WORCESTER, Mass. — With NASA hampered because of the partial government shutdown, the United States is alarmingly vulnerable to alien invaders.
But 5-year-old Evan Vaillancourt just might save us all.
Evan has accepted the challenge to build a spaceship. Made of brightly interlocking plastic parts, it has what most NASA ships don’t: an alien at the helm, a skeleton gun on its side, and the ability to travel 3,000,001 mph. And don’t forget the weapon snake.
“It just flies, and it has a monster blaster,” the precocious Sutton boy said, reaching back into a tub of building materials.
Evan is one of six kids who gathered around a table in the Sutton Public Library, delving into plastic bins of Legos as part of the twice-monthly Lego Club.
In public libraries across Central Massachusetts – and even in some after-school programs – unofficial Lego clubs are popping up all over, letting kids play – and imagine – together with a toy that they can otherwise play with alone. There are Lego clubs that are officially sanctioned by Lego, but the unofficial ones allow kids to gather in one spot to play together.
“At home he likes to follow the instructions,” said Evan’s mother, KC Vaillancourt, as she waited for him, “but here, he can be a little creative. I think Legos are amazing; you can make anything. They make kids use their brains, use their imaginations, rather than their thumbs. I find that I have to walk away when I bring him here or I feel like building something myself.”
Amanda Thornton, the youth services librarian at the Sutton Public Library, oversees the Sutton Lego Club, which was started earlier this year for children age 5 and older.
Some of the Lego sets were donated. Others were bought by the Friends of the Library
Every time the club meets, Thornton issues its members a challenge they can choose to accept.
“Sometimes when you tell them to create something as simple as a castle or a spaceship, it’s amazing what they come up with,” Thornton said. “Sometimes they tell me a whole story about what they created; other times they might build a scene from a book.”
Aiden McFadden, 6, of Oxford, isn’t building a spaceship. He’s opting to build an army, and a boat in which one of his combatants, armed with his golden sword, hops in and sails away, across the table, which in Aiden’s Lego world is now an ocean.
“He has such an imagination,” said his grandmother Judee Sneed of Oxford, who takes him regularly to Lego Club. “He is an only child and there’s nobody around. But here, he gets to play with other kids and it’s good for him.”
When the club began, there were about 20 children, and about eight to 12 kids return to the club. Space is limited in the Sutton Library, so advance registration is required. There is usually a mix of boys and girls, and the children usually get along sharing the Legos and offering their playmates constructive criticism.
“There is a lot of positivity,” Thornton said. “It’s nice to watch the way they complement each other, and they are very good with sharing and helping each other.”
While nearly every child in the Sutton Lego Club has a personal set at home, there are advantages to a group setting.
“This is just a different way for kids to express themselves, to use their brains creatively in a structured setting,” Thornton said.
Parker Huggins, 13, is the oldest one of the group that met last week. While he has a Lego Death Star set at home, there is something different about building with the club, where the pieces might be a mixture from several different sets.
“I like to build things and set scenes,” Parker said. “My blocks at home are black, gray and dark green. Here there are different colors and a variety of pieces.”
For libraries, it helps bring new patrons to explore what the library offers, as well as an economical way to enhance programming.
At the Charlton Public Library, the Lego Club started last year at the request of a parent and became so popular it is now offered weekly.
“There are a lot of boys who don’t do sports, but like to build things. This was a good activity for them rather than sitting in front of a computer,” said Molly Garlick, head of youth services at the Charlton Public Library. Garlick said the program does attract a few girls, but the participants are mostly young boys.
“It is funny to see so many boys sitting in that one room and have absolute quiet. They are concentrating so hard,” Garlick said.
Michael McNally, brand relations director for Lego Systems, said the official Lego Club is global, but consists of 2.5 million members from across the United States.
Children can sign up for the free club and will get a free magazine every other month that shows Lego themes through comics, puzzles, building instructions and behind-the-scenes interviews.
“We run building challenges through the Lego Club to inspire kids to create, then showcase the winning entries. The most popular section of the magazine is called ‘Cool Creations,’ where kids can send in pictures of themselves and their creations for other club members to enjoy.”
The club has an online hub that offers many similar features to ones in the magazine.
“Providing a safe community for kids around their shared passion of Lego building not only reinforces their desire to build, but it gives them an outlet for inspiring and being inspired by other Lego builders, while at the same time making them feel connected to the people behind the scenes at their favorite toy brand,” McNally said.