A reader, Wayne Fontes, has steered my belated attention to a Seattle after-school childcare programme, the Hilltop Children’s Centre, the staff of which are keen to ensure that children aged 5 through 9 have the correct kind of play and the correct kind of thoughts. In an article titled Why We Banned Legos, published in the Winter 2006/07 issue of Rethinking Schools magazine, two Hilltop staff recounted the pressing political issues raised by brightly coloured building blocks. The article’s authors, Ann Pelo and Kendra Pelojoaquin, ominously related the details of an investigation sparked by the children’s building of a village made of Lego,
“...and the questions embedded in their play about resource sharing, authority, ownership, and power.”
As someone who has, recklessly, bought Lego as a gift for children (and played with the stuff himself, both as a child and more recently), I was shamefully oblivious to the distressing potential of this plastic construction toy. Thankfully, the Hilltop teaching staff has paid much closer attention.
“The teachers’ observations of the inequity and unintended unfairness that this play created led them to launch an in-depth study with the children about the meaning of power and ways to organize communities which are equitable and just. This investigation was anchored in… our commitment to social justice, anti-bias teaching and learning.”
Pelo and Pelojoaquin tell us, shockingly, just how focussed and possessive small children can be.
“A group of about eight children conceived and launched Legotown. Other children were eager to join the project, but as the city grew — and space and raw materials became more precious — the builders began excluding other children.”
The horror continues.
“The Legotown builders turned their attention to complex negotiations among themselves about what sorts of structures to build, whether these ought to be primarily privately owned or collectively used, and how ‘cool pieces’ would be distributed and protected… Into their coffee shops and houses, the children were building their assumptions about ownership and the social power it conveys — assumptions that mirrored those of a class-based, capitalist society — a society that we teachers believe to be unjust and oppressive. As we watched the children build, we became increasingly concerned.”
The accidental demolition of “Legotown” presented the Hilltop staff with an opportunity that was eagerly seized upon.
“We saw the decimation of Legotown as an opportunity to launch a critical evaluation of Legotown and the inequities of private ownership and hierarchical authority on which it was founded. Our intention was to promote a contrasting set of values: collectivity, collaboration, resource-sharing… We also discussed our beliefs about our role as teachers in raising political issues with young children. We recognized that children are political beings, actively shaping their social and political understandings of ownership and economic equity — whether we interceded or not. We agreed that we want to take part in shaping the children's understandings from a perspective of social justice.”
The children, being heavily invested in their creations (and, of course, being children), initially had difficulty conforming to the political preferences of the teaching staff.
“So we decided to take the Legos out of the classroom.”
The removal of this favoured toy was apparently “to help focus students’ attention on issues of fairness.” And thus begins the exertion of ideology, disguised, shamefully, as something dispassionate, exploratory and benign. After the withdrawal of the building blocks, the children were “invited to work in small, collaborative teams… set up… to emphasize negotiated decision-making, collaboration, and collectivity.” After weeks of “collegial debate” and “social justice exploration”, a set of specific proposals was eventually arrived at, supposedly without undue influence of the teaching staff. Those proposals were, oddly enough, that:
“All structures are public structures. Everyone can use all the Lego structures.
Lego people can be saved only by a ‘team’ of kids, not by individuals.
All structures will be standard sizes.”
A subsequent article, also published in Rethinking Schools, explains the aims of that publication and its readership, and possibly sheds some light on the politics of Hilltop employees:
“We need a curriculum that honours children's potential, rather than the scripted lessons… and correct answers, favoured by so many conservatives.”
What’s remarkable here isn’t the children’s grasp of ownership, territoriality and basic capitalism, or the negotiations that took place among the young builders prior to their “correction”, all of which are pretty much innate to human beings. (And which might, of course, explain how readily their assumptions mirrored those of the society around them, built by preceding generations.) What is extraordinary is that Hilltop’s leftist staff not only felt “concerned” by such things, but also felt entitled, indeed obliged, to “correct” them with their own Socialist preferences, carefully redefined as “eliminating bias” and fostering “social justice.”
The Hilltop Centre claims to be committed to “the principles of anti-bias work” and to an approach that is both “child-centred and inquiry-based.” The centre also aims to “foster each child’s critical thinking about bias.” Whether that critical thinking extends to the injustices of Socialism, the overt political biases of Hilltop staff, or their willingness to impose them on children in their care, remains unclear. Though readers may draw their own conclusions.
Please fund my Lego research.