Why do adults play with Lego?

Image from gettyimages

Image from gettyimages

Like most children, Richard Selby played with Lego. When he had his own children, he sat on the floor and played Lego with them. But increasingly, after his children went to bed, he carried on playing.

“I would tinker a bit more. Try to improve what we had built, or think of a better way of doing it,” he remembers. “Then I went online and found a whole wonderful world of Lego pieces in different colours, which didn’t exist when I was a kid. I started buying bits and bobs. I was very excited to share them with my son – who was less excited after a while. And there came a point when I realised: I’m doing this more for me than for him. I’m getting more out of this than he is.”

Meet the AFOLs

Richard is an AFOL – an Adult Fan of Lego. Nobody knows exactly how many people fit this description, but just the London AFOL club he set up now has 500 members, and regularly attracts 50-70 people to its monthly meet-ups in the function room of a pub. Members bring bricks, they build things, they chat. They play.

There’s a large and thriving online community, too, also known as LUGs (members of Lego User Groups). BrickLink, the biggest online Lego trading site, currently has nearly 50,000 individual Lego parts listed, from Aircraft Fuselage to World Racer Stickers.

Even David Beckham is a fan: last year he proudly shared pictures of the 4,000 piece Disney Castle he built for daughter Harper.

“I was sitting up until 2 in the morning on my own,” he said. “It is just something I enjoy. I have done it for years.”

Why are so many adults captivated by Lego? While it’s tempting to write off the AFOL community as just another ‘kidult’ trend, like adult colouring books or adventure playgrounds, it’s certainly not just some millennial fad. Lego has always appealed to adults. Perhaps the main difference now is that they’re happy to admit it.

Last year saw the 40th anniversary of Lego Technic, a range that enables builders to programme anything from high-spec racing car models to robots, while new ranges such as Architecture and Creator Expert are clearly aimed at the older builder. (The Taj Mahal kit, for example, retails at £299 and has more than 5,900 pieces.) ‘Longing to get away from the day-to-day?’ asks the Lego Architecture website. ‘Travel back to those carefree LEGO hours of childhood, as you lose yourself in a beautiful building.’

“At first, playing with Lego felt pretty weird,” says Richard. “Then I realised, about ten years ago, that there is a whole community out there. And the movement has gone from strength to strength, to the point that nobody is surprised by its existence anymore.”

Image: London AFOLs

Image: Instagram

Image: Instagram

Image: gettyimages

Getting real

And as the world becomes increasingly digitised, it’s becoming more attractive to spend your spare time manipulating real things, rather than information, and getting together in real life rather than watching its simulation on Netflix.

“We are becoming more passive consumers within society,” points out Lorna Cordwell, head of counselling at Chrysalis Courses UK and an enthusiastic participant in her grandson’s Lego builds. “We tend to get our evening entertainment by watching TV or a movie. There is very little participation and interaction.”

The psychotherapist and hypnotherapist believes that interaction can give our mental health a boost. David Beckham has said in the past that he finds Lego ‘calming’, and she agrees. “It’s absorbing,” she says. “Me and my grandson build things that make no sense at all. Does that matter? Not a jot. It’s fun and it feels good. It reduces stress and anxiety and boosts our sense of self-worth.

“I’m sure it makes a difference to our cognitive capabilities as well. Our sense of touch, for example, is the first one that we are aware of when we are born. It's the first one that we use to explore the world. Babies have a much more readily developed sense of touch than they do eyesight or hearing, for example. And we therefore know that exploring the world in that way is important to interact with that world and act within the world.”

Richard agrees that Lego gives him something tangible in a virtual world. “I work as an IT consultant – I’d say around 60 to 70 per cent of my group is somehow involved in IT – and I spend my days dealing with very abstract concepts and data structures,” he says. “Increasingly, that's working life for most of us. Playing with Lego bricks is an antidote to that. And it’s something entirely different to your professional life, whatever that might be.”

Making bricks work

And for some adults, Lego has become part of that professional life. During an internship at Lego’s Future Lab, designer Carlos Arturo Torres created Iko, a prosthetic arm for children which they can customise with Lego pieces, helping to break down stigma. The bricks are used in play therapy, helping children who have been through trauma to tell their stories, and to help those with conditions such as autism to develop social and communication skills.

Image: gettyimages

Image: gettyimages

Image: gettyimages

At BrightBricks, the UK’s only Lego Certified Professional building company, you can have anything built for you: a full-size model of a racehorse, a fairytale winter village, or a 1.7 metre-high electric toothbrush. Philip Webb is one of the company’s full-time professional Lego builders: his favourite build so far has been the Hydra he came up with for the upcoming Mythical Beasts tour. “I started when I was a child and I’ve just kept on with it,” he says. “I did a lot of design-based subjects at school, and to me, it was a different medium to design in. I don’t think I’ll ever grow out of it.”

All you need to do to see Lego’s power over adults, he says, is to visit one of BrightBricks’ exhibitions or events. “We'll be there doing some free building stuff and you'll have the adults who will be rushing over to do it. No matter what the age group, it's accessible to everyone and they all want to have a go. They are blown away by the Lego models that we make, and what can be done with something they remember from their childhood as being so simple.”

Express yourself

And these little bricks are also a hugely powerful tool for adults to express themselves in the workplace and beyond. Jonathan Bannister is the founder and director of strategy at creative marketing and innovation consultancy Make Happy. As an accredited Lego Serious Play (LSP) facilitator, he uses Lego in his workshops for companies, helping colleagues solve problems, communicate better and be creative.

“Lego allows me to get everyone to tell a story,” he says. “I grew up surrounded by Lego and for me, it's always been totally natural to have it around. I love it when people begin to just open up and feel safe telling their stories. Everyone can put Lego bricks together – it’s not the same as, for example, asking everyone to draw something. It democratises the process.”

Initially, he says, people can be resistant to the idea of using Lego to tackle a difficult business conversation, or work out a far-reaching decision. Yet behind the bricks, as the system’s name suggests, is some serious thinking. Jonathan has used the system with companies including a big four accountancy firm, a global investment bank and one of the world’s biggest law firms.

“Some senior people tend to think that they are too important to play with Lego,” says Jonathan. “And I do a lot of reminding people about the theory of play and the importance of creativity. The two academics who first started to work on Lego Serious Play, professors Johan Roos and Bart Victor, were working at the International Institute of Management Development (IMD) in Lausanne.

“The thinking is based on some really interesting work around how decisions are made or not made in organisations. Often, if the atmosphere is too formal, people aren't thinking wide enough. All I do is take you out of your comfort zone, to open up possibilities for new ideas and new thinking.”

Play for today

As George Bernard Shaw famously said: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old: we grow old because we stop playing.” Perhaps the rest of the world has now caught up with adult fans of Lego. They cottoned on, long ago, to the value of play at any age.

“Transactional analysis theory says that we have three distinct ego states: parent, adult and child,” says Lorna. “The child part of us is a very important part. It’s free, it’s emotional, it’s expressive. It’s dormant for much of the time, but it bubbles up when we have the urge, say, to stomp through puddles. And we have to fulfil that. I think we can get so bogged down with adult responsibilities and stresses, and making sure that the job is done, and acting like an adult, that we can forget the sheer joy of doing something for joy's sake.”

Richard agrees. “It's real, it's colourful, it's physical. You have something to show for it at the end of the session, even if it's useless. You can touch it. Knitting might have taken me, if it hadn’t been Lego. It’s the same thing: the joy of creation and of real objects.”

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