The lords of Legotown

Seattle after-school program temporarily bans the bumpy plastic building blocks of capitalist meritocracy.

Published April 2, 2007 4:47PM (EDT)

Based on the cover story of its winter issue, the magazine Rethinking Schools might -- uncharitably -- be nicknamed Overthinking Schools. Provocatively titled "Why We Banned Legos," the article, by two teachers in an after-school program at Hilltop Children's Center in an "affluent" Seattle neighborhood, tells the story of the rise and fall of Legotown: a "sprawling collection of Lego houses, grocery stores, fish-and-chips stands, fire stations, and coffee shops," along with "community meeting places," created by their "cool-piece"-seeking young wards. Awesome as Legotown sounds, the teachers explain that there was trouble in plastic paradise from the beginning. "Into their coffee shops and houses, the children were building their assumptions about ownership and the social power it conveys -- assumptions that mirrored those of a class-based, capitalist society -- a society that we teachers believe to be unjust and oppressive," they write, also noting that "all children's names have been changed" (to "Kyla" and "Marlowe"). After the elaborate structure is accidentally demolished by interlopers, the instructors -- seeing the opportunity for a major teaching moment -- decide to ban the Legos altogether rather than rebuild. "We saw the decimation of Legotown as an opportunity to launch a critical evaluation of Legotown and the inequities of private ownership and hierarchical authority on which it was founded," they write. In other words, I'm surprised it took the National Review this long to find the story.

"My children have spent a large portion of their young lives playing with Legos," writes NR national political reporter John J. Williams. "They have never, to my knowledge, constructed 'community meeting places.'" Hee!

He goes on. "Instead, they make monster trucks, space ships, and war machines ... usually loaded with ion guns, nuclear missiles, bunker-busting bombs, force-field projectors, and death-ray cannons."

When kids fight over cool pieces or get bossed around, he says, they are not experiencing disenfranchisement or enacting the power structures of privilege. They are being kids. And when their "latte-sipping guardians" suggest otherwise, they are engaging in liberal, milquetoast brainwashing. (Legotown did, after all, appear to have more than one coffee shop.)

Hilltop did rescind the ban, but only after elaborate processing with the children that produced several new rules of Lego engagement, including, "All structures will be standard sizes."

"All imaginations will be a standard size as well," Williams responds. "Small."

On the one hand, the lessons of Legotown do read like genius parody, not to mention irresistible bait for conservatives. (After all, I did find the story on one of my regular peeking-through-fingers visits to the Independent Women's Forum.) To poke fun is like shooting non-farmed fish in a barrel. And Williams does have a point -- one I've made about the idiocy of banning "dangerous" games like tag.

On the other hand, this story does take a bit of a sideswipe at a related conservative straw-parent: the touchy-feely indulgent child raising that's alleged to be creating a nation of spoiled, bitchy brats. These particular Kylas and Marlowes are surely learning to share their feelings, but they are arguably learning to do so for the good of the many and, in general, to not be jerks. Beyond that, it's hard to criticize any teacher with that level of thoughtfulness and dedication -- and easy to criticize a system that (at least by design) relegates them to jobs in the affluent suburbs. Perhaps Williams and Co. would also do well to direct their attention to the legions of kids who don't have any cool pieces to fight over in the first place.

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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