The Lego Legacy

Lego blocks, graphic element

In toy stores everywhere the final rush is on, but in a business that is often ruled by fads there are few toys that seem to go on forever. Legos, however, have seemed to buck that trend.

Shopping in the Lego aisle can be a trip down memory lane, said toy store owner Mark Luhn.

"My 5-year-old grandson is now playing with the same stuff we had on the shelf 35 years ago," Luhn told Sunday Morning correspondent John Blackstone.

But be warned: it's not all your grandfather's Lego. At the Southern California championships of the First Lego League, computerized robots, all made out of Lego bricks, were battling for supremacy across a high-tech obstacle course.

The kids design and build the robots, then make them come alive using a computer module. Nine-year-old Christian Stewart does the programming on his team. He said it's a lot different than playing with video games.

"You actually have to think, you don't just sit there," he said.

Christian's teammates, Nathan Grau and Alex Berry, are both 13. He got drafted even though he is much younger because Berry said "he's so smart."

Now they're competing in a league of over 80,000 avid robot builders. It's a crowd that couldn't be more enthusiastic about a little plastic brick that has been popular for decades.

Jill Kline gave her daughter Kristi her first Lego set more than 25 years ago, never imagining Kristi would someday win a nationwide competition for a job as a master model builder at the Legoland theme park in Carlsbad, Calif. Many people tell her that she should have become an architect.

"Working at Legoland is a lot more fun than being an architect," she said. "We have a lot more fun here."

And Kristi's not the only one indulging her Lego addiction into adulthood. Grown-up fans have created everything from a Web site illustrating the Bible using Lego to a rock video by French director Michel Gondry.

With enough Lego bricks it seems possible to build almost anything. But Lego isn't the giant of the toy business it once was. No matter how versatile, these plastic bricks now have plenty of competition for children's attention.

"You know, what kids need today because of all the electronic and technology about them, is much more than they needed 20 years ago," industry analyst and editor of Toy Wishes magazine Jim Silver said. "You gave 'em a toy 20 years ago and they loved it. Today a lot of those toys are like, 'Wow, that's not so cool. Look what I can do on the Internet.'"

Indeed, technology and the changing nature of child's play could have spelled the end for Lego, a rather old-fashioned company.

In 1934 in Denmark, carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen started making wooden toys to keep his business afloat during the Depression. He called his company Lego, from the Danish words for "play well." In 1958 the toy company adopted a new technology: plastic.

All these years later, every Lego piece still has the same bumps and holes. A brick made in 1958 fits exactly bricks made today. In all, Lego has manufactured more than 300 billion of them.

But even a company with such a long history has to face today's realities. Lego is now laying-off workers in Denmark and the United States, outsourcing production and shaking-up its product line. Soren Torp Laursen runs the American branch of the company, which offices have a secret room where all the products for next year are kept.

A decade ago, Lego turned to movies and TV for product ideas, with some success. But as it focused on Hollywood, the company somehow forgot about all those folks who just wanted to buy bricks. For the first time ever Lego lost money and its many fans didn't hesitate to tell the company what it was doing wrong.

"In hindsight, that's a fantastic experience to get, that your consumers are as protective about your brand as you are yourself," Laursen said.

And some unexpected help came from no less than the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where researchers like Mitchel Resnick turned out to be big admirers of Lego.

"We say that Lego bricks are very 'Tinkerable.' That it makes it very easy to tinker with them. That just by looking at them you already get some ideas of what you might do with them."

Resnick, an academic who studies the role of play in education, helped Lego develop Mindstorms, the $250 construction set that makes it possible to build and program those competitive robots.

"You know, with a lot of toys today that are pre-programmed with incredible behaviors," Resnick said, "I have no doubt that the designers at the toy company learned a great deal when they were designing the toy. I'm just worried that the children don't learn so much when they're playing with the toy."

Back at the battle of the robots in California, worries about education were overshadowed by the excitement of competition. Everyone was just too busy to notice how much learning was going on.

And when it was over, the trophies were handed-out — including one for 9-year old Christian Stewart. It may not be made of gold, but it's still a symbol of success, for Christian and for a company, built brick by brick.