From Kathleen Casteel’s love of sculpting and building, a dream was born to have kids build their communities out of Legos. As executive director of Voices on Canvas, Casteel started the Lego Challenge in 2010 as a way to amplify the voices of the youth through city planning.
Voices on Canvas is currently hosting its annual Lego Challenge where the non-profit organization invites kids from ages eight to 16 to build the community of their dreams. Each year’s challenge has a different theme, but the theme for 2023 is a callback to last year’s which was “Building the Future: Care-Free Walkability is Cool & Green.” This year, kids are encouraged to reimagine, reuse, and rebuild on top of last year’s city.
“We adults always mess things up! So it’s up to you to fix things,” Casteel said at the 2023 Lego Challenge launch day July 15. Casteel encouraged kids to think about structures that would last for many generations. “We have to fight for what we want in communities that are lacking.”
The Lego Challenge starts by hosting a town hall meeting where participants gather at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to look over the previous year’s city and award-winning works. They also have a chance to buy a spot of land in the city and decide what they will build. But with their decision, they must think: How will this impact my community?
After the town hall meeting, kids have one week to prepare a proposal of what they will add to the city. Voices on Canvas is there to help challenge participants every step of the way. If they need Legos, Voices on Canvas happily provides them and they also host workshops. This year, Casteel appointed a peer coach to help teams as well.
As kids plan, they must be critical and analytical of last year’s products. Once their plans are approved, they are free to do whatever they want. Except like any city planner, they must follow city building codes. Voices on Canvas encourages kids to carefully consider Denver Main Street zoning codes as they build and plan their Lego communities. They’re also encouraged to express themselves through art.
Last year’s first-place winner, Oorja Gujarathi, said the creativity that comes from the challenge is what intrigues her. Gujarathi has been participating in the Lego Challenge for three years and said each of her builds has been inspired by art.
“We looked up inspiration and found a design that wasn’t seen in any of the other blocks,” Gujarathi said.
Gujarathi’s build that received first place last year was called The Embraced, which featured restaurants, cafes, and long-term stay hotels. The Embraced was powered entirely by “solar” glass windows and a Lego waterfall around the building to keep it cool during hot summer days. This year, Gujarathi is inspired by sky bridges to follow 2023’s theme of walkability.
“There is a lot more to consider than just actually putting together the bricks,” said Laura Landgreen, a Denver Public Schools teacher and mother of Landon and Callum who are participating in the Lego Challenge for the very first time this year. Landon and Callum hope to build a tall amphitheater for their first year.
“I really wanted to focus this year on telling a compelling story,” Casteel said. “You’re going to act as a developer in this Lego build and you need to be looking at what is already there and how it’s benefiting the community. Or what is there? Is it harming the community? Can you fix it?”
Casteel hopes to inspire future city planners by inviting kids to come and play with Legos, but at the height of gentrification in Denver, it’s important that kids keep in mind the community’s needs during their construction.
“You’re learning about the environment in which you live and how you affect it. You can affect it by saying nothing, or you can affect it positively by helping them.”
This weekend, Voices on Canvas will host another town hall meeting at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Judging is Saturday at 10 a.m. and winners will be announced during the awards presentation on Aug. 5, 2023. This year’s first-place prize will be $500.00. Voices on Canvas is all about developing essential communication and civic skills and fostering expressive dialogue through the medium of art.
“We all learn differently. If you make learning fun, it sticks with you,” Casteel said. “So come play with us.”