Holiday LEGO shortage: Why 60 billion plastic bricks isn't enough

Education analysts discuss the role and creative appeal of LEGOs amid the Maker Movement.  

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
A young boy plays with LEGOs at an indoor play space in Oak Park, Ill., on February 24, 2015.

An impending LEGO shortage this holiday season may be indicative not just of a booming toy business, but of a societal shift toward DIY innovation.

Some parents may have to punt this Christmas by hauling out tubs of old plastic bricks and finding new life in them since, apparently, production of 60 billion bricks a year by the Danish toy maker is not nearly enough to keep up with the global demand. 

"We will not be able to deliver all of the new orders coming from customers in the remainder of the year in some markets in Europe," Lego spokesman Roar Trangbaek told CNN.

In 2004, LEGO was on the verge of bankruptcy, but shifting its model to embrace innovation has built the company into the world’s largest toy manufacturer.  Sales grew 18 percent in the first half of 2015, following 15 percent growth in 2014.

LEGO's sales rebound may reflect a growing embrace of the Internet of Things, the Maker Movement, and robotics competitions

“LEGO activities provide opportunities for children to build, create, and express themselves. With LEGO activities, children experience the joy of building and pride of creation. In this way, the popularity of LEGO activities is very related to the popularity of the Maker Movement," says  Mitchel Resnick, director of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the Media Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,  in an e-mail interview, 

The Maker Movement is the latest expression of do-it-yourself (DIY) products that are technology-based, such as 3D printed products and other hands-on projects. 

In a world where video games often rule the roost – or at least playtime, LEGO provides an appealing tactile-digital interface.  “The LEGO Company is also bringing ‘joy of building and pride of creation’ to the digital world, with products like LEGO Mindstorms and LEGO WeDo, which enable children to create computer programs to control their LEGO constructions,” Professor Resnick adds.

Dr. Arthur Bowman, STEM education expert at Norfolk State University in Virginia, NASA consultant and founder of Science Everywhere LLC, says in an interview via e-mail, “LEGO is much more than a toy. It’s about society and what we value and how we learn to innovate.”

“LEGOs are bought by parents who want to give their children a leg up on learning,” Dr. Bowman says. “But they’re also used by engineers and STEM educators because these bricks provide an easy way to promote a STEM lesson that’s quick, clean and enduring,” he says.

The only “danger to the culture coming from LEGOS is the evolution or devolution from creating on your own to having all these pre-fab sets with instructions” according to Bowman.

"The LEGO Movie" addresses the conflict in culture between the extremes of the fiercely independent, unstructured, maverick “Master Builders,” and those who are instruction followers characterized as needing a manual for things as basic as how to breathe and interact. In the 2014 film, a balance is struck between working together as a team while incorporating innovative thinking.

“I love to take my own children to the Williamsburg Library where they just have these tubs of LEGOS and the kids have at it,” says Bowman. “I have a problem with just giving kits to kids. You build with instructions and you build it once and it’s a wrap. When you dive into a big tub of bricks to do it on your own and it comes out whack, that’s an opportunity for exploring other uses.”

Resnick concludes in his e-mail: “In today’s fast-changing society, there is nothing more important than the ability to think and act creatively. It’s important to provide children with opportunities to CREATE, so that they can develop as CREATIVE thinkers, and be prepared to participate actively in a society that values and requires creative thinking more than ever before.”

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