at themselves or at a friend/sibling) no amount of words will put that model back together. If they’re lucky the model was made following instructions then all they have to do is follow the steps again and their model will be restored, but if it’s a full on self-made master-builder-style creation then it may be gone forever. What better primer to grief can you expose your child to?

89292-will-ferrell-elf-NO-gif-MQ21Loss is hard, it’s something that can tear a human being apart, we like to think that there is nothing quite like the grief of losing a loved one but perhaps the small losses we experience as children when our creations are destroyed or ruined (for whatever reason) provide us with the early beginnings of the coping mechanisms we use to deal with losses that come in a much larger and more deeply emotional scale.

Another issue that broken Lego sets expose children to is the fact that blame and even punishment can sometimes be entirely futile. When something has been destroyed, no amount of talking, recrimination, or punishment will bring it back. Of course we feel vengeful when something important to us is lost due to the actions of another, it’s a normal, healthy, human reaction to this kind of event. However, it’s important that we develop the ability to distinguish between recrimination and reparation.

Sometimes, as with theft, we can simply receive something of equal value back but with destruction like this the only option is recrimination, there just isn’t a suitable reparation. This is still the case even when a child breaks their own Lego creation (accidentally or otherwise). Life does not have ‘rewind’ or ‘undo’ buttons (much as we’d love it to) and our kids need to be exposed to this, it’s a harsh lesson that can be less harsh if learned early. In the comfort of a loving home (or other learning environment) a child can experience the reality of the impermanence and transience of the human condition with the assurance of strong emotional backup from their parents/carers.

One of the saddest things about this learning stage is that it isn’t recognised by a lot of people as anywhere near as important as it is. When your child first breaks a Lego set (or other toy) right then and there they start to develop coping mechanisms which will shape the way they deal with loss throughout their life. If you want this to be a positive learning experience (since there’s nothing else positive going to come out of a broken toy) then you need to be ready for this and help steer them towards healthier reactions to loss.

This brilliant little guy comes from Andrew Bell's 'The Creatures in My Head'

This brilliant little guy comes from Andrew Bell’sThe Creatures in My Head

My dad used to have a wee catchphrase that annoyed the hell out of me as a kid: “Dinnae sit in a puddle and greet, (translation: don’t sit in a puddle and cry); all you’ll get is a wet bum.” In short, when life knocks us back, we need to get up and deal with it as best we can. Perhaps this isn’t the perspective you yourself take on how we should deal with setbacks and losses but, the thing is, unless you involve yourself in your child’s experiences of these events (and this means exposing them to situations where they’ll encounter this kind of event) you can’t influence the coping mechanism they’re going to develop as a result.

What do you think? Is childhood the wrong stage to expose kids to permanent loss and the transient nature of human experience? Should we shield kids from this kind of experience until they’re more mature, or do these experiences themselves help us to develop towards maturity? As always I welcome any opinions readers may have, feel free to share in the comments section below or strike up a conversation with me over on twitter, All the best, John

Why Make Blind Bags!?

IMAG0511Lego Simpsons mini-figures are here! Thursday was the 1st of May which meant that we were finally allowed to put our boxes of Lego Simpsons mini-figures out on the shelves (we’d had them in the back for a week or so but Lego wouldn’t allow us to put them out till the 1st). To be honest I’m pretty sure that we’ll be out of stock sometime next week since there’s a Lego based episode of the Simpsons being aired this weekend as well. This is all brilliant for us but the question I’m hearing from a lot of parents is ‘why the blind-bags?’ and to this I have trouble finding any answer other than ‘Lego wants to make money’.

IMAG0515I understand that there’s an element of the excitement of the unknown involved in blind bags, I can even recognise this as part of the appeal, perhaps even to an extent this might be part of why children buy them: there’s a hint of risk, the rush of not knowing if you’re about to get something really special or if you’re about to get a figure that is the exact copy of five identical figures you already have at home. To be honest blind bags are the lottery scratch cards of childhood.

The problem is that whilst the majority of adults (you would hope) are likely to be able to understand the odds of a win compared to a loss, I’m just not so sure that children are all that equipped for the disappointment. I’m not saying we should protect our kids from this, I’d probably support the opposite stance: that children will become more resilient individuals if they occasionally have to face a set back. What I find strange is that toy companies are willingly eliciting this kind of reaction, in fact they’d be hard-pushed to deny the fact that a huge proportion of a child’s experience of blind bags will be of disappointment (especially as they approach the completion of a collection and are only looking for the last couple of figures).

