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How Lego Friends learned to make toys for everyone

Lego Friends: The Next Generation (pic: Lego)

10 years on, the Lego Friends toy line has had a relaunch and Metro spoke to the lead designer about how to make toys more inclusive for kids.

When the Lego Friends line began, in 2012, it was criticised by some as playing up to stereotypes of what toys for young girls should be. The colour pink was everywhere, almost all the minifigures were female, and the sets themselves were usually simple doll’s house or dioramas themed around animals.

It was an immediate success anyway, but Lego did react to the criticism, even as it insisted that it was trying to be ‘gender inclusive’ not ‘gender neutral’. Gradually, the sets became more varied in theme, and more complex in design, while more male characters were added, and an attempt was made to be as diverse as possible in terms of race and appearance.

This all led to the line’s triumphant 10th anniversary last year and now a new animated show is poised to herald in a second generation of characters – the children of the minifigures from the original sets.

Most Lego sub-lines usually only last for a few years, with the Ninjago range of action sets one of the few other non-licensed concepts to break that mould. That means that there is now a whole generation of children that have grown up with the Friends concept, with Lego for the first time planning sets that are designed for kids all the way up to 12 years old.

‘We had this moment for internal reflection on what we wanted to do with the Lego Friends brand and universe, says British designer Fenella Charity, creative lead for Lego Friends. ‘And so we did a huge dive into insight about our consumers and really wanted to understand how we could represent modern friendship and the real world.’

Although that’s the sort of thing Lego has been doing for decades it’s a relatively unusual concept for other toy companies, whose products are increasingly based solely on licensed TV and film characters.

Heartlake International School is one of the big sets (pic: Lego)

‘I think children generally do want to see themselves, or see something of their community, in the toys that they’re playing with,’ says child psychologist Laverne Antrobus, who has been helping Lego with the Friends relaunch.

‘I think that there’s something about the TV series mapping onto the Lego sets that will really help children go through that transformative process, where they’re thinking: ‘That person’s a little bit like me’ or ‘I recognise that’.

‘When that happens you get a fantastic sense from them about being seen and heard and what they make of that.’

Lego’s research found that children themselves noted there was very little content aimed at them that showed characters being sad, worried, angry, scared, lonely, tired, distracted or stressed.

‘There is something central about having good friends and hanging out with your friends, managing your emotions when things go well and when things don’t go so well,’ says Antrobus.

‘I think that for somebody like me, who’s working clinically, it’s really good that children don’t feel that on a day when they’re particularly worried or sad, that must mean there’s something wrong with them. Actually, we want them to understand this is quite ordinary.’

Laverne Antrobus’ tips for parents dealing with kid’s friendship issues

  • Talk to your child about their unique qualities and support them to feel confident and know that good friends are kind, caring and trustworthy.
  • Your child may feel different to other children, encourage them to look for friends who have similar interests to them or who seem friendly and open to meeting different people.
  • Talk to your child about what qualities they look for in their friends and let them know that you value your friendships and trust your friends to be there for you when times feel a bit tough.
  • Help your child understand that when friendships become difficult they might need to ask you for your advice, remind your child that children go through struggles at various times and friends may need extra kindness and patience at this time.
  • If you notice that your child is struggling to make friends ask them how you might be able to help, they may need support arranging playdates or help to find a hobby where they will meet other children who have the same interests as them – let them know you are confident that they will make friends.
  • When you hear your child speaking positively about their friends, tell them how proud you are that they value their different friendships – let them know that you would have loved to have them as a friend when you were younger.
  • Friendships can last a long time, help your child to see that it is important to have friends that make them feel valued and cared for – a good recipe for future relationships.
  • Encourage your child to make friendships with a wide range of children, remind them that we live in a world where diversity can be seen and unseen. Having a wide group of friends will prepare your child for life in a world where difference is embraced.

These are not the concerns of the Saturday morning cartoons of the 80s and 90s, but then social media didn’t exist then, and children today are dealing with a very different set of problems from their parents.

‘Kids can relate to these new characters on many different levels,’ says Charity of the new Friends show. ‘It could be as simple as, ‘Oh, I’ve got hair like that!’ or ‘I also like video games!’ But with the show we can be more complex.

‘For example, there’s a character called Leo in the first episode, who wants to make friends. He thinks football is going to make him more popular but actually he really likes cooking but is worried that will make him seem uncool. And this is a very real thing that kids go through; how can I make friends? How can I be myself?’

New character Autumn is portrayed as having a limb difference but other concepts, such as neurodivergence and autism, are impossible to show in a minifigure and difficult to portray on screen.

‘We really want to represent a full universe of characters and that means sometimes relatable differences that are more obvious and physical, like skin tones and the limb difference and so on,’ says Charity.

‘I can’t speak on autism directly, but in the character representation that we have now, we have a character who’s very shy and anxious and the way that that materialises in the toys is that she has her hair covering her face and one eye. And that’s actually something kids picked up on straight away and realise that she’s more introverted.

‘And then we also have a character who is really creative and very messy. When she’s doing her drawing and she’s doing her painting, she’s super focused on it, but she leaves all this chaos around her. She’s very impulsive. And so she has other traits that make her relatable to other kids.’

In trying to represent modern families, Lego risks entering a fraught political arena, but Charity is determined to be as diverse as possible.

‘The main eight characters all have different family structures and dynamics that we’re going to unfold over the next few years,’ she says. ‘We launched a character called Paisley in her house this year, and she lost her mom to cancer, so she has a single dad. And so we are talking about these issues in a child appropriate way.’

Olivia’s Space Academy shows how different the sets can be (pic: Lego)

The early response to the new sets has been very positive, suggesting that the relaunch is already a success and setting itself up for another 10 years, something which Charity takes great pride in.

‘I think the role that we play in kids’ lives, and the role that play has, is something we don’t take lightly at the Lego Group. We want to make sure that we’re a positive influence for kids.

‘It feels great to be doing this and we feel really proud of it. And I think for me personally, I’ve worked on Lego Friends since the beginning and I think having this full circle moment of… it’s a really amazing feeling.

‘It feels like it’s the right thing that we’ve done and that we want to just continue to keep doing that.’

You can experience Lego Friends yourself in Lego stores this month (pic: Lego)

To celebrate the relaunch, Lego stores across the country are planning a series of events up until April 2, including free building experiences in-store and the chance to design your own Friends characters.

Four giant Lego versions of the Friends bedrooms are being brought to life from the February 18 to 21 in the Bullring Shopping Centre, Birmingham, where kids can meet and take part in activities with their favourite UK influencers. Families can book their free tickets here.

The London Leicester Square Store will have life-sized versions of four of the main characters, for kids to take their photo with and there’s also a Lego Friends Dream Bedroom competition that runs until March 5 on the Lego website. It challenges kids to design their ultimate sleepover space, with a prize of having their real bedroom transformed into a design of their own making.

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