Nov. 14, 2018, CNN reported that Keep and Bear—a conservative online market launched in 2016 that touts itself as “one of the largest purveyors of conservative resources online” — has released a Make America Great Again (MAGA) “Build the Wall” block set.
Aimed at children age 5 and up, the 100-block set, complete with President Donald Trump figurine, states, “A mob of 10,000 Central American migrants is marching through Mexico and heading toward El Paso, Texas. Mexican border agents attempted to stop them at the Mexican border, but to no avail. The wall must be built. The wall will keep America safe and strong.”
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Richard Gottlieb, CEO and founder of Global Toy Experts, told CNN, “I think it’s mostly designed to appeal to adults who maybe feel they’re making some kind of political statement. … I can’t think of anything that would turn a child off more to that political position than building a wall. It’s the most boring play concept in the history of the world.”
What’s more: the tiny Lego-knockoffs, complete with MAGA in the top left-hand corner of the box mimicking the iconic Lego logo, are completely gray. Children are stimulated by colors, a fact that elementary school educators use to their advantage.
As Gottlieb pointed out to CNN, the “Build the Wall” toy is more of a novelty to adults rather than pushing a political agenda on children. If anything, the damage the blocks could cause would be against the belief in Santa when little Jack and Jill open the package to find it isn’t the Lego Star Wars Millennium Falcon (which retails at a whopping $799.99) that was requested.
But the set is noteworthy because for more than 80 decades blocks have worked as the public’s first introduction to design and architecture.
The Introduction of Lego as Educational Aid
In 1932, Danish carpenter Ole Kirk Kristiansen opened his business selling wooden stepladders, ironing boards, stools and wooden toys. Two years later, the company adopted the name Lego, formed from the words “leg godt” or “play well” in Danish. By 1949, the company was producing around 200 wooden and plastic toys, which included four- and eight-pegged plastic “Automatic Binding Bricks” in four colors.
Today, Lego bricks are available in 53 different colors, and more than 400 billion blocks have been produced since 1949.
The Scots College in Sydney reports that there are eight educational benefits for children playing with Legos as found by the Lego Education organization (yes, that’s a thing; no, I don’t know how you get that job):
Promotes fine motor skills
Develops problem solving and mathematical thinking
Improves communication skills
Develops lateral thinking and planning skills
In particular, the improvements to creativity comes from the use of various shapes, colors, sizes and the ability to create just about anything without an expectation of right or wrong—four things the “Build the Wall” collection are missing.
Frank Lloyd Wright Had a Lasting Impact on Children’s Educational Play
But it’s not just Legos that introduce individuals to the concepts of design and architecture. Famously, architect Frank Lloyd Wright attributed his understanding of design to wooden blocks he played with, both as a child and as an adult. A set can still be seen in Wright’s Oak Park Home and Studio outside of Chicago.
Their appearance in the home had such an effect on his children that his son John Lloyd Wright later patented and marketed Lincoln Logs in the 1920s after being inspired by Frank’s design of the Imperial Hotel in Japan. Less known is the Wright Blocks set, patented in 1933, which utilized grooves that could interlock to create architectural structures.
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Today, blocks are a staple in childhood education, as well as a continuous source of entertainment for adults. (Seriously: try setting a few down in front of a designer and see how quickly a new development takes shape across the desk.)
The Problem of Asking Kids to “Build the Wall”
However, while “Build the Wall” blocks may quickly turn into a shape kids swear is an airplane or house without the slightest thought of the political notions behind it, my concern is that the set takes away from one of the most important aspects of blocks: learning to share with other people.
As pointed out by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, block play encourages “social and emotional growth” because “blocks help children learn to take turns and share materials, develop new friendships … [and] cooperate with others.” Mimicking the design of the figurative representation (two years into the Trump presidency, “The Wall” shows few signs of being funded and built, particularly with a Democrat-lead House of Representatives coming in January 2019) of the U.S.’s selfishness and nationalism doesn’t encourage sharing.
And while the blocks themselves lack hue, it’s hard to miss the brightly colored stereotypical representation of Mexico taking place behind the wall as portrayed on the box, particularly for children who focus on bright colors. Showcasing a happy-go-lucky Mexican clothed in a sombrero and poncho, shaking maracas (which, side note, are from Latin and South America, not the North American country of Mexico) develops the idea in a child’s mind that “othering” those who look different is normal, and belittles the reality that refugees face.
What does it mean for our industry, which is currently having conversations about the need for diversity and universal design, when the first experience some children will have with design will be so steeped in otherness and exclusivity?
Maybe nothing, but it’s worth noting that these are things that are happening out there in our country. For so long we saw the results of teachings like this and thought “how can this have happened?” The statement this isn’t the America I know is being thrown around so much these days without the thought that it’s the America others are being socialized to. But because of the internet, we can’t say we didn’t know anymore.
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