IMAG0514I get why lottery card companies are OK with the disappointment, they carefully factor in a host of smaller prizes/ consolations to ensure that hope is kept moderately alive. However, a toy isn’t like this, I’ve talked about the value of toys in a previous post but it’s worth going over it a bit again here. Whilst a consolatory win on a scratch-card which equals the value you paid might make an adult feel good I’m not sure if picking up a fifth copy of the same toy holds the same sway on a child. Sure they got a toy with their money but it’s the complete opposite of what they wanted, it’s more of the same, it takes them no closer to finishing their collection whilst at the same time using up their pocket money.

Children will get heavily caught up in the chase to get the specific figures they want from a set of blind-bags but is this really the kind of experience a toy manufacturer wants their buyers/fans to have? A child crying because the figure they got isn’t the one they wanted might look spoiled but just think about what they’re actually being forced to endure.

Imagine if book companies started doing this: for example, imagine you want to start reading Harry Potter but that they now come in blind-bag form (because, you know, more fun and all). You get a copy of book 3 only to realise that you really need book 1 to understand what’s going on, you buy another blind-book-bag and hooray!,  when you open your blind bag you find book 1, in fact you’re lucky enough to get as far as book 5 (with a few spare copies of 1 and 2 but you know, blind bags, adds to the fun). However, now the odds start stacking up against you and to make matters worse you find out that books 6 and 7, the end of the series, the bit that makes it all make sense and completes the collection, are ‘ultra-rare’ books. As the pile of extra copies of books 1 through 5 starts to mount-up and you see more of your cash pour away on the ‘fun’ of blind bags, wouldn’t you too feel more and more inclined to just break down in a full-on tantrum in the middle of the book shop?

Going back to the crying child in a toy shop now. Are they really spoiled for getting upset at a quintuple duplicate or are they simply reacting to an unjust waste of their pocket money and time?

Blind bags are insane, from a toy manufacturer’s perspective they may make a lot more money a lot faster than just, you know, packaging products in a way that allows the consumer to see what they’re getting, but should this really come at the expense of children enjoying the toys you make? Maybe there’s a dimension to blind-bag collecting that I’m missing here? I’m very thankful that neither of my kids are at a blind-bag buying age (for now) but I’m dreading the inevitable day when one of them gets hooked on a collection and basically gets turned into a little gambler. Do any of you guys have a blind bag story (or two) to share? Maybe we should start a petition or something? Also, click on these links if you’d like to pop over and share your feelings about kraggling and/or the usefulness of Lego as a tool for teaching children about impermanence (and perhaps even grief). Anyway, as always I love to see that people have stopped by and if you guys join in down in the comments, even better. You can also catch me over on twitter and join in discussion about blind bags by searching for #blindbag. Thanks for reading, Cheers, John

jack-reusen-cover-front2ONE LAST THING: I’m children’s author and would really love it if you popped over to the official site for my books. The Jack Reusen series follws a boy who accidentally tears holes between his world and a ‘Fey’. Fey hosts an array of magical people and creatures and the breaches allow a small collection of odd creatures to stumble into Jack’s world. Along with them comes a girl with a very unusual power who finds herself lost, scared and alone in a world she doesn’t understand. She seeks Jack out to help her find her way back to Fey and in the process the two of them find themselves pulled into something much bigger than they expected. Sinister forces are interested in Jack’s world and it’s up to Jack and his new friend to try and stop them. Please take a look at the official site if you have the time (I’d really appreciate it).

Gendered toys and the Blind Buying problem: ‘What have you got for an eight year old girl?’

create your top model creative studio by depesche

Top Model outsells every other toy (about 5 to 1) for 8 year old girls at Fun Junction. It’s by far the most popular toy picked by the girls themselves.

We’ve all heard parents say things like ‘that’s not a good toy for you, that’s for…’. In fact, if we’re completely honest with ourselves, we’ve all probably said it ourselves at some point. We tell our children that a toy isn’t appropriate for them for one reason or another. Sometimes (perhaps most of the time) the reasons for this are completely legitimate, as the toy may be too advanced or pose a danger to your child. However, there are times when some parents just don’t have a reason, or at best we have a reason which is likely to wither in the face of cross examination.

