The Next Construction Toy

An ongoing design project. Check back regularly for updates!

The Design of Childhood.PNG.png

In Alexandra Lange's, The Design of Childhood, she explains how manufactured goods and environments have evolved through history with respect to children.

One chapter that specifically caught my attention was about the evolution of toy building blocks, how they've evolved in so many ways across centuries, yet their unstructured, creative nature has remained an evergreen play pattern.

My biggest question at the end of the chapter was: "What's the next awesome construction toy?"




 

An Abridged History of "Building Blocks"

With the help of Lange's research (and some of my own), let me catch you up on the last 180 years of construction toy history.

Hover over images for additional information

Milton Bradely Froebel.PNG.png

Friedrich Froebel, pioneer of modern kindergarten, develops a set of standardized materials for classroom education called "Froebel's Gifts." These include sets of wooden blocks which would later be mass produced by toy maker, Milton Bradley.

Meccano.jpg

Advancements in engineering during the industrial revolution make their way into toys. Meccano (later acquiring Erector) is created by Frank Hornby of England at the turn of the century.

Tinker Toy.jpg

In Evanston, Illinois, Charles Pajeau observes children building structures with sticks and spools of thread and creates a play system called Tinkertoys.

Lincoln Logs.PNG.png

John Lloyd Wright (Son of Frank Lloyd Wright) sees a need for an architectural construction toy that will hold itself together in an active playroom. He creates and sells the first Lincoln Logs.

Kiddicraft.jpg

Over a century after Froebel, seeing a need for durable, washable children's toys, British toy maker, Hilary Page, creates plastic interlocking blocks called BRI-PLAX INTERLOCKING BUILDING CUBES.

ZOOB.PNG.png
Knex.PNG.png
Magnetix 2.PNG.png

Ditching the traditional architectural forms and industrial connection points, building sets like K'NEX, Magnetix, and ZOOB draw inspiration from organic sources like molecular bonds and animal joints.

Lego.jpg

Two years later Kirk Christiansen, founder of LEGO, copies Page's design and turns the connecting brick system into a miniature world. The brand catches momentum with the Baby Boomer generation and becomes the brand we all know.

Minecraft.jpg

Building blocks go fully digital. In 2011 Swedish game designer Markus Person designs Minecraft which becomes the best selling video game in history, after Tetris. Minecraft offers a digital space for world building (or destroying) using simple pixel like cubes that represent various elements.

Free Universal Construction Kit.PNG.png

The availability of personal 3D printing allows individuals to break down the exclusive nature of construction toys.  Golan Levin and Shawn Sims create the Free Universal Construction Kit, a set of free 3D printable files that connect all the major patented building systems. LEGOs, Tinker Toys, and K'nex can all join forces in the play room.

KIBO.jpg

Physical and digital worlds collide with KIBO, a rolling robot that can read a series of block commands and perform the assigned task. With KIBO children use physical wooden blocks to understand the basics of computer coding.

1840

Froebel's Blocks

1898

Meccano

1914

TinkerToy

1916

Lincoln Logs

1947

Kiddicraft Blocks

1949

Lego

1990s

K'Nex, Magnetix, ZOOB

2011

Minecraft

2012

Free Universal
Construction Kit

2015

KIBO

The Evolution Continues....

rigamajig.jpg
imagination playground.jpg
Makedo.jpg
TEGU.PNG.png

Makedo is turning the sea of empty Amazon boxes into a construction material with their unique "Scru" fasteners.

 

Rigamajig and Imagination Playground have blown up the Erector and Tinkertoy thinking into life size structures and playgrounds.
 

Tegu is combining the timelessness of wood blocks with the "magic" of embedded magnets to bring elements that appear to defy physics.
 

So what's next...?

Classical architecture.jpg
log cabin.jpg
London bridge.PNG.png

With there being such a rich history of awesome construction toys that cover so many materials, construction methods, and play patterns, what white space could possibly be left undeveloped?

