It's Lego's 80th birthday party, but only the boys are invited
Girls get pink-boxed dollhouses, boys get to build
Comment Imagination-fostering Lego is 80 years old this month and far from its roots as a creativity-inspiring construction toy for girls and boys.
Way back in 1932, Ole Kirk Kristiansen, a Danish joiner and carpenter, found he wasn't making enough money from carpentry anymore and decided to try making and selling wooden toys instead. Although he didn't know it yet, he was on his way to building the Lego company, which would eventually have some of the most recognisable and long-lasting toys in the world: bricks and yellow minifigurines.
The whole story, from setbacks that included two fires, a world war and plain old hard times, is told in a charming video animation (above) released by Lego for the anniversary. If you believe the cartoon, the Kristiansen family kept reinventing Lego until they came up with the iconic bricks that are still around today by watching their own children play with the toys the factory built. And Lego today says that it spends a lot of time finding out exactly what it is that children want so it can give it to them.
According to that research, girls aren't into Lego. Poul Schou, senior vice president of product group 2, told The Register that Lego was for boys, not girls, because although both sexes loved the larger preschool bricks of Duplo once the girls hit five, they weren't interested in construction anymore.
"We have seen that girls seem to be less interested in continuing with our products when they get to four or five years old so we don't really get them into the Lego system," he said.
Here at Vulture Central, that seemed really odd. Not only did everyone in the office, regardless of gender, remember playing with and loving Lego throughout their childhood, for the most part, their kids, both boys and girls, love it as well.
A 1982 Lego magazine ad
Lego was reluctant to explain its research methods to El Reg, but claimed that it knew that girls don't like the Lego sets that are available for over-fives.
"We have a department doing extensive research and consumer surveys. This is conducted on a regular basis globally, so we have a great insight," the firm said. "We do not however disclose detailed information on this."
Schou said that the company got "a lot of feedback from boys and girls". The kids are encouraged to go online to talk about the products they buy and what age they are, and the boxes often include incentives to answer Lego survey questions as well.
Of course if girls aren't buying Lego stuff, they won't be answering any questions, which would be a kind of answer in itself (although whether the answer would be "Girls don't like Lego" or "Girls don't like surveys" would be hard to figure out).
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I played with LEGO a LOT as a child, but my elder sister wasn't interested. So I don't think it's a new phenomenon.
Now I'm a parent, I've got two real problems with LEGO. Firstly, it's REALLY expensive. Any model of any substance is £25 or more. It makes it very difficult to buy as a birthday present for someone else's child, because it's too expensive. The smaller sets are incidental "stocking filler" types, but are still too expensive to be bought as an incidental thing like a bribe for good behaviour. These two factors combine to largely eliminate the mass-aggregation of sets that I had as a boy.
Secondly (and this is something James May commented on when he built his LEGO house) too many of the pieces are single-use. In order to provide visual richness to the end product, the typical set has many parts that are suitable only for that set. This further dilutes the original aim of LEGO of it being "a new toy every day." Every set seems to be a model, an end-goal clearly in site. I remember getting sets that were basically big boxes full of bricks with a few ideas. Now you have multi-page build manuals, bagged component groups and a over-reliance on the construction being a process that must be followed exactly to achieve a pre-determined goal, rather than it being general principles of construction that allow the child to make what he (or she) has in their head.
Very true. These days the box has 4 blocks and some stickers. Lego for me was a huge cardboard box full of lego. It wasn't (until technix, and even then there was that continual quest to build a working helicopter) that you had a box that was supposed to be a car, you had a huge box that could be whatever you wanted it to be with no prompting. When the girls were there they helped shape the end result. So heman or liono's castle might have an annex for barbie or shera but the goal was never gifted to you.
I took my kids to a lego store and its full or prefab junk, I asked where the sets of blocks are and was led to the back of the store and showwn every freakin kit on the way before I got to some stupidly overpriced woefully small 'buckets'. It's like kids aren't allowed to think or imagine for themselves.
Re: Market stratification makes me sad
"Even 30 and 40 years ago Lego sets were still kits intended to build a particular thing like a space ship or police station."
I'd tend to agree but the difference is that the kits of 30-40 years ago were generally regular Lego blocks with instructions and the correct quantities to build a model, occasionally with some stickers, but they could be made in conjunction with just about everything else. Today's kits usually have a fair number of custom blocks and/or colours.