I work in a toy shop, I have done on-and-off for more than half of my life. I hear what parents really say to their children and to be honest the media (/social media) can be kind of harsh on parents who are choosing toys. Despite the occasional shocker like ‘girls don’t build stuff’ or ‘boys that play with dolls turn into p*@fs’ (yes I have heard this, thankfully the boy in question wasn’t actually within earshot) the overall response of parents to their children is fairly open minded. The problem only really hits its zenith when people are buying for other children. When party time comes along parents of the children invited often get a check-list of ‘favourites’; things that will avoid disappointment and assure the buyer that they’ve not wasted their money.

‘She likes horses and fairies’, ‘He likes Lego’, ‘He’s a really active boy’, ‘she likes drawing’

A brilliant set and one I know boys and girls would both love but again it doesn't fit the averages

Really Gross Science‘ is a fantastic science set and one I know boys and girls would both love but it’s generally not picked by 8 year old girls

I hear these descriptions (and many similar wish lists) so often that I’ve got a set list of go-to products to fit. It makes the whole thing easy, seamless, unchallenging and, most importantly for all involved on busy Saturdays (where multiple siblings might all be attending different parties on the same morning/afternoon) such lists save time.

Sidebar: There’s a lot of emphasis placed on gender targeting in this kind of situation but less people seem concerned about our growing need to force children from stage to stage whilst exclaiming ‘they sure grow up fast don’t they!’. I personally think it’s just as dangerous as the growing gender segregation of toys (I’ve discussed this before here and here) but I won’t get into that too much just now. Sidebar over.

Anyway, here’s the issue that’s really amping up the gender/age divide in toys: combine the need for speed in the choosing of a birthday present with the gender/age specific advertising that kids are bombarded with and you start to see why toy companies have been favouring the targeting of specific groups with a particular line of toys. If a box is clearly, unambiguously, proclaiming that it’s ‘perfect for an 8 year old girl’, then you can bet your butt that thousands of 8 year old girls across the country will be getting at least one for their birthday.

With this in mind of course when Christmas comes around many of these children will pick the big, expensive, heavily advertised toys from the same range to add it to their Christmas list. But the reason for this isn’t just exposure to Christmas advertising, or even in-store displays; they’ve been playing with a cheaper element/elements from the same range since their birthday. It’s part of their life, they’re emotionally invested in the toy and they want to add to the world they’ve been playing in for months.

Lego Friends a brilliant (though perhaps overly pink) new world created by Lego

Lego Friends a vibrant (though perhaps overly pink) new world created by Lego

You will not deny a child this, they won’t allow it and if you force the issue you’re the bad guy, you’re the parent who breaks their dreams and dismantles a world of play that feels comfortable and familiar. Step by step, year by year this relationship between child and brand will grow stronger, until eventually advertising won’t matter, they won’t need to hear about the next thing out, all they’ll know is that they want it. And all this because of a toy/toys they got for their birthday.

I constantly try to explain this problem when discussing gender and toys: it’s not as simple as stopping advertisers/toy companies/toy stores from segregating sections (though this plays it’s part). It’s got a lot more to do with an emerging culture of ‘all the class’ birthday parties where all 30 or so children in a class are expected to attend, and bring a gift, whether they’re the birthday girl’s/boy’s best friend or someone who barely talks to them. With unfamiliarity comes generalisation. If you don’t know a child you have to guess what present they’d like based on the tiny amount of information you have. Sometimes (a lot of the time) that’s just an age and their gender. Of course we’ll see people hurry to buy generalised toys aimed at ‘eight year old girls in general’, they have no other option.

Red Toolbox toys, made to fit a child's hand, brilliant toy but not generally picked by 8 year old girls

Red Toolbox toys, made to fit a child’s hand, brilliant toy (but again it doesn’t fit the averages) you can get them here.

I try to show people alternatives and to be honest most are chomping at the bit to find something different (they don’t want the child getting 30 of exactly the same toy). However, the problem remains that we’re both entirely, unalterably, in the dark about the actual personality of the child they’re buying for. All we have to work with is a vague list of interests (if we’re lucky) combined with their age and gender. I apologise to anyone from Let Toys Be Toys who reads this but so long as people are in the dark about who they’re buying for I’ll go for the numbers and help them pick the toy that the average child of that age and gender would like.

