It’s a familiar sight to almost everyone around the world. A child or young teen sits on the floor, crouched over a pile of small, colorful plastic blocks, fidgeting with something in their hands. They click a few pieces together, dig around in the pile, make a swap, one piece for another, and repeat. Sometimes, for hours.
Eventually they have to move on to the next thing— like dinner, homework or bedtime— whether their masterpiece is complete or not. But that is the beauty of Legos: they can be assembled, disassembled, destroyed with one false move and rebuilt over and over again. And the possibilities are endless.
Lego-enthusiast Jack McKean remembers when the world was young and so was he, at age 5. “I was a Hot Wheels guy back then,” the fifteen-year-old Fairhope resident recalls. “I can thank my big brother for introducing me to Legos.”
When we caught up with the son of George and Anderson McKean over summer break, the Bayside student was busy recreating Mobile’s most iconic home, The Oakleigh Mansion. “I looked it up on Google Maps for reference,” he says, explaining his plan to transform itty-bitty parts into an 1830s home. “I will leave the back of the house open, as white Legos are difficult to find. I want to concentrate on getting the front right.”
But like all Lego masters, Jack knows the procedure. “You wing it,” he says. “If something doesn’t work, try another piece. Learn as you go.”
Back to the Future
While we are all are familiar with the tiny toys, you may not know much about the empire, or its humble beginnings. Ole Kirk Christiansen was a carpenter from Denmark, born in 1891, who began making wooden toys in 1932. By the late 1940s, he and his company started manufacturing interlocking toy bricks under the name Lego, taking the first two letters of the Danish words “leg godt,” meaning play well. And although the company has been around for more than half a decade, the bricks made back in 1958 will still fit perfectly with those you purchase in stores today. That is because the molds used to produce Lego bricks are accurate to within two-thousandth of a millimeter. Because of this high degree of accuracy, there are only about 18 bricks in every one million manufactured that fail to meet the company’s high-quality standard.
Unlike some toy companies, however, Lego has managed to stay relevant through the decades and embrace new markets, demographics and technologies. Kits got more elaborate, merchandising for franchises like Star Wars exploded and Lego films were made. The company launched eight theme parks under the brand name. In 2015, Lego replaced Ferrari as the “world’s most powerful brand” by marketing consulting company Brand Finance. Not bad for a little plastic block.
Kids like Jack McKean are riding that wave of excitement, no longer content to simply construct tiny brick creations in solitude. They want to share them with the world, and YouTube may be Jack’s own Lego legacy. He hosts a social media channel, “jackjackmckean,” featuring his Lego creations that move.
“It’s called brick filming,” he explains. “During quarantine, I learned how to do stop-motion animations with Legos. There is a whole community built around it.”
That kind of creative ingenuity recently paid off big-time for Preston Mutanga, 14-year-old kid from Toronto, Canada. He recreated the movie trailer for Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse from Legos, and the producers of the film saw it (the magic of social media at work!). The film’s team reached out and asked him to work on the movie, creating a scene for the feature film entirely out of Legos. It seems Legos, Hollywood and creative talent are a perfect fit.
Another local teen sharing the Lego love online is Mobile’s Harbour MacKinnon. His social media presence includes YouTube and Instagram (Lego_fan_and_seller99) and is centered around exploring buying, selling, collecting and loving Legos.
“Working with Legos builds creativity,” MacKinnon explains. “I have built many projects from kits, but I really enjoy making things from pieces I have on hand. I like to build it my way.” On the day we caught up with Harbour, he was toying with the idea for a miniature Sand Island Lighthouse. He laughed that it presents an obvious challenge: The lighthouse is round. Legos are not. Uh oh.
Not to worry. The son of T. Bruce and Dana MacKinnon has a plan. “Being round, the lighthouse will be difficult,” Harbour notes. “I have to place the square and rectangular pieces correctly to achieve the roundness. It won’t be easy, but it can be done.”
The lighthouse is not the first challenging project for the 16-year-old. Other undertakings in the family’s Midtown home include items from World of War, Minecraft and Star War’s UCS Star Destroyer with thousands of pieces, worthy of Darth Vader himself.
In addition to Google Maps photos, MacKinnon will build the lighthouse based on personal observations and great memories. His family has property on Dauphin Island about eight miles from Sand Island via boat. Harbour has made that trip many times. “Riding out to the lighthouse in a boat with Dad has always been a special time for me,” he says. Legos are a way he can revisit fond memories and build things that he knows from personal experience, but also things he has only imagined.
It’s also an activity that parents and children can enjoy together. Fairhope’s Wake Bingham is proud to say he has already assembled 51 projects in his short life. Wake is just 6 years old.
