We have been in a little bit of a funk at my house.
My four year old daughter, Harper, and I have been at an activity impasse. I try to do activities with her that involve building something or have some kind of scientific bent to them, but it has been a hard sell lately. I try to suggest drawing, or painting our Tony Stewart NASCAR model that we call “the princess car”, but she has not been interested lately. So we have mostly been doing puzzles or playing games like Chutes and Ladders. Surely this in not as mind numbing as video games, but I was on the lookout for something new to add to our play routine. So, when I heard that the LEGO Kids Fest was coming to Charlotte, I jumped at the chance to go.
The LEGO company has a long history of creating great building toys.
They have inspired generations of future engineers to build, and many of the engineers that I have worked with have a story about their formative years that involves LEGO. I am no exception. I am a child of the 80s, and I accrued a few buckets of them over the years. I mostly had the standard issue bricks that were red, yellow, blue, and black, and plenty of wheels to build a variety of cars. It was common for me to dump them on the floor and kill most of a Saturday doing builds, and it surely helped to an education path that led to a career in engineering. LEGO helps to foster kids innate desire to build, and it drove my excitement to get Harper out to the show. In the days prior, I got out one of my old tubs of LEGO bricks, and Harper and I did some building. She enjoyed them, but she had no idea just how awesome LEGOs could be.
The day before the show, I was able to convince two of the LEGO Master Builders, Dan Steininger and Paul Chrzan, to join me for lunch. It was a great honor, as there are only seven LEGO master builders in the world, and they are definitely in the running for coolest job on the planet. Both Paul and Dan are long time LEGO employees with a passion for building. They work at the Enfield, Connecticut model shop, but get to travel the world to build LEGO models, participate in LEGO store openings, and teach kids how to build robust models.
Steininger is from South Hadley, Massachusetts, and got enthusiastic about LEGO as an adult while building with his children. He has a background in art and sculpture, but admits that he is a “hack” in the art world. However, he is no slouch with LEGO as in 2014 he built the world’s largest Darth Vader model in Sydney, Australia, which was made from more than a quarter of a million bricks.
Chrzan is from Huntington, Massachusetts, and was exposed to LEGO as a child. He took a circuitous route to the position of Master Builder, as he has a background in sculpture, and worked for a time as a French pastry chef. One his most memorable experiences as a Master Builder was getting to build the LEGO model that appears at the end of the LEGO movie. He traveled to Hollywood to participate in the filming, and got to teach star Will Ferrell how to interact with the model.
It was inspiring to hear about the huge builds, but I was also fascinated to hear some of the history of LEGO. I have known about plastic LEGO bricks since I was a small child, but LEGO actually started in the 1930s making wooden toys. It was not until the late 1940s when the Danish firm, who’s name roughly translates to “play well”, started producing the first plastic interlocking bricks. The original plastic bricks were hollow on the bottom, and they did not have a very good friction lock. They were only good for stacking. In the late 1950’s, hollow tubes were added to bottom side of the bricks, and the material was changed to ABS. The new design yielded much greater locking power, allowing for bigger models to be built, and gave the bricks the pleasing snap together action that we know today.
Armed with my new found knowledge of LEGO, it was time to hit the show.
Harper and I descended the seemingly endless escalator down to the ground level of the Charlotte Coliseum. As we entered the show, we were met with life size sculptures of movie and TV characters. There was the Hulk battling Iron Man, a Star Wars storm trooper, a full size Lightning McQueen race car, and even the gang from Scooby Doo. From there, the show fanned out into a series of different stations that highlighted the different LEGO product lines, and focused on getting kids to build. Dan and Paul manned the Master Builder Lab where they gave tips and tricks on how to build strong LEGO structures. There was a station to build cars and race them down a track, a huge pile of Duplo blocks for the younger kids, and the Brick Battle Zone where kids were challenged to build the tallest LEGO tower they could. Seventy-one bricks high was the tallest that I witnessed. At the back of the show was Creation Nation, where LEGO staff laid out a map of the United States and kids built “counties” out of LEGOs that were added to the map that was completed by the end of the show.
Harper and I started out at the Disney Princess station. There was a full size Cinderella standing guard and we spent a few minutes building our own castle. Then we moved on to my favorite area, the monochromatic build. In this area there were only purple 2 x 4 bricks, the classic LEGO shape. It was interesting to see the variety of structures that you could build with just one brick. Towards the end of the show, we visited the Big Brick Pile. As the name suggests, it was a 30 foot square area with a huge pile of LEGO bricks. A few dozen kids walking through them and pushing them around created a pleasing din for a LEGO-phile. Kids were burying themselves up to their necks in bricks as if it were sand, and Harper took a turn to bury me too.
It was such a great event that I did not want the fun to stop. On the way out of the show, I took Harper to the gift store and she picked out a set of Disney Frozen LEGOs. She was much more enthusiastic about the multi-colored girl-friendly bricks in the kit as opposed to my boring old blue and yellow ones. Each night after dinner for 5 days straight, she begged to work on the castle. After 4 hours and 115 instructions I had one Arendelle castle and one very proud kid who now has LEGO bricks coursing through her veins.
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