This is the real problem driving companies to appeal to a specific age/gender and possibly the only solution will be to get to know a lot more about the children in your child’s class. The only way we’re going to open up diversity in play is by knowing children as individuals and for a large portion of the toy buying population this currently is often just not an option.

Keep in mind that on average a parent will probably be taking their child to parties for around half of the Saturdays in the year. If they have more children then they’ve got more parties to buy for. It’s a big expense, even though the individual purchases don’t look like much (maybe an average of £7-£10 per gift), consider what that mounts up to throughout the year. When you add in the expense of travel and any other peripherals (costumes etc.) it’s easy to see why parents are trying their hardest to avoid wasting money. No one wants to imagine that the gift they bought has been sent un-played-with to a charity shop, so they play the odds, pick something that’s statistically likely to go down well, and keep their fingers crossed.

or you know abandon the age and gender tags and just get them Lord of the Rings Risk!

or you know abandon the age and gender tags and just get them Lord of the Rings Risk!

So what’s the solution? I have none, I’m sorry but I don’t. We could tone down the number of guests at our children’s parties to include just their friends but when you do that you’re basically asking your child to choose which kids they like and which they don’t/are indifferent to. It’s a difficult thing to do, and a lot of parents would rather avoid the politics and favouritism and just invite the whole class. So Let Toys Be Toys (and the many other groups rightfully campaigning to end the ridiculous segregation of toys by gender) remember: many/most of the people buying toys are just (through no fault of their own) shooting in the dark and despite all the re-named sections and re-packaged toys, these people will still come up to the sales assistant and ask ‘Do you have something that would suit an eight year old girl?’

This is where the next battle will have to be fought and it will be a lot harder going for us all.

Does anyone have any suggestions on what could be done to ease this situation? Do you think I’ve painted too bleak a picture here? As always I welcome any comments/questions/tirades/meanderings, thank you for reading and don’t forget to follow me on twitter to catch up with toy related news/discussions, all the best, Cheers, John

Toy Awesomeness Part 3: Good Branding

hobbit games workshop escape from goblin townHow to make a great toy part 3: Good Branding

As I explained in my last ‘Toy Awesomeness’ post, just because a particular character is ‘in’ just now doesn’t mean it’ll still be popular with kids in six months time. That said, if you pick a tried-and-tested character (think Disney for starters) to hitch your wagon to, the hazards of the whims of children may effect you far less.

hulk avengers legoAs westerners we’re almost born knowing about Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, Superman, Batman, Hulk, Snow White, etc., they’ve become more than simply characters; they’ve been appropriated as cultural symbols, for want of a better word they are the ‘gods’, ‘goddesses’ and ‘demi-gods’ of our culture. The companies responsible for these kinds of character are fully aware of their clout though, so matching with one of these brands may be expensive/difficult.

That said there are lesser known ‘icons’ who nonetheless seem unable to do wrong such as ‘Bob The Builder’, ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’, ‘Postman Pat’ etc. Their popularity does ebb and flow more than we see from the true ‘gods’ of the toy shelf but children will still be more willing to chose a toy if it has a character they recognise on it.

For example if Wow toys were (hypothetically) to produce a Postman Pat van I’m almost certain it would outsell all of their other sets. Speaking as a parent I would pick something like that because I trust the quality of Wow and I also identify with the character of Postman Pat.

That said character placement can often look a bit tacked-on, almost as though the company thought their product was slightly sub-standard. In cases like this, instead of fixing the problems with their toy a manufacturer pays for some licensing and sticks a picture of a popular character on it to push sales. There are so many of this kind of toy out there that I hardly feel the need to name and shame, they know who they are.

turtle lair by Lego

The Lego Turtle Lair is available from Fun Junction

lord of the rings riskThe brand and toy combo also has to make sense otherwise kids will just be perplexed (and they won’t want it). Branding and timelessness (quality) have to go hand in hand for it to work or you get stuck with a bit of rubbish with a character your child barely recognises stuck on it. When branding is done right though it can be incredible. Here are some examples of branding done right: Games Workshop’s ‘Hobbit’ set, ‘Lord of The Rings’ Risk, and Lego’s ‘Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles: Turtle Lair’.