On Saturday morning, my wife went out for a few hours to run errands and left me home with the boys. And when she came home, I was on the living room floor building a garage out of Mega Bloks (an oversized Lego knockoff for toddlers) with them. My oldest is really, really into Cars right now (the Pixar movie, not the New Wave band), and that improvised Mega Blok garage was just about the greatest thing ever–well, maybe just all day, which in a 3-year-old’s mind, might as well be forever.
“I never would have thought to do that with boys,” my wife said.
Frankly I don’t remember how often I did something like that when I was a kid either. When my friends and I played Star Wars, generally speaking, we played Star Wars. And when we played GI Joe, we played GI Joe. When we played Hot Wheels, we played Hot Wheels. And when we played Legos, we played Legos. We didn’t mix our toys up all that much.
And I’m sure the toymakers like it that way, because it means they can sell a lot more stuff. I don’t think it ever occurred to any of us to get the Legos out and build a town for our Hot Wheels cars to drive in. And I know it never occurred to us to get them out and use them to build bunkers and forts for our Star Wars and GI Joe battles.
But when you watch the movie Toy Story, you see the character Andy mixing all of his toys up. Mr. Potato Head is always in the same scenes with Woody, the wild-west cowboy, and Buzz Lightyear, the intergalactic explorer. I guess that’s how the guys at Pixar played when they were kids. And maybe that has something to do with why they’re making movies at Pixar as an adult and I’m auditing networks.
But hey, at least they were nice enough to share that insight with the rest of us.
From a practical perspective, building a town out of blocks for the kids’ toy cars at least doubles the play time, because it takes as long to build the town as you would spend playing with the town. So that doubles the length of time before the kids get bored, hopefully. And it’s cheaper to buy the kids a bunch of blocks than it is to buy an endless number of accessories for each genre of toy. And they learn to envision things and turn that box full of blocks into something they pictured in their minds, which stimulates creativity and problem-solving, both of which are useful skills. You don’t get any of that from just taking buildings out of boxes and plunking them down to copy the town of Radiator Springs from the movie.
That night, I sat down and perfected the Mega Blok garage. Well, at least to my adult mind it was perfect. It was sturdy, it had two bays, it was uniform, and the roof looked like a Mohawk haircut. The Mohawk look was borne of necessity to reinforce the roof so it would hold together. But hey, it looked quirky and cool and retro. It was perfect.
Then my son woke up and spotted a problem. It had two bays, and he has three cars. He wanted enough room in the garage for all three.
So he tried to fix it himself. The solution was simple. Take out the wall dividing the two bays, and there’s more than enough room for his three cars. Except then the roof came crashing down.
I reworked the roof, and eventually got the garage to hold together with one bay big enough for three cars while my son added a large amount of architectural flair to the top of the roof. Now it doesn’t look like a Mohawk anymore, but it bears more than a passing resemblance to what my hair looks like in the morning before I comb it.
So the next time I can’t figure out what to get my sons as a gift–or someone asks me–I think the default answer is going to be something along the lines of whatever Lego or Lego-like blocks are age appropriate. Obsessions change. This time last year, Thomas the Tank Engine was the center of my oldest son’s universe. Today it’s Lightning McQueen and Cars. Next year it could very well be something else. But as long as they have blocks, my sons can build a world for any character toy to play in.