Legos are one of the most popular toys of all time. According to TED Fellow Ayah Bdeir, who delivered a speech at the famed conference in Long Beach, California this week, there are more than 400 billion of the little blocks in the world, or 75 for every person on earth. The brilliance of Legos is that they are not a single toy, but a platform for creation with nearly endless possibilities, making them one of the best teaching tools ever.
In an education world obsessed with curriculum standards and high-stakes testing, students are funneled onto particular tracks, rather than being allowed to choose their own adventures and explore their passions (a phenomenon that education expert Sir Ken Robinson says is killing creativity) But if the contemporary education model discourages kids' curiosity and creativity, a new generation of companies are finding ways to emulate Lego and encourage those traits through play.
LittleBits, the company Bdeir founded, manufacture a type of next-generation Lego that integrates electric circuits to give chidlren the ability to incorporate light and sound into their creations. Within their first several months on the toy scene, the kits have received a rapturous response, winning a STEMmy Award and being named "Best of Toy Fair 2012" and "Best High-Tech Maker Toy."
LittleBits aren't the only new creativity platform created by a TED fellow. A few years back, Bre Pettis and his friends wanted to experiment with 3D printing, which takes digital files and uses polymers to create three-dimensional objects, but there were no affordable devices on the market. They decided to hack their own together, and when it worked, they decided to turn the product into a company, MakerBot. Since then, the company has raised millions of dollars in venture capital and cultivated a community of makers who share their ideas and plans for 3D projects.
Like Legos, littleBits and MakerBot replicators can be educational, but they're fundamentally about playing. Play is about active engagement and experimentation with the world in a situation in which there is no clear "right" or "wrong," but a set of possibilities. It's a process of learning-by-doing driven not by an externally defined outcome, but about personal instinct, passion, and goal-setting.
It is not just children that need this type of play—they tend to do it without being told. Adults, on the other hand, inhabit a world in which "success" tends to have little to do with creative experimentation. This new infrastructure of play is not just a collection of interesting startups, but a broad entrepreneurial movement with the potential to restore the creativity that's been lost in too many schools.