He was working on a delicate pelican sculpture when we stopped by to check out his collection of bricks. Pelican engineering was being offered that day by artistic advisors Claire and Will Bingham, Wake’s parents. But there are challenges in building a better bird. “We need to find a way to support the pelican’s body,” Clair adds. Wake agrees. “The hardest part is getting our pelican to stand on its long skinny legs,” he says. Regardless of the outcome of the project, the collection of white bricks represents time the family has spent happily together. It is constructive, in more ways than one.
Research from the Lego 2018 Play Well report shows a clear link between regular play and happier, healthier families. The report concludes that creating together as a family helps release a surge of dopamine from the brain, in a similar way to exercise, allowing the constructive play to benefit the whole family.
Prepare for Ignition
Legos can spark a love for construction and engineering that lasts a lifetime and can even lead to a career path. Daphne’s Ashton Crist, who owns and operates STEM For Kids- Mobile Bay, sees it every day. The program offers educational enrichment in robotics, engineering and computer programming for children in Pre-K to 8th grades. It also offers Legos.
Research has confirmed that playtime with Legos stimulates the brain and has myriad beneficial side effects, in addition to being fun. According to studies, Legos helps kids learn to follow instructions, understand order and quantity, visualize symmetry and patterns, develop mathematical skills and spatial awareness, problem solve and push their creativity.
The little blocks benefit the development of fine motor skills and dexterity, right at the time small children are learning to hold a pencil or crayon and form letters and words. It also teaches patience— a skill our increasingly screen-overdosed kids need to exercise. Building with Legos often requires intense focus and concentration, taking time to get good results, and studies show this teaches children that hard work pays off.
“Children in our program use them for making motorcycles, airplanes, cars, aliens, rockets and much more,” Crist says. “They are so creative.” Crist is too.
“Legos introduced me to coding,” she explains of her first robotics Lego car kit. “Not only did I assemble the vehicle, but I also programmed its operation. I absolutely love it.”
These little stacking blocks can bring joy to adults who pick them up, as well as children. “Right now I am building a Mardi Gras float because Carnival is a huge part of our lives. I had a Mardi Gras-themed wedding, and my husband is in two mystic societies. Mardi Gras is a special part of my family.”
Along with the recent adult coloring book craze, or the resurgence in puzzle popularity, activities like Legos give adults a fun hobby that clears the mind and helps de-stress at the end of a long day. Its mindfulness through play, and there’s an acronym for it. AFOLs — adult fans of Lego.
For Mobile’s Terry Edeker, a self-proclaimed AFOL, Legos are all in the family. His family includes his wife, Yvonne and grown sons, Alan and Mathew. His Legos include about two million.
“My goal is to have all of the pieces sorted by size, shapes, and colors,” Terry says. From boxes of tiny plastic bricks, works of art are created.
The Edeker home is adorned with sculptures, models and displays cast in plastic pieces. Home exhibits include Star Wars vessels, architectural symbols, flowers, a detailed football stadium (complete with fans, of course) and their living room’s 6,000-piece replica of the Taj Mahal.
It’s adult fans who are driving the financial success of Lego these days. No allowance or babysitting money could buy the 10,000-piece Eifel Tower kits that starts at $600, or the Star Wars Millennium Falcon for $850. The good news, however, is that you can get into the act for just a few dollars.
“We have a lot of years of accumulated bricks,” says Terry. “Legos are definitely in our blood.”
Each member of the Edeker family is a Lego artist. During her childhood, Yvonne wanted Legos but never received any. Her desire never went away, so, at about age 27, she bought her own set and has been building ever since.
As for the children, Terry notes, “My boys can take raw bricks and build anything.” The two sons are independent and in their 20s, and though the family cannot gather for group projects as often as they used to, their enthusiasm never wavers. The pieces are always there when they need to unwind, clear their mind or share some creativity as a family. That’s what Lego is all about.
Did you know?
- Annual production of Lego bricks averages approximately 36 billion, or about 1140 elements per second.
- Laid end to end, the number of Lego bricks sold in a year would reach more than five times around the world.
- During the Christmas season almost 28 Lego sets are sold each second.
- Lego could be considered the world’s number one tire manufacturer, according to a 2006 article in BusinessWeek. The factory produces about 306 million tiny rubber tires a year.
- Lego’s Eiffel Tower set consists of 10,000 parts and reaches a height of more than 58 inches, making it the tallest set, but the second in number of parts, after the World Map set with 11,695 pieces
- The largest sculpture ever created was a 1:1 scale model of a Star Wars X-wing fighter. Displayed in New York City in 2013, the model was comprised of over 5 million bricks.
The Mobile Brick Convention
Mobile Civic Center
September 9 – 10
for sale online at brickconvention.com/mobile