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Life's Simple Pleasures : Recreation: Lego toys leave flash to others. Their enduring popularity among kids and adults is built brick by brick.

December 02, 1993|MOLLY SELVIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thomas Michon of Irvine, then 5, won in his age group for a monorail system model. He says he still builds with his 50,000 or so Lego bricks "every day" and looks forward to using one of his prizes, a lifetime free admission to Lego theme parks, when the Carlsbad site opens in 1999.

Company officials say the plans for the San Diego County attraction include model villages and towns from around the world, a theater and shows, "extensive opportunities for creative play with Lego bricks," but no thrill rides. Similar forms of low-tech amusement drew 1.2 million visitors last year to the Billund Legoland.

But perhaps a bigger priority for the company than its new park is eliminating the gender gap. The bricks have historically appealed more to boys than girls, particularly among the post-preschool set, says John F. Dion, spokesman for Lego's U.S. headquarters in Enfield, Conn.

In hopes of convincing girls that Lego toys can be as fun as Barbie, Lego adopted a time-honored strategy: It turned pink. Its Paradisa line features resort and household scenes, more female figures, and lots of pastel pink and mint-green bricks.

Dion and his Danish colleagues say the bricks' traditional primary colors did not appeal to girls as they grew older. And while the company does not release sales figures, it claims Paradisa sets are selling not only well to girls but also to boys.

Not everyone in Lego land agrees on the pink strategy. Some company executives in Billund thought it "went too far," says Peter Ambeck-Madsen, senior public information manager there.

Papert agrees, arguing that Paradisa models "pander to the gender difference rather than understand it."

But he acknowledges that boys and girls strongly differ in the way they play with Lego and other construction toys. Boys tend to use his computer software to make "noisy trucks" with sirens, lights and moving wheels. They will offer to trade their plain bricks to the girls for extra motors.

The girls, in turn, use those extra bricks to build more grandiose houses or large animals; they often have trouble figuring out how to incorporate electronic gadgetry, Papert says. Yet with a bit of encouragement, the girls add lights to their houses--even a spinning Christmas tree--or program, say, a Lego cat to move toward a Lego kitten when it emits an electronic "meow."

Papert suggests that retooling instruction sheets and idea books to address the way girls play, might offer girls a "better mode of access" to the toy, and provide more interest, than a simple color change.

Although the bricks appeal primarily to children, plenty of adults have succumbed to "Legomania." Many of the adult Builders Club members are architects and engineers who build models for relaxation.

More than a few adults get hooked while cleaning up after their children.

Philip Clay, an Australian businessman who travels regularly to Los Angeles, recently went shopping for Lego sets for his sons. However, 8,000 miles from home, he was hard-pressed to recall which sets his kids had and which they wanted. But he did remember the mess the bricks make. So he settled on Lego's Polly Pick-Up, a contraption that collects loose bricks when rolled across the floor. The toy promises to make clean up "fun."

That was good enough for Clay.

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