In my research I noticed a pattern: Construction toys were often a reflection of the infrastructure or physics of the era and location. Building blocks imitated forms of classical architecture, Lincoln Logs: the American frontier, Meccano: the industrial revolution. One thing these sets had in common was their reflection of western scientific knowledge. If a construction toy is to be different, it needs to imitate an architecture that is different.

What if tents were the architecture? Fabric, rope, stitching, and poles; could these elements that housed so many nomadic civilizations be the inspiration for a child's construction toy?




 

tipi.jpg
classical blocks.PNG.png
Lincoln Logs.PNG.png
erector bridge.PNG.png

Textile Inspiration

floor plan.jpg
a8b4eb20555ecc2138baad86a8d601b8.jpg
b8ba317a6b4f63de818375e339a3d314.jpg
745437799b23e436c2bd1c5980259e9f.jpg
24835868cf1406d20945ab82cb01a3d3.jpg
Kite-making-small.jpg
6a0b7bf9e4c10bc75e9f5d01f75ee8ea.jpg
a56b52ff59a7ffea5a2e19dbc42d4be2.jpg
6b445bd14def3b1086c7468f49958510.jpg
4a12e498b644debe6529848c7cfd1cb5.jpg
unnamed.jpg
Lenape wigwam .jpg
f1309c6e7693382a373175f71a243275.jpg
dc5434d4c4d0d945b9f527fdd180d5fe.jpg
07a85693a8482380563fc1e94ce68243.jpg
54.jpg
rwoe1cvfxbt61.jpg
9775bd5125ee6df9eb0ae19e2b2ea7c1.jpg
f5e30589634a5f2bec56f4aed8c10cda.jpg
Hot-Air-Balloons.jpg
geodesic.PNG.png
c54bc56abc365593805b84e7ab1a1cba.jpg
719qbfR25KL._AC_SL1500_.jpg

Rigid vs flexible substructures

Modern Tent Designs

Nautical Construction Methods

Lightweight Materials

Kid-Friendly Attachment Methods

Expanding walls

Tri hammock.PNG.png
619369.jpg
57eefbf4d0d0dba56d2825d6d6dc459e.jpg
248217A100000578-2902184-Team_effort_The_thrill_seeker_rigged_a_series_of_rope_trapezes_i-

Outdoor Durability

517922dce916e04cc5fba05df547a75eb290242572_51792.jpg
d08a42d6c336f4458833c8419ee73a2d.jpg

Utility Fashion/Apparel

carabiner.PNG.png
050cd9580db4a21486e9b97c447656af.jpg

Market Research

antsy pants.jpeg

While I'm certainly not the first person to attempt a kids construction toy that focuses on fabric as the medium, I did find the category to have a lot of potential for new discovery. Here's a look at some of the popular juvenile tent products, what exists and what's missing.



 

organic fort.jpg
generic blanket fort.PNG
ecr4kids-softzone-tent-canoe-and-tumbler-too-unique-transforming-activity-play-mat_1409402
brandsonsale-store_2272_149169254.jpg
green-collapsible-canvas-play-tent.jpg
cute playhouse.PNG
71dTC4aXSEL._AC_SL1500_.jpg

Prescriptive

Open Ended

generic tent.jpg
4487ea14-8064-4d64-a5d3-95389c2e0d97_1.7f5e61518f1777295f4d272777f1344e.jpg

Indoor

tree pod.PNG.png
81GNcuh-A1L._AC_SL1500_.jpg
2128da61-b974-4dc8-990b-a44b5c598bfe_1.8c9ecef10da55c7832713064d4752388.jpg

Tent construction systems all use Tinkertoy style construction. Is there another valid approach?

Largest opportunity area: Open ended tent construction system designed for the backyard/woods

Clever fabric securing clips

Most saturated area appears to be thematic pop up tents and simple camp/tipi style tents

Higher quality materials designed for the elements and rougher play

sticklets.PNG

Outdoor

*A note on scale: There's two major avenues every construction toy takes on scale, miniature or kid sized (see Tinkertoy vs. Imagination Playground). There's likely great solutions down either path for tents. For now, I will focus on a kid-sized solution as the nature of the lightweight, flexible materials lend themselves to larger scale. Perhaps if I can find a strong full scale solution, it can be easily scaled down as a follow up project.




