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When Legos Mean War: Are Our Toys Too Violent?

The toys we offer children signify the sort of world they’re entering, writes Rebecca Givens Rolland. (vhmh/Flickr)
The toys we offer children signify the sort of world they’re entering, writes Rebecca Givens Rolland. (vhmh/Flickr)

In May, a study came out in the online journal PLOS One showing that Lego sets have become increasingly violent over time. As lead researcher Christoph Bartneck foundat least 30 percent of Lego sets now contain weapons, an “exponential increase” from their start in 1949. At the same time, Lego spokesman Troy Taylor argues that “conflict play is a natural part of a child’s development,” and that we shouldn’t mind the increases in violence.

And yet — as the mother of a 4-year-old girl and an expert in early childhood — I’ve noticed the violence of traditional Legos ever since my daughter began playing with them. From the brown plastic sword in the “Jake and the Neverland Pirates” set to the cannonballs on “Bucky the Pirate Ship,” most of the Lego sets we own came with weapons. That recently published study only reinforced something I’ve long suspected: When we play with those Lego sets, we are not simply building. We are practicing war.

In subtler ways than we realize, in American playtime, we bring our ideas about guns and violence to the ways we structure and promote young children’s play. The toys we offer children signify the sort of world they’re entering. Offering children swords and cannonballs, guns and darts, only adds to their sense that life is a battle and it’s their job to hurt who they can.

Why is a sword or a cannonball such a big deal? Far from simply allowing violent play to occur — as it inevitably will -- giving kids violent toys explicitly supports that violence in their play. Such violence is more worrisome than imaginative play, such as kids playing cops and robbers. When we provide toys with weapons, we structure young kids’ play in subtle and complex ways, and create a cycle of imaginative violence that can be difficult to escape.

The toys we offer children signify the sort of world they’re entering.

As a speech-language pathologist with a background in child development, I see play not as an idle activity, but rather the main way children learn about their worlds. Giving a child a pink pony or a spyglass won’t make much of a difference, if it’s a one-time thing, but the effects of all these choices are cumulative. The toys we offer kids — and the toys their friends play with — enter their imaginations, inform their play, and eventually become their imaginative worlds.

Before having a child, I never thought much about Legos. Then Boston’s Legoland was built two years ago. I had imagined the place to be a land of zillions of Legos and floor space on which to build, and maybe even Legos to jump into like a bed. What could be bad about that?

Once my daughter and I visited, though, I found something quite different. Legoland was loud, with pounding electronic music and a ride that we were ushered into before I knew to say anything. “Welcome to Legoland,” one of the employees said brightly, strapping me and my daughter into a brightly lit car and sticking plastic guns into our hands.

“What are we supposed to do?” my daughter asked, holding her gun up to the screen. “Shoot the bad guys,” an older boy told her from the back. Luckily, the ride was too short for her to get much shooting in, but still she managed to blow up a few bad guys.

When we walked into the main room, I noticed a character in a "Star Wars" costume striding around, toting what appeared to be an assault weapon. Given that the terrorist attacks in Paris had occurred only a week before our Legoland trip, I was admittedly on edge. When I looked again, I realized it wasn’t a real gun, but a Lego replica, built out of hundreds of plastic pieces. Thank goodness, I thought, before wondering which of the Legoland higher-ups had decided this was a good idea. Was this meant as a form of entertainment? Was Mr. Assault Weapon supposed to be scaring or protecting us?

To be fair, Legoland includes nonviolent attractions as well. They include a climbing structure my daughter played in frantically, and a pink “Lego Friends” enclave, where a gaggle of girls played house. However, it also plays a movie that we only watched a few minutes of before my daughter (seeing more guns, monsters and blown-up objects) said, “This is scary.” We left after a few minutes, and went outside for some fresh air. She’s a sensitive kid, and that night, she had her first nightmare.

In promoting a hyped-up, battle-scarred society, we’re actually laying the foundation for a generation of kids to act these fantasies out.

Is this a first-world issue? Yes, on some level. It’s also an issue of class, given that many kids can’t afford to visit Legoland or even buy Legos. But in such a popular and visible attraction, and in the toys that The Lego Group sells, the presence of such violence is counterproductive to kids’ healthy growth and development. Being in the “first world” means not only privilege, but also the responsibility to ask questions about how we’re living our lives, and to look critically at our actions. In promoting a hyped-up, battle-scarred society, we’re actually laying the foundation for a generation of kids to act these fantasies out. We’re helping create children’s memories, and drawing the blueprints for their future lives.

Our world is already full of actual violence, of course, and I’m not advocating for sanitizing hard truths. We don’t need to pretend away our society’s dangers, nor should we, since children who remain ignorant of the world around them are in for a rude shock in their later years. However, that violence doesn’t need to be pushed into centers where young kids congregate, where parents want their kids to play, but also learn. It doesn’t need to be intentionally promoted as a way of boosting sales. It doesn’t need to be ever-present, hyper-visible, and targeting an audience of future warriors.

Shaping children’s minds is a complex matter, and not one we should take lightly. While it’s great that kids have questions, at playtime we shouldn’t have to answer, “Mom, are there going to be guns here?”

Related:

Rebecca Givens Rolland Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Rebecca Givens Rolland is a writer, speech-language pathologist and education consultant currently working on a book about the shift away from helicopter parenting.

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