14 November 2008

Toys for Budding Young Builders

Gift season is coming up and I'm seeking worthwhile toys for the pile of young kids in our extended family. When I was little my favorite toys were always things to build with. I did an informal survey of classmates back in engineering school, and most (like me) still had their Legos stashed away somewhere, ostensibly for their future kids, but really because they were still cool to play with. Here are some of my favorites:

5. Tonka Diggers - But only the metal ones that actually move dirt. You have to be able to stand on the heel of the shovel bucket to split sod, and then use the handle to scrape soil without it breaking. Bending is OK, because then you have an excuse to borrow Dad's pliers and bend it back. Eventually it looks like this, and then it's time to beg Mom for a can of spray paint to refurbish it. Of course moms always know better, so it'll look this way forever.

4. Lincoln Logs - Great starter toy because they're hard to break and can be knocked together quickly. You get visible progress in minimal time. You can also rearrange them easily to turn a simple box building into an elaborate cottage if you have enough parts. This is especially good after you've done site-prep with the Tonka diggers. Friends build theirs nearby, you carve out a little road, and cut up some of Mom's bushes to simulate a tree-lined street. They bounce apart real nice too when you use a basketball to do a pretend meteor strike.

3. Legos - Practically the definition of modular building toys. A starter set is just that; you can never have enough. You might build the thing pictured on the box once, but after that your buddys will all bring their sets over and the whole group concocts something that no toy designer ever imagined. Nobody ever has enough of the textured-top slanty pieces to do a proper roof, so we always used the Lincoln Log parts for that. Definitely an indoor toy though; once you get the little cavities full of mud, they're gritty and messy forever.

2. Erector Set - This vintage toy was an assortment of metal bars & plates full of holes, threaded fasteners, shafts, pulleys, string and battery powered motor making it a dream for creative kids. The sharp edges and small pieces would be nirvana for product liability lawyers today. Perhaps that had something to do with it now being marketed under the name "Meccano". Definitely not a starter toy. You need to plan your project and have a lot of patience to tweak the design over many days. But the best part is that it's designed for motion. Add enough rubber bands and few acorns and you can make a wicked catapult to lay siege to your little brother's Lincoln Log neighborhood.

1. "Real Tools" - I got a set like this when Dad got sick of me using his. I still have nearly all of them, except for the box which was sawed up to become part of some long-forgotten project. I'm still amazed at how many things got fully taken apart and almost reassembled with it. It was really more useful for being "mommy's little handy man" by hanging pictures, unsticking the door to the garage, and fixing my own bike. I still had to raid Dad's toolbox when I needed an adjustable wrench, vise-grips or a bigger hammer.

I've since graduated to bigger, more expensive toys and now I'm not really up on the latest and greatest kid technologies. I'd appreciate any suggestions along these lines from playful readers.


CityKin said...

Wow, the memories of all these toys. I think the erector sets never quite did what they were supposed to. Lincoln logs are pretty good. I always wonder why they haven't updated them more and why they always have a lid on their cardboard tube box that doesn't fit right.

It seems that when we were kids, legos were a newer thing weren't they? They definitely didn't have as many specialty shapes like they do now. My kids build a lot with simple wood blocks too.

Starting with the first blanket over a table, kids love to build and make homes/caves. We are all born with this desire to build.

Great Tonka digger truck..

5chw4r7z said...

I loved my old metal Tonka truck!
They don't make em like that anymore.

VisuaLingual said...

Mike, you're right about Lego. Since I was a kid, they've come out with many more themed lines [pirates, Medieval castle, etc.], and there have been forays into more gendered themes [I vaguely remember some pink, girly tropical resort-type sets]. I can understand expanding into specific themes, but the gendered sets really pissed me off when my sister was little, because they seemed counter to the Lego ideal that I remember so fondly from when I was a kid.

Unknown said...

One of my favorite gifts as a young kid--a 45 record with the reading of and the music of A Midsummers Night's Dream and Scheherazade. Loved it and played constantly while I was buzzing around.
Tonka toys might have been a better choice to foreshadow rigging hospital equipment together:>)

Radarman said...

