Art of War: The Lego Contest

First published on Nothing By The Book, November 6, 2011

Unschooling Lego

Cinder entered his first Lego contest on November 5, 2011. He’s psyched up for two more, on November 26 and December 3. Here’s the story of his first one. Cinder? Who the hell is Cinder? Ah, yes. Cinder is Austen. A temporary name change. He’s looking over my shoulder. “Did you change it to Cinder?” Indeed, darling, I did.

 I’ve raised Lego contests as a possibility with the Lego dude for a couple of years, but he’s been uninterested. This year, while Flora has her music class, he hangs with me in the anteroom―with all the other big brothers (and one little brother) dragged to the class. The boys have been bringing Lego creations, and talking and building together. For those of you who’ve known Cinder for a while, you will extra-appreciate how thrilled I was that he was participating in their play―he relentlessly ignored them all of last year. Anyway, the other boys told him about Lego contests and he got pretty fired up to go to one.

I was both pleased and a little worried―he hasn’t been in a lot of competitive situations (bar those he and Flora create to torment each other) and when he has, he hasn’t really handled them super-well. And he gets anxious. And… well, this Lego contest thing had the potential to be a really fun cool thing―or a really traumatizing thing.

Apparently Cinder thought this too. He asked me to sign him up for the contest―and then went and whipped up a little space ship robot thingie in about 10 minutes. “This is what I’m going to enter,” he told me. “You’ve got weeks before the contest,” I said. “Don’t you want to build something bigger and more complicated?”

The answer? “No. This is my first contest, and I’m probably not going to win―I just need to see what it’s like, and I don’t want to enter it with something that I think is really great, because then I would be disappointed if I lost.”

Interesting. “So you’re… what? Testing the waters, huh?”


Day of the contest came during my crazy-busy no-brain-cells0for-anything-not-related-to-Top 10 Deals-time. At 12:30 p.m.―the contest starts at 1 p.m.―we were sitting on a rock on the hill outside SHC reading a book. Cinder asked me what our plans for the day were and I answered with, “Not much. I’ve got some work to do this afternoon when Daddy finishes his, but other than that…” “But isn’t today the 5th?” “The 5th what?” “The fifth day of November! My Lego contest! What time is it?”

Miraculously, we managed to get all three kids and the Lego ship and snacks into the car in 7 minutes, and get down to Village Square in 13. And there I had a Halloween miracle. And you won’t appreciate it if you don’t know Cinder or if you’ve just met him in the past few months or year. But if you’ve ever met us at the Science Centre when he was five, and would retreat to Flora’s stroller and pull a blanket over his head to ensure he didn’t have to interact with any of you ― well, read on.

Carrying his ship thingie in a bin, he outpaced me to the library, following a bunch of strangers (also carrying Lego) to the sign in table. He checked himself in. He told the total stranger librarian his name and age. He followed her instructions and set up his thing at the 8/9 year old table without a backward glance for me. Then he checked in to see where we were―requested that we stay within eyeshot, and turned his attention back to his ship. A bunch of pieces fell off during transport―I swear I felt myself preparing for a meltdown―nothing. He reassembled it. Checked out the other pieces. I got distracted by the Ender for a

bit and when I next peeked over, there was a Cinder, with a bunch of kids he had never met before, participating in Lego conversation.

The judges came around. They asked each child to tell them about their creation. Again, not sure how this was going to go… and it went fine. He was excited and animated. He made eye contact. He was not just coherent, but articulate. And he was patient and polite when the other children at his table had the spotlight.

Then came the long wait during which the judges went away to tally the result. He started getting bored towards the end of it, but he was waiting. I even suggested we could leave early (I was really worried about the not winning reaction). “No, I need to see what wins,” he told me. “I think that dinorobot there is probably the best one.”

And he did, It was a long 45 minutes and he got restive―as did all the boys―leading us all to agree that next time, we were going to bail right after the talk with the judges and come back half an hour later for the announcement of results (there was going to be a next time, he had no doubts about that). He paid attention and applauded during the handing out of the prizes.

He didn’t win―and he was fine. He was silent on the way to the car and in the car―but not petulant or angry, just processing. And as soon as we got home, he started building a project for the next Lego contest.

It’s a pretty awesome dragon. “I’ll be disappointed if this one doesn’t win,” he told me a few days later when he was yet again tweaking it. “But I think it’s got a pretty good chance.”

“It’s pretty cool, and you worked very had on it,” I said… wondering if I should add, it still might not win? Was I focusing too much on the negative because I still had in my mind’s eye the 4 y o who would get thrown off kilter by the smallest thing?

“Mmmm,” he said. “I don’t know if that matters. But it’s got a good chance at winning. It’s not a war toy.”

“What?” I asked.

“Oh, didn’t you notice?” he said. “None of the planes, ships, guns, towers and stuff won. All the prizes went to houses, animals and things like that. And when I was talking with the guy at my table who won―you know, the guy with the Lego base, with all the little guys in it? He told me he had built a ship a lot like mine for a Lego contest before, but he noticed that the ships never seem to win.”

So I leave him to his building and tweaking, and retreat feeling a little… I don’t know. Amazed, I guess. On about a hundred levels. Amazed that this kid who until a year or two ago growled at strangers sailed through this experience in such a positive way―and with a self-designed coping strategy. Not one I would have come up with―but one that clearly worked for him. Amazed that he got out of his reconnaissance experience way more than I did. I, honestly, did not notice that no war toys won. And amazed that he was approaching the next contest with, well, both excitement and detachment: wanting to participate without having his whole being wrapped up in getting the certificate that said he won.

Frankly, he was handling the whole situation better than his mother!

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