‘Legos in our household were king of the playroom.” That’s what Heidi, a mother of three in Irvington tells me. While her fourth-grade son has started to grow out of them, her first-grade daughters are still in the Lego phase. “There is nothing in the toy box that can rival those bricks for imaginative play.”
Unfortunately for Heidi’s kids and many others, the Lego Group has run into trouble. A couple of weeks ago, Lego announced its first revenue decline in 13 years. As a result, it will be laying off 8 percent of its workforce, about 1,400 people.
And the diagnosis is clear. As The Wall Street Journal noted last week, “Like Mattel Inc. and other toy makers, Lego is being buffeted by a host of new rivals for children’s attention, including playing video games and watching YouTube videos.”
A 2014 survey found that 62 percent of children under 12 use touch screens often or very often, whereas only 49 percent use any kind of construction toys or blocks. According to a Common Sense Media study from 2013, children ages 5 to 8 (prime Lego playing years) spend about 2?½ hours a day on screens. Since they’re in school for seven-plus hours and asleep for about 10, this doesn’t leave a lot of time for building anything with those magical plastic blocks.
It’s not that parents don’t have complaints about Legos. The bricks get lost everywhere. They’re a choking hazard for young children. And then there’s the special pain of stepping on a brick while barefoot, which has led more than one mother to curse the company’s existence. (A couple of years ago, it got a sense of humor about this and produced a limited number of Lego slippers to protect us from these injuries.)
In recent years, the sets have also grown ridiculously expensive, with items like the Death Star running to $500 or more. And many parents bemoan the large sets because it is not possible to build these structures more than once.
In his book “Small Data: The Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends,” Martin Lindstrom argues that it was Lego’s decision to make the sets more labor intensive and complicated that accounted for the company’s success in the past decade.
And indeed, Lori, a mother of three in Riverdale, told me the big sets are worth it. “I knew they would be occupied for days trying to figure out how to put the more complex sets together. It taught them to have patience and that it takes time to create a finished product.”
And while not every child is OK with pulling apart that finished product, most parents say that a lot of these big sets end up dismantled and in boxes in the playroom. As Julie, a mother of three boys in the Washington suburbs, told me, “The instructions will be lost. This forces kids to create their own designs,” building entire worlds on their own.
Over and over, parents could not say enough about Legos. A father told me about his love for “deconstructing and reconstructing” as a child. His daughter, he jokes, likes the former but less the latter. Another mother said that though Legos have nothing academic to recommend them — no words, no numbers — it’s perhaps more important “seeing something solid rise from a pile of rubble.”
In recent years, the company has clearly done everything possible to expand its appeal, partnering with popular kids brands from Marvel superheroes to Star Wars. Lego has marketed more to girls, with elaborate Disney castles and the whole line of Lego Friends. Not even the unexpected blockbuster success of the Lego Movie and the Lego Batman movie (which had box office proceeds of $257 million and $175 million respectively) has been enough to hold kids’ attention.
Toys R Us told the Journal that the toys that were supposed to tie in to the Batman movie did not perform as well as expected.
Which is too bad. As Julie told me, “They have a calming effect on boys as they require a child’s imagination, concentration and most of all stillness.”
During a recent visit to some older family members, my three children were getting restless — until my husband located a box of Legos in a closet. It was a box he remembered playing with as a child more than four decades ago. There were no figures left, just the primary-color blocks.
And suddenly everyone was occupied.
A company with such a longstanding connection to multiple generations is not going to disappear any time soon, but sometimes kids and parents need to be reminded of life’s simple toys.