Did you whippersnappers never get Tinkertoys for Christmas? They were the Legos of the 1950s and surprisingly versatile.

CityKin said...

I think Tinkertoy Co needs to innovate. They haven't changed since 1914 and it is hard to build much other than a windmill with them.

And they are the ones with the metal lid that never fits back on the round tube!

CityKin said...

Superstructs is kinda what I'm thinking about as an upgraded version of Tinkertoys.

CityKin said...

Superstructs apparently can be only bought locally at:

Ted's Toys & Trains, Inc.
6934 Miami Avenue
Cincinnati, Ohio 45243

CityKin said...

VisuaLingual; I'd like to do a follow up post about how everything for girls has to be pink and bonus points if it has the Disney princess theme. The original legos have a universal appeal that is very cool for girl builders.

DP said...

Definitely a lego kid. As sons of a civil engineer, my brother and I got 1 or 2 sets for every xmas/bday. You're definitely right about building the "box picture" once. After that, they got dumped into "the big box" and reincarnated as something else. Not sure what this says about us, but our favorite re-uses seemed to be the construction of a full army of vehicles or weapons, followed by a full-scale war that occupied most of the 2nd floor of our house...or just a demolition derby.

Since my wife is very much a 'dolls and ballet' girl, it's clearly up to me to encourage my daughter to become a "builder". Any suggestions for what I should sneak onto her Xmas list? She's 2-1/2. Anyone use those "big" legos?

CityKin said...

The big legos are pretty good especially for kids under 4 years old. They are best for just building towers / houses and they can be used with the smaller legos later.

Anonymous said...

My builder, inventor-wanna-be daughter loves k'nex most of all - we have gazillions of them!

The geekdad blog on wired has some awesome toys (and books, and festivals, and projects) for techie types of kids.

Anonymous said...

OOOH - and I just learned about this in the area - http://happeninc.com/toylab_index.html

Sounds really cool and hopefully we'll be heading there soon!

Mark Miller said...


I'm not sure that says anything but "normal kids." Years ago when Craig Kopp was co-hosting the 55KRC morning show with Jerry Thomas he told a story that I'll always remember.

He and his wife are very progressive-minded and anti-gun. They went to great pains to raise their son without any toy guns, GI Joes, violent movies, etc. One day he & the wife were watching their then 10 yr old son out the kitchen window playing alone in the backyard. Craig described his utter horror when the kid picked up a bent stick, held it at arms length, and ran around the yard yelling "bang bang bang bang" in mock-shooting fashion.

He said it was that moment that he realized the "combat ethos" was such an ingrained part of our culture that it couldn't be filtered out by even the most determined parent.

To properly channel that natural tendency, we put our 3 boys into Tae Kwon Do at age 5. Martial arts not only teach useful defensive skills, but self-restraint (force IS a last resort), and they do so within a framework of discipline and respect.

They work off all that natural adrenaline by donning pads head-to-toe and kicking the hell out of each other without anybody getting hurt. Then they bow, shake hands and discuss technique with their coach.

Our youngest is an 8yr old girly girl who wants nothing to do with that. She plays a lot with the Legos (my 12, 16 & 17 yr olds still do too, homework permitting) but she really wanted dolls. So we got her a big open-back dollhouse with all kinds of furniture and stuff. She sets the human figures aside and spends hours rearranging the room layouts. CityKin's right; the desire to build is innate, and interior designers are a vital part of the building team too. Apparently that's her thing.

Randy Simes said...

Lincoln Logs were my weapons of choice when I was younger. I then got into Legos occasionally and every so often playing cards. Oh, those were the days.

CityKin said...

I'd be interested if anyone else has been to the toylab that Corriesan references. I've heard about it here and there, but never made it out.

It's by the Biggs on Beechmont Ave.

VisuaLingual said...

As for specific toy recommendations, I haven't played with Spaceframe, but I've heard that it's cool.

Mark Miller said...

CityBeat put up a very good article about this topic here.