With our household suddenly in self-isolation pending results of a Covid test, my daughter and I are back playing lego together and I’m revisiting that recurring question: how best to sort our Lego? But this time I think I have landed on a method that is standing the test of time, and one which has wider philosophical benefits.
Doesn’t sorting Lego thwart creativity?
As I teach in my creativity workshops, new ideas emerge from rearranging and forming new connections between elements we have in mind. (See how to have ideas, guidance for engineers and other humans) Surely there is no better way to mix together elements of Lego and create something new than when all the pieces are together in a box? True, but this line or argument assumes you are getting your creative inspiration from rummaging through what you have.
If on the other hand (and this has usually been my experience) you already have in mind what you want to build, then being able to find quickly the parts you are looking for reduces the time it takes for you to turn your mental image into something tangible that exists in the world. It’s the equivalent of a sketch or a mock-up. Once it is manifested in the physical world, you can play around with it; look at it from different perspectives; you can think with your body.
The problem with the total sort
This is where I started in my difficult teenage years and where I went back to in my thirties (read a summary of an attempt four years ago at a Total Sort). An empty jam jar/ice cream box/peanut butter tub for every category of piece, arranged on big trays under my bed. The sorting process itself is quite meditative: in a nice example of embodied cognition, I sit amid assembled receptacles, pick up a handful of pieces at a time and distribute them without really needing to look where they are going.
The categories are inevitably idiosyncratic – what makes, say, a satellite dish, go in ‘space technological’ rather than ‘unusual round pieces’ is a nuanced distinction that would baffle anyone else. And this is where much of the mental effort is spent: working out what these categories are.
But the problem with this sort of total sort is it makes it very difficult for others to play with the Lego, for example when you have children.
The design brief for a Lego sorting system
It must be:
- Understandable by all the family
- Enable kids of all ages (including adults) to come in and play with the Lego
- Make it easier to find specific pieces
- Quick to tidy away
What we have come up with is the ‘approximate sort’, and happily it is standing up to testing.
The Approximate Sort
The aim of the approximate sort is not to have total classification of pieces but to agree rough categories that are good enough to increase the chances of finding the pieces you are after.
First we separated by colour. A separate pile for each of the older primary Lego colours and a miscellaneous pile for the array of new colours that we have much less of. Pretty to look at but not much more use.
We then combined piles of contrasting colours and put them into large drawers. Black and white; red and yellow; grey, green and blue. I particularly like this move because the way the bricks contrast against each other makes the pieces easier to find without having to do extra sorting. The outcome was even prettier and easier to sort, but still not much more use.
The second big move was to separate non-standard pieces, what my daughter and I call ‘specials’. Now here we see the first elements of social knowledge creeping in to the system. What makes a brick standard or non-standard is open to interpretation. We’ve kept the distinction fairly loose: does it look like all the other bricks or is there something special about it. We also created a separate box for people.
Now we had a system that was starting to work. If young kids are playing we just get out some boxes of contrasting coloured blocks and the people box and they can play imaginatively without being overwhelmed by pieces.
But as we started to try imitating more complicated sets we’d seen in the shops we realised construction would be made much quicker with another level of sorting.
The third move then was to grade by size. Just as aggregate for concrete is sorted into ranges of particle sizes, we assigned categories by ranges of piece size. Small is four studs or fewer; medium is between four and eight studs; and large is for everything else.
Here I believe we have found the sweet spot between ease of finding, ease of putting away and ease of playing. I know this is a system that my daughter understands when she says can you pass me the ‘grey-special-small’. Or even better, she’ll refer to the ‘special special-mediums’, the first special referring to their colour, the second special referring to their function.
What feels good is this is a system that we have developed together through trial and error – a system developed through play.
The wider philosophical implementations
The ‘approximate sort’ seems to work because it is good enough to cover the majority of pieces. All the mental work of the detailed classification is gone – the classification is good enough for finding most pieces and you have a reasonable idea of where to search when looking for something particularly unusual.
The philosophy of the approximate sort I realise (like the Margherita Principle – see below), is one of my practical philosophies for life in general. It teaches me:
- Getting stuck in the details of a system can be mentally fascinating but is often distracting from the benefits of getting the larger elements in place.
- Put things in roughly the right place and worry about the detail later, and only if you really need to.
- Just because you can classify something doesn’t mean you have to, and the process may be distracting you from the larger question of whether you need so much of one thing in the first place.
Which leads me to a more fundamental question: do we have too much Lego?
There is no such thing.