Life Lessons from Legos

Dr. Fran Martin

I have always been a fan of children’s movies. This likely started when I was first taken to see Disney movies as a child. These were VERY special occasions for me – a real treat. Back then, they were only released every seven years which definitely heightened the excitement of seeing each new or old one. My personal favorite was Lady and the Tramp, a quintessential love story (in my mind/memory anyway). I loved taking my own children to animated films as well – all time favorites included Aladdin, Little Mermaid, An American Tail (with Feivel Mousekowitz) and The Incredibles.

When my children were young, warnings began to be issued regarding the potential frightening elements of movies like Bambi (another personal favorite). The warning I recall was about the death of the mother in the beginning of the movie. In all the times I saw it, THAT element never registered – what I remember most is Bambi’s innocence and his being rescued by sweet and caring friends…. But that’s just me. I never talked about Bambi’s mother’s untimely death. None of my children OR their cousins or friends ever mentioned this either.

Although my children (in and around their 30’s) are now too old to TAKE to kids movies, and my grandchildren (in and around one year) too young, after Thanksgiving dinner the movie of choice for family viewing was “The Lego Movie.” I was game! In fact, I’d been told by a four year old I know (who happened to share first names with the movie’s hero) that the movie was about “believe in yourself,” so I was already hooked! To be clear, as noted above I am not a reviewer rating films for sexual, violent or other potentially frightening or damaging content. If that is what you are looking for there are dedicated sites, including an arm of IMDB. Instead, I want to share a few thoughts, about the themes that grabbed me. Regarding children of various ages and their screen viewing, I am aligned with the perspectives expressed by Zero to Three (See: “Setting the record straight on babies and screen time” info@zerotothree.org). I like screen times to be shared and talked about – with kids of ALL ages.

For starters, I was totally surprised by how much I enjoyed this movie. The exquisite animation was wonderful, bringing back wonderful images of things my kids used to create before every Lego kit was designed and sold for something VERY specific, tied intimately to a movie or television program. I now order bulk bags of random pieces on Ebay for my playroom – there are NO instructions!

The first comment about this movie that was raised by my most intellectual son who, noticing the emphasis on both Emmet’s ordinariness AND everyone else’s happiness, muttered: “Oh great, a movie about a fascist state!” (It had not been HIS suggestion). Someone else replied, “Is it necessarily a BAD thing if everyone is happy?” And the discussion [potential] began. WAS everyone happy? Happy according to whom? Fortunately the story carried us and further discourse was postponed until the movie was over. For me, far more than the politics, I found the emotional themes most compelling:

What does it mean to be happy anyway? Is Special really better than Ordinary? Who decides who is ordinary and who is special? The movie was full of clever jokes, plays on words and references to delight adults, while for children ideally 5ish and above, with a main song of “Everything is Awesome,” and an underlying message of “everyone is special,” what can be bad? I particularly liked the idea of a “piece of resistance” and learning the real meaning of “Kragle” the substance threatening to destroy the world.

What pleased me most, I think was the underlying message reminding us of the importance of PLAY: FREE PLAY; IMAGINATIVE, CREATIVE PLAY. The movie is about everyone in Lego land fighting to maintain their freedom and NOT be stuck (literally) in one place – in someone else’s idea of where/what/how they should be. So much that is billed as child-centered today seems directed toward IMPOSING external, pre-packaged constrictions on children, particularly in schools where anything “non-academic” is considered wasteful and insufficiently goal directed. This is I believe due in part to the frightening trend to “corporatize” education (see my son’s first comment about fascism).

Corporations use their success in business as evidence they can fix ailing urban school districts, such as our own here in Philadelphia. In fact however, they threaten to destroy already weakened public school systems by eroding their greatest commodity – the people in them. The PEOPLE, in this case are our teachers, principals, counselors, nurses, etc (a MOST ordinary and MOST special group to be sure!). I’m not sure how it has come to be that teachers are blamed for all that ails our schools when issues such as urban poverty, crime, and children growing up exposed to repeated traumas are rarely, barely ever mentioned. Teachers who have enough respect, sufficient resources and freedom to be creative, really COULD be the ones encouraging individuality and learning, the one’s saving our schools and our children.

Like Lord Business and his empire in the Lego movie, what corporations trying to take over schools fail to understand is that opportunities to create, to play, to discover, to invent are all KEY to learning and beneficial for the children as well as adults. Efforts to corporatize city schools seem to have created environments characterized by suspicion, disrespect and uncertainty, not at all ideal environments for learning. Compounded by excessive requirements for testing, preparing children for tests, and following increasingly rigid curricula WITHOUT the benefits of art, music, recess, and libraries (not to mention nurses and other supports), children and families suffer. In the Lego Movie, Lord Business’ claims to want to HELP everyone in the Lego universe by preserving sameness, is in fact a thinly disguised threat which will ultimately rob everyone there of their individuality. Wyldstyle, the movie’s heroine knows this. Similarly, corporate control of urban schools threatens to cause more harm our children than help, by robbing them and their teachers of opportunities to be creative and inventive. So many of us who are successfully functioning in society today are able to do so because somewhere along the way we had teachers who inspired us. A system allows for and supports free and imaginative play yields benefits that reach far and wide.

In the Lego Movie, Emmet and his human counter-part Finn provide what I think is the BEST lesson of all: sometimes we ALL have a lot to learn by listening to what our KIDS are telling us. Yes, I believe that adults NEED to listen to kids. Not always of course, and NOT to just give them everything they say they want (or even need) (the subject of another entry, perhaps). As in the movie, sometimes kids see things that adults have missed; often they know something that we as adults forget or have forgotten. Ideas such as: PLAY is important; Specialness is in the eye of the beholder and can be nourished in EVERYONE; rules matter, but are not the only things; kindness, caring, fun – these are all fundamentals we ALL want to hold on to.

I have always believed in the wisdom of children. Thank you, Lego Movie for presenting all of this to us so beautifully. And thank you to my kids, for continuing to share their wisdom with me!

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