Great Moments in Education - Of Legos, Private Property, and the Tragedy of the Commons:

Teachers at the Hilltop Children's Center in Seattle decided to use Legos to teach children that private property is evil:

[T]he students had been building an elaborate "Legotown," but it was accidentally demolished. The teachers decided its destruction was an opportunity to explore "the inequities of private ownership." According to the teachers, "Our intention was to promote a contrasting set of values: collectivity, collaboration, resource-sharing, and full democratic participation."

The children were allegedly incorporating into Legotown "their assumptions about ownership and the social power it conveys." These assumptions "mirrored those of a class-based, capitalist society — a society that we teachers believe to be unjust and oppressive."

They claimed as their role shaping the children's "social and political understandings of ownership and economic equity ... from a perspective of social justice . .. "

Legos returned to the classroom after the children agreed to several guiding principles framed by the teachers, including that "All structures are public structures" and "All structures will be standard sizes." The teachers quote the children:

"A house is good because it is a community house."

"We should have equal houses. They should be standard sizes."

"It's important to have the same amount of power as other people over your building."

The teachers were also disturbed that "some kids hoarded the "best" pieces, denied their classmates any access at all to the pretend town they were building."

The heavyhanded idiocy of the teachers speaks for itself. Even some of the little tykes weren't taken in:

Not all of the students shared the teachers' anathema to private property ownership. "If I buy it, I own it," one child is quoted saying.

However, as a property professor I should point out that the teachers' experiment in common property legos may have some educational value, though not the kind that the teachers intended. Giving Legos to a large group of children without allowing any kind of private ownership rights is a great way to demonstrate the dangers of what we law and economics types call the tragedy of the commons.

If kids are not allowed to "hoard" Lego pieces, it is unlikely that an impressive-looking Lego town can be built in the first place. If there is no right to exclude of the kind decried by the teachers, any Lego town that does get built is likely to be quickly destroyed by other children looking for Lego pieces to use for their own projects. Avoiding tragedies of the commons is one of the main reasons why private property is an essential social institution, and the Seattle teachers have, however unintentionally, stumbled on a new way to teach children about it.

UPDATE: There is an obvious irony in the teachers' position on private property. According to its website, the Hilltop Children's Center is a private school that requires parents to pay tuition, as well as a $50 fee just for getting on the waiting list for potential future admission. In order to support itself and pay the teachers' salaries, Hilltop relies on private property and its associated right to exclude - exactly the institutions that the teachers are trying to indoctrinate the children against.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. A Different Approach to Teaching Kids About Private Property:
  2. Great Moments in Education - Of Legos, Private Property, and the Tragedy of the Commons: