Construction toys have been popular with generations of children. The underlying principle is that construction is basically a matter of assembly: a series of basic components are provided, designed to allow children to create objects of their own design that can later be taken apart again and rebuilt as something different. Construction thus becomes creative, and the child is in control.
Toys have become an essential asset in the pedagogical repertoire. Among the first were FRIEDRICH FROEBEL's "gifts," which were widely distributed in Europe and North America in the second half of the nineteenth century. Froebel was inspired by JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU and the Romantic notion that children have an innate learning instinct which drives them to play and explore. Froebel's gifts were simple, unpainted geometric shapes, and the play sessions were conducted under adult instruction. In the early 1900s another pioneer, MARIA MONTESSORI, developed play material–blocks of various kinds and sheets or plates of wood, stone, iron, wool, or silk–that cultivated children's senses. The materials were as different as possible, in order to train all five of the human senses.
Construction toys gradually became commercialized, and enjoyed widespread popularity during the twentieth century, assisted by a market-oriented toy industry. Various types of material have been used for creating construction toys and models. Anchor Building Blocks were stone blocks popular in the early twentieth century. Structures were built of real stone according to the drawings of architects. The child became an apprentice and–as the toy became more difficult– journeyman, master, and grand master. The stone building blocks reflected long-standing craft traditions.
Great buildings also inspired toys. A construction such as the Eiffel Tower could be beautifully copied with Frank Hornby's iron construction kits. Initially, his invention was called Mechanics Made Easy, but in 1907 the name was changed to Meccano. The manuals were written in correct technical language. The basic system was made up of flat metal strips of different lengths, perforated with holes. Nuts and bolts were used to join them. Meccano developed children's imagination, dexterity, and sense of beauty, offering both functionality and pure, cool engineering beauty, a reviewer wrote in 1934.
Meccano attracted competitors. In the United States, Erector, a master builder set, was launched in 1913 by Dr.A. C. Gilbert, who wanted to teach boys the principles of construction and engineering. Numerous other metal construction sets reached the market. To a greater or lesser degree they were copies of Meccano (whose phenomenal success can be compared only with that of the LEGO Company and its little plastic brick, introduced in 1958). These construction kits were designed for older boys, and there was a clear segregation of the sexes: girls were not expected to play with them. It took precision, systematic thinking, and manual dexterity to put the many small parts together, and tiny,
controlled movements. The toys disciplined and marshalled boisterous boys.
Lincoln Logs–a robust log cabin set–was marketed in the United States in 1920 by John Lloyd Wright, son of the famous architect. Sets could be used for building log cabins and forts. In the 1920s and 1930s the toy market was flooded with wooden building kits. Carpenters and joiners began making toys, and the market was filled with simple, well-made wooden playthings. Neutral components came in a wide variety of timbers, and advanced sets were available with special parts for recreating well-known buildings, houses, or skyscrapers. They were complete architectural models that allowed children to create a scaled-down version of the modern world. Contemporary architectural ideas and principles set the pace.
After World War II there was a decisive shift of perspective from the adult's viewpoint to the child's. The child was no longer expected to adapt to the adult world: Reforming educators took the child as their point of reference. Their aim was to liberate children's creative and natural abilities. In Denmark in the 1950s, highlighting children's own creative expression was emphasized, and developmental psychologists focused on play. The toy manufacturer Godtfred Kirk Christiansen evolved a system of play materials aimed at developing the imagination and creativity of boys and girls. The Danish wooden-toy manufacturer LEGO, influenced by the desire for attractive, colorful, simple, and hygienic playthings, had begun experimenting with plastics. The LEGO System of Play, based on the forerunner of the LEGO brick, was launched in 1955. The construction bricks quickly became recognized as an excellent toy to spark creativity and imagination. The simple, colorful modular building system with its open-ended potential brought to generations of children all over the world the freedom to build what they wanted with the bricks with the knowledge that whatever they made was right.
It can be said that children are getting older faster in the twenty-first century, and traditional toys are slipping from their hands earlier. The construction toy has its roots in a tangible world, the world of the craftsman and factory worker, the world of manual values. But ideas are the material of the visual world in a computer age. Still, the idea that children are designing their own virtual world in 3-D that they can build and then tear down does not exclude the theory that when children construct things out in the world, they construct knowledge inside their heads.
Ariès, Philippe. 1962. Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. Trans. Robert Baldick. New York: Knopf.
Cunningham, Hugh. 1995. Children and Childhood in Western Society since 1500. New York: Longman.