I Don’t Want to Grow Up…

I was saddened to learn that Toys R Us would be closing 180 stores in the United States, including one I frequently visit. Like Borders and Circuit City, retail stores dedicated to one category are finding it harder and harder to compete with Walmart and Amazon.

It’s not just how toys are sold that’s causing trouble for the retailer; toys themselves aren’t what they used to be. One of my other favorite toy stores buys, sells, and trades in toys from the past; everything from Lego to Transformers to Cabbage Patch Kids. People my age have a great deal of nostalgia where our childhood toys are concerned. Somehow I can’t imagine kids of today being nostalgic for their toys when they grow up.

When I was young, there were very few “screens” in my house. There was only one family TV and coming from a large family, there was a lot of competition for it. While I did spend time watching Saturday morning cartoons and Disney Afternoon, most of my time was spent in my room playing with a myriad of toys. I didn’t have a lot of toys but I played the heck out of the ones I did have. My sister and I would sit for hours with our Cabbage Patch dolls and our Teddy Ruxpin, listening to stories and creating our own.

As I’ve watched my nieces and nephews grow up, I’ve seen how different the toy world has become. While Lego, Transformers, action figures and dolls are still around, they don’t get played with for the hours on end of my childhood. Once the novelty of a new toy has worn off, they’re tossed in a bin and eventually taken to Good Will. That novelty period seems to be growing shorter and shorter with the increase in screen time.

Toys R Us doesn’t just have to compete with the likes of Walmart and Amazon, they have to compete with the changing world of how kids spend their free time. Instead of building with actual blocks, its applications on a tablet monopolizing free time. Computer and video games have taken over the time previously spent on building with Lego and imaginative play with action figures. If I were to give my nephew a choice between a play house and a new game for his Nintendo, Mario wins every time. To be fair, he’ll play the heck out of his Mario game so in that regard it would be money well spent.

Toy manufacturers are also feeling the squeeze. When kids want screens and apps instead of blocks and dolls, why continue to push physical products? I realize things like film and video rental stores will never return as our society moves into the future. But I believe the toy industry is something worth hanging onto. Physical interactive and imaginative play as a child is fundamental to development. Among other things it teaches social and problem solving skills in a way a screen can’t.

I don’t see digital entertainment going away anytime soon and that’s fine. As an adult I can use screens and devices as they were intended, a tool. I can set the phone or tablet down and go outside for a walk. I can put aside technology and spend a weekend camping with friends and family. I can do this because I didn’t grow up with a screen in my hand so I know how to put it away.

The time in our lives we spend as children is precious and the ability to play and enjoy physical toys shouldn’t be taken for granted. Kids today should learn from experiences in the real physical world and interact with it. When they eventually grow up, as we all do, they can retreat into the digital world knowing it’s not the only thing out there.

“I don’t want to grow up cuz if I did, I couldn’t be a Toys R Us kid!”

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Women of NASA

It’s no secret I’ve been a “space case” most of my life. I’m not sure when it started but I recall a book I picked up in my school library when I was in second grade that really inspired me. It never occurred to me at the tender age of seven just how significant the woman featured in that book was. I mean come on, what does gender have to do with space exploration? Sally Ride was the first American woman in space. While America had all but won the space race, Russia got a woman up there first. It wasn’t until June 18, 1983, twenty years after Valentina Tereshkova, Ride broke that particular glass ceiling. It leads me to wonder what the hell took NASA so long.

There are many notable women in S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering, math) fields and particularly at NASA. The recent movie Hidden Figures highlights a few of the many contributions by Kathrine Johnson, a brilliant mathematician integral to the success of the Apollo missions. I felt the film did a wonderful job portraying the challenges Ms. Johnson had to overcome not only as a woman but as a person of color as well.

When I heard about a Lego Ideas kit featuring some of the pioneering women of NASA I was super excited. This isn’t the first Lego Ideas kit to feature women in S.T.E.M. The previous kit featuring generic female characters in a research institute was so successful they had to do a second run. I imagined this new kit would be equally popular! I waited by my computer on the evening of October 31st to be sure I had a good chance to snag one. One of the benefits to living on the west coast is not having to wait until midnight. The kit went on sale online at 9:00pm my time and I was able to get one with no trouble!

I was a little disappointed the kit didn’t include the aforementioned Johnson as she was part of the original Ideas concept. Apparently there was some conflict with obtaining her permission. However the kit did include my personal hero Sally Ride as well as Mae Jemison, Nancy Roman, and Margaret Hamilton.

I really enjoyed building the space shuttle as part of the Ride Jemison vignette. It’s really easy to build large scale models of various things out of Lego but a real challenge is building something small. Micro scale is quite difficult but also a lot of fun. The Hubble Telescope in Roman’s vignette is another good example of micro scale.

The Women of NASA kit has already sold out on Amazon and the online Lego shop proving once again the popularity of women in S.T.E.M!

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A Lego Reformation

This year marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Reformation. This is kind of a big deal for Lutherans, the followers of Martin Luther’s teachings. To celebrate the anniversary my church held a Reformation fair during Sunday school. I was asked to create a Lego mosaic of the Luther rose that could be assembled during the event. I jumped at the opportunity. Of course I’d jump at just about any opportunity to work with Lego!

I wasn’t the first to attempt such a feat. A quick internet search came up with this design which is amazing…and a bit expensive. I’m all about go big or go home but when the church is footing the bill, I must take a more practical approach. Instead of the 5×5 32 stud base plates I scaled the design down to 3×3. Keep in mind these baseplates alone cost $7.99 apiece.

I searched online for a good picture of the Luther Rose that I could use to create my pattern and found one easily. In the past I used a program called Legoaizer to create patterns for mosaics. I simply import the image and the program does all the work. This time, however, I wanted to limit the number of colors and edit the design. I couldn’t do that with my program so I was stuck…for all of a minute. I also dabble in cross stich and last year I downloaded a program called PC Stitch that does the exact same thing for stitching as Legoaizer does for Lego mosaics. I imported my image and set the parameters and there was my rose! PC Stitch let me edit individual stitches or in this case Lego studs to the colors and configurations I wanted. Here is the final pattern!

The biggest challenge to a project like this is coming up with the actual brick. It’s difficult to calculate how much of any one size and color pieces needed unless I broke down the pattern as such. I knew the kids who would be assembling this wouldn’t want to be slowed down by having to following a pattern so closely. I had to guess. I spent several days sorting bricks in my private collection and when I came up short, I went to BrickLink for the rest. I guessed I’d be short on some things but I didn’t want to over order parts, again to keep costs low.

I did all the work in black. By having the outline done, the kids could grab the right color plate of any size and get to work without much instruction, and they needed no instructions! Needless to say the project was a huge success. I ended up being short on the white pieces at the fair but thankfully I had enough spare parts at home to finish the rose.

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