Good enough for now: the philosophy of Lego sorting

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.

I know this is a system that my daughter understands when she says can you pass me the ‘grey-special-small’.

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.

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  1. Oli, I love this blog, and the thinking you’ve put into it.

    I’ve often asked myself whether sorting my son’s lego is a good idea, as I’m usually the one hunting for the pieces while he builds…it would certainly make my life easier, but I quite enjoy the needle in a haystack search…lol (not sure quite why!) and he definitely is very happy when I find that piece we’ve been searching for, for ages!!

    …but just so I understand – does that mean you finally settled on boxes of contrasting colours, further separated by the 3 sizes? 🙂

    The next question is what is the best recycled container for storing sorted lego?

    I’ve often asked myself about the sustainability of Lego…ha ha! (Boring mum) …I think it’s the ferocious consumption around it that I struggle with because, no, you can never have too much lego, but I’m not convinced about our kids getting hooked on the constant more, more new lego thing.

    Lego have certainly done a very good and imaginative job at creating the lego universe. But like all things that become too corporate I can’t help but feel we get hoodwinked into the lego consumption system, so I’ve often brought second hand…now a slightly tricky proposition in covid times – doh!!

    Anyway, thanks for sharing and look forward to hearing more about the details of the sort 🙂

    • Good questions! I settled on boxes of contrasting colours, split into normal and special pieces and then graded by size. So for example I’ve got a box of small yellow and red bricks, I’ve also go a box of small yellow and red special pieces. 1kg peanut butter tubs have been our go-to choice of container.

      I totally agree with you about the question of the sustainability of Lego. Until recently I didn’t see Lego as part of wasteful plastic consumption. I think that is because I saw it more as a pile of pieces to make stuff out of rather than a collection of Lego sets. If the framing is around Lego being a collection of sets, then it is easier to get bored with these and it is only a matter of time before they are obsolete. But if the framing is around assembling a collection of building materials, then the possibilities grow and grow.

      Lego has always trodden this fine line between encouraging kids to build what they like and getting them to buy new sets. My challenge to the market pressure you describe to buy more sets is to try to create those sets with existing pieces, if you are fortunate enough to have a box of the stuff to start with. I figured out when I was a kid that even when a new ‘genre’ of Lego came out, you could buy a small set with a couple of key minifigures and a few of the novelty pieces and invent the rest yourself.

      I learnt a lot of my Lego building skills from older cousins. That sharing of how to do stuff with Lego, especially technical lego is another great way to challenge that consumer culture. The more inventive you can be with what you have the more you are using the Lego rather than consuming it, which must surely be less wasteful.

      Speaking of which, I need to build a new holder for my webcam to attach it to my screen. I’ll make it out of Lego!

  2. James Norman

    Oli – love this. And if I may jump in on the too much Lego question. I have come to realise the value of a new Lego set is not all the pieces (we probably already have them somewhere in our horribly unsorted Lego collection, the small grey three-a, I think I saw one in my underwear draw!) but the instructions. This is where the real value sits. Lego instructions are truly wonderful. They don’t just show you how to build it but there is an order designed to create moments of wonder, moments of ‘so that’s what that does’ and moment of joy. The good news is most old Lego instructions are now available for free on the Lego website. As a consultant engineer (some one who designs and what we ‘sell’ is our drawings) I have come to really value the instructions and now hoard them horribly.

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