I can’t remember the first time I encountered Lego. It certainly wasn’t during my childhood, but may have been at some point when I was training to be a teacher. Certainly by the time our sons were born the colourful dimpled bricks were very popular, and I spent many happy hours constructing a great range of imaginative buildings, vehicles and other artefacts with them. In fact I suspect that I was at least as keen as they were to play with the many boxes full of Lego that we acquired over a number of years. (These have been carefully stored, and I look forward to getting them out for my grand children before too long!)
I was somewhat surprised to discover that the first connecting bricks were produced by the Lego company in Denmark as early as 1949. Though I understand that they did not quite resemble the magnificent construction kit with which we have become familiar, and were called “Automatic Binding Bricks,” not exactly a name that trips off the tongue.
It is almost certain that any child (regardless of age) who has played with Lego over the years will agree that this relatively simple toy provides not only many hours of enjoyment, but also plenty of learning opportunities. Indeed, Lego provides a fine example of how play can stimulate the imagination, assist in the development of motor co-ordination and encourage problem solving and spatial skills. Such is its versatility that it is difficult to say whether Lego should be categorised as a toy, or a piece of educational equipment, or perhaps we should recognise that these are false descriptions.
When our sons were very young, we cycled as a family to the original Legoland in Billund, Denmark and had a wonderful day marvelling at the ingenious structures, entirely constructed from coloured bricks. These sculptural features were obviously far more ambitious than anything that we could ever have considered building at home, but I’m quite sure that early after our return home we would have done our best to imitate some of the wondrous structures we had seen.
All of this came to mind today as I discovered that the University of Cambridge, an undoubtedly prestigious seat of learning, is about to appoint a “Professorship of Play in Education, Development, and Learning,” sponsored by the Lego Foundation. The appointed academic will become director of a new Research Centre on Play in Education, Development, and Learning, which the LEGO Foundation is supporting with a £1.5 million, donation.
Before any of my colleagues ask the question, I can assure them that I have no intention of applying for this interesting post. I am neither qualified, or sufficiently experienced to lead research into play, and curious as I may be about a Lego Professorship, I expect that the amount of time available for playing with coloured bricks will be severely limited. (If this is not the case, then I certainly could be tempted!) It is, however, refreshing to see one of the UKs most respected educational institutions, recognising the importance of play as part of the learning process.
At a time when many politicians and policy makers talk of education only in terms of “academic outcomes”, it takes a certain chutzpah to make a bold statement about the importance of play. I do hope that the person appointed will have an opportunity to exert influence and express the importance of play in the learning of all children and adults. The positive impact of play has been well documented by researchers, though there are many who would prefer not to take account of their findings. So, let’s give a round of applause to both Cambridge University and Lego for forming this unique partnership.
Of course, it is fun to let the imagination run wild. I have an image in mind of a group of academics seated on a carpet, all clad in gowns and mortar boards, discussing colour patterns, the positioning of doors and windows and the interior layout of a new college building made entirely from Lego. How much might be learned I wonder? It’s a nice thought, and I suspect it will never happen – but wouldn’t it be fun if it did?