The Next Construction Toy
An ongoing design project. Check back regularly for updates!
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
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.
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.
In Evanston, Illinois, Charles Pajeau observes children building structures with sticks and spools of thread and creates a play system called Tinkertoys.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
K'Nex, Magnetix, ZOOB
The Evolution Continues....
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...?
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?
Rigid vs flexible substructures
Modern Tent Designs
Nautical Construction Methods
Kid-Friendly Attachment Methods
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.
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
*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.
Batten panel system
Expandable yurt-style walls
Pole connection methods
Fabric as pegboard
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?