Gears of My Childhood - Lego

Justin -- 24 February 2013

I am currently enrolled in the Learning Creative Learning course offered by the MIT Media Lab and P2PU. The assignment for the second week was to read the foreword to Seymour Papert’s 1980 book Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas. The foreword is titled The Gears of My Childhood and is about how, as a very young child, the author learned how gears worked and used it as a framework for learning new and ever more complex ideas by relating them back to gears. The main point of this is the fact that his passion and love for gears meant he was able to make this leap of connecting them to other concepts such as linear mathematical functions.

Our task for this assignment is to write about what was our own gears from when we were a child. In my case that would be Lego.

I believe I was four when I first received a rather large collection of Lego. A friend of my parents had been buying me sets as presents since I was born with the idea that when I was old enough to actually play with them I would have a very good set to use. I believe that my initial collection was just sets of blocks and not the more specific kits that were intended to build a few projects. Though I did enjoy getting those kits I would always end up mixing the pieces from those kits back into the larger pool to build my own creations.

I would come up with ideas for building things like space ships, moon bases, a monorail system or things from movies and TV shows I liked. I remember building a fairly large version of the helicopter from the TV show Airwolf that I could get my G.I. Joe action figures inside of. The fact that I had pieces which did not include highly specialised parts–like a lot of the sets made in recent years–meant that I had to work within the constraints of the blocks I had available to me in order to make something look like what I envisioned.

I also learned about symmetry and consistency. I always wanted the colours of blocks to match up. If I was building a house with four walls and I did not have enough of a certain colour block to make all the walls the same colour, I would try to match each level, or at least use the same pattern, all the way around the walls so that things were symmetrical and equal.

Later in school when I started to get projects to work on, if the project involved making something, I would always try and incorporate Lego into what I was building.

In fact, Lego is somewhat relevant to why I choose my career path. Douglas Coupland’s 1995 novel Microserfs features a group of characters who leave their jobs at Microsoft to start up their own company creating a PC game that is essentially a virtual Lego set. At one point in the story the characters are playing with the gigantic pile of Lego in their office and talking about it’s influence on their childhood. Things like the binary nature of how the blocks fit together and what kind of computer code would be produced by someone who selected random block colours when building structures as opposed to the more logical and programming-centric approach of symmetry. This novel is one of the primary motivators in my wanting to study Computer Science at university.

While I don’t believe I can use Lego in a similar manner to Papert in the sense of Lego being a framework to make it easier to relate to new concepts, it still applies as something which was important to my learning as a child and which I had great passion for. In fact, if anyone is ever looking for a gift for me, I would love one of those $500 3800 piece Lego Death Star kits. =)