 

Ideation

Untitled_Artwork.jpg.png
Untitled_Artwork.jpg.png
Untitled_Artwork.jpg.png
Untitled_Artwork.jpg.png
Untitled_Artwork.jpg.png
Untitled_Artwork.jpg.png
Untitled_Artwork.jpg.png
Untitled_Artwork.jpg.png

Batten panel system

Expandable yurt-style walls

Woven skin

Pole connection methods

Untitled_Artwork.jpg.png
Untitled_Artwork.jpg.png
Untitled_Artwork.jpg.png
Untitled_Artwork.jpg.png
Untitled_Artwork.jpg.png

Fabric as pegboard

Untitled_Artwork.jpg.png

Prototype 1

IMG_1988.jpeg
IMG_8674.JPG.jpg
Untitled_Artwork.jpg.png

Observations:

IMG_8673.JPG.jpg
Untitled_Artwork.jpg.png

 Current wood dowels broke easily under stress. Need to find a stronger wood or plastic alternative.



 

The magnets held well, however their polar nature and cylindrical shape at times caused them to need to be adjusted by hand to connect best. For the next prototype I'll use spherical magnets that can easily roll in their pockets to create the strongest attraction forces.



 

Something else about the prototype, bigger than technical stuff, was bothering me. It worked...but the rigid square panels seemed to defy the organic, flexible nature that make tents unique. Am I forcing tents to become the rigid blocks and panels of previous systems?

 

I went back to my research and thought about the way wigwams were built. Their architects weren't concerned with right angles and cubes. Instead they embraced the anamorphic shapes of animal hides and bark strips, allowing their materials to inform their architecture. Could I create a "system" that embraces organic forms and celebrates patchwork over rigid straight walls?

Untitled_Artwork.jpg.png

Building on the idea from the previous prototype, I'll make tent fabric "hides" that can connect in infinite ways with sewn in magnets.



 

Needing a new plan for connecting the substructure, I referenced my previous ideation sketches and went to the hardware store to experiment with dowels and connection methods.

IMG_8686.JPG.jpg
IMG_8695.JPG.jpg
IMG_8689.JPG.jpg
IMG_8696.JPG.jpg
IMG_8693.JPG.jpg
IMG_8694.JPG.jpg
IMG_8692.JPG.jpg
IMG_8703.JPG.jpg
IMG_8702.jpg

Is there a permanent way to hold separate loops in a bungee chord?

A few google searches later...the 3 loop sailor knot.

IMG_8791.JPG.jpg

Rounded the tips for easier insertion and added a notch for the loop to catch

IMG_8792.JPG.jpg

Putting it together

Prototype 2

IMG_8737.JPG.jpg

Rounded and notched a dozen wooden dowels

IMG_8794.JPG.jpg

Made 8 pre-tied bungee connectors

IMG_8743.JPG.jpg

Cut out 8 "hides" and embedded 5 magnets into each. The equilateral pentagons will allow the magnets of each hide to always line up. I substituted nylon for brown paper for cost and expediency purposes.

Kid Testing

IMG_8756.JPG.jpg
IMG_8760.JPG.jpg

Featuring 7 year old, Hudson

IMG_8776.JPG.jpg

The pole and bungee connection system was a win. It was a challenge at first, but once he got the hang of it, his structures grew larger and more complex. There might be an opportunity add more kinds of bungee connectors.

IMG_8765.JPG.jpg
IMG_8768.JPG.jpg
IMG_8770.JPG.jpg

The magnetic hides were less fun. They connected to each other pretty simply, but were a bit cumbersome and unclear how to set up. After the hard work of building the substructure, it seemed Hudson wanted that instant satisfaction moment of throwing over a giant blanket (which we ended up doing). Maybe there's a blanket solution that easily completes the construction, and provides elements that enhance the tent use (ie, windows, pockets, etc...).

Untitled_Artwork.JPG.jpg

This is an ongoing project!
Check back soon to see progress.