In her new book The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids, architecture critic Alexandra Lange explains that since the dawn of the mass-produced toy industry, there have been Good Toys and Bad Toys in the eyes of adults.
“The Bad Toy is one that just sits there, to be mashed and pulled in a set sequence, and is ruined once it falls apart,” she writes. “The Good Toy lets children stitch their own world back together, using the simplest of physical parts to conjure cities of imagination.”
Of the Good Toys, Lange believes, nothing surpasses blocks.
“They are sturdy, long-playing and flexible, capable of being used for different types of play,” she says. “A block doesn’t always have to be made of wood, or even block-shaped, to be an excellent medium for building.”
Here, Lange shares her recommendations for the best building toys for young kids. Consider them next time you’re in the toy aisle, lured by the Hatchimals, Nerf Drone Blasters and talking Minions.
And what if you already have all these blocks, you say? Where do you go next? Writes Lange: “Your best bet is to simply buy your children more pieces.”
“Unit blocks, the wooden building blocks that one can spot in the corner of most early childhood classrooms, were invented by Caroline Pratt in 1913,” Lange tells us.
“The basic unit is a brick-shaped block, and all the other shapes relate to it in different ways, as halves, as doubles, so as children play with the blocks they internalise mathematical relationships. They also learn how to build structures that stand up, how to collaborate with other children, how to tell stories by adding figures to their buildings, and so much more.”
Kids can start playing with Duplo, LEGO’s younger sibling, as early as 18 months. Small hands can build things quickly, and the creations aren’t as easy to knock down as when working with wooden blocks.
“I like that Duplo is also more gender-neutral and less brand-heavy than LEGO proper,” Lange says.
“It isn’t hard to find bins of just coloured blocks, along with more specific pieces like flowers and windows and wheels that let kids sketch out a basic version of their own world. When my son was small, we ended up with a lot of Duplo flowers, and built a version of the High Line together in his play area.”
Lange calls Magna-Tiles an “instant gratification building toy”, as kids can make what looks like a stained-glass castle in minutes.
“These have been my kids’ favourite toy, and my husband, who is an architect, also likes to fiddle around with them,” she says.
“When the kids were young they gravitated toward the big, square tiles, but my husband would start playing with the triangles and could make some very Buckminster Fuller-inspired structures. Because they are smooth, and kids can make relatively large-scale buildings, Magna-Tiles coordinate well with action figures and small dolls that would tower over LEGO or Duplo.
“Magna-Tile creations look really good, too, so as a parent you don’t mind having them linger.”
When Lange’s son received Tubation as a gift, she was confused, not knowing whether it was a bath toy, an instrument or maybe a marble run, as she described on her blog.
“But then my son got his hands on it and better things happened. Swords, dinosaurs, canopies, bracelets and, yes, a gun or two.” She calls Tubation “the stick of building toys”.
“Not all construction toys need to stack,” Lange says. Zoob, created by artist Michael Joaquin Grey in the mid-1990s, consist of gears, axels and joints that snap together. When creations are completed, they move like creatures.
“My son used them to make all manner of monsters,” Lange remembers. “In the hands of their creator, Zoob can transform into textiles, or sea urchins, or leafy branches, through all manner of clever connections, though the basic one is like a ball-and-socket joint.”