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Architecture and Building Toys

Updated on June 25, 2014

Architecture Toys for Girls and Boys - - - and for Adults

Building, model buildings, building blocks, and building architecture. Fun for all ages!

Of course, there are all sorts of educational and IQ building reasons to stock the nursery (or your desk top) with building and construction toys. Assembling and stacking blocks, for instance, improves 3D visualization, fine motor skills and dexterity, and is linked to improved math and science ability. Blocks are physics at play! And playing blocks together - with parents or peers - teaches teamwork and social skills. Getting interested in bridges and buildings adds a lot to daily life and to travel: you start looking at, then studying, architecture, civil engineering, history, culture, aesthetics... perhaps the start of a life -long hobby.

Admit it, there's just something fascinating about miniature structures, whether they're doll houses, model railroad buildings, classic building blocks, or the great trademarked building kits like Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, or others. Build a Lego TM metropolis! There's a lot of joy in creating a complicated mini world.

Give in to the lure of the model! Build a World.

(Doll house image courtesy of www.wpclipart.com)

sketch by Clare DeVries
sketch by Clare DeVries

Playing with blocks

A child playing with blocks is learning all sorts of things: like Physics, for example, learning how gravity works (I need something under that block, it won't just hang in space) and Statics (how far can I cantilever this block? before it.... falls). Many architects start out with blocks.

The most famous wooden blocks are probably alphabet blocks.

Masonry Construction

What wooden building blocks are mimicking from the real world are stone blocks and masonry construction.

Walls like this ancient Greek one are called "Cyclopean" because the stones are so huge that visitors thought that only a monstrous creature like Cyclops (the guy Odysseus met, with only one eye) could have lifted them into place! At a much smaller scale, toy blocks act just like stone ones, obeying the exact same laws of physics.

Links to Construction (web)Sites

Other worthwhile places to learn about buildings and building.

Cathedral - Building a Gothic Church

A wonderful illustrated book - full of the design and construction of a Gothic architectural masterpiece.

Froebel Blocks
Froebel Blocks

Froebel Blocks

If alphabet blocks are the most famous version of wooden blocks, the second most famous form has to be Froebel Blocks.

Friedrich Froebel invented kindergarten in 1840, recognizing that young children learn best through play. He also invented specially educational toys including the building block. Several famous architects started out as children playing with Froebel Blocks: Buckminster Fuller was one, and Frank Lloyd Wright's mother not only bought him Froebel Blocks, she hung pictures of great buildings around his nursery in hopes he'd become an architect. Seems to have worked.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water

photo by Dennis Adams
photo by Dennis Adams

Talk about learning to handle gravity, static structures, and cantilevers...

All Frank's play with Froebel Blocks seems to have paid off.

Links to Froebel Blocks

Click on these sites for more information and history on the famous architect-proved! wooden building blocks. Plus shops to buy them from.

The original Froebel Blocks

froebel blocks
froebel blocks

Legos

Legos
Legos

The most popular and most sophisticated descendant of Froebel's Blocks so far has got to be Lego blocks.

Legos are beautifully engineered and wonderfully adaptable. Purists (like me) prefer the big ol' bucket o' blocks approach, but the company seems, these days, to be stressing it's themed kits: Star Wars (TM) or Harry Potter (TM) etc. In the end it really doesn't matter, an imaginative child will soon have Harry riding his medieval bulldozer into battle against the Evil Space-Mermaid Horde. A child's castle - build from a merger of pirate and spaceman parts gives the idea of "eclectic" a whole new vocabulary. There are, of course, the basic blocks, but also specialized pieces for every possible use.

My only grumble with Lego is its occasional tendency to make their blocks blush pink for girly sets. It ought to go without saying that blocks are a unisex toy. And, given the growing number of females in 3D/spacial fields like architecture (now a majority), clearly girls can hold their own without pink bricks.

But Lego does an awful lot right - including traveling Lego build-athons and some fascinating adventure playgrounds like Legoland!

NEW TIDBIT: Click on the pic to visit a spiffy calculator for how many Lego bricks it would take... to build YOUR HOUSE!

Lego Building

You can never have enough Legos.

Or enough red bricks. Or enough 2 peg, thin, yellow bricks. Or... My Lego-obsessed son and I developed a whole lexicon to describe the various types and sizes of bricks. As I worked at home, I'd hear from the next room, "Moooom! I can't find another 2er 4er flat-y! I need a bluey. Come heeeelp!"

The last block kit in this section is NOT Lego, but Nano Blocks - but its subject is Gaudi's fantastic Sagrada Familia church, so how could I resist?

Or Nanoblocks

Nanoblock Architecture NBH-005 - Sagrada Familia
Nanoblock Architecture NBH-005 - Sagrada Familia

Oh! So cool. Gotta give a book about Gaudi's architecture along with this set.

 

Gaudi's Architecture

la Sagrada Familia by Gaudi (believed in public domain)
la Sagrada Familia by Gaudi (believed in public domain)

A little hard to catch the spirit of this one-of-a-kind Art Deco masterpiece in mini building blocks, but fun to try. Look just above for the Nanoblock kit!

Lego Architecture

Speaking of "theme" Lego kits... How about this Famous Architecture series? It'd be fun to put these together - and more fun to expand on them afterwards. Start with the Guggenheim Museum of Art...

Block Sorting Bins

Needless to say, when my young son played Legos, sorting them and having bins to sort them into became important to my getting any of my OWN projects done. All the other building toys need storage bins too, mind you, but the need to sort Legos is desperate!

Here are a few suggested ways to store and sort building blocks: the big bins are best for young children and/or bigger, plainer blocks, while the teensy drawers are ideal for older children and adults using the more specialized blocks.

Sort It and Store It
Sort It and Store It

Also kid-friendly storage, plus easy to carry just one tub with you as you play.

 
Serious sorting.
Serious sorting.

So vitally important is the proper sorting of LEGOs that BoingBoing featured an article on just that topic! (Click on the pic to read the post.)

Building Toys

Lots of other types of building toys, including the classic Erector Set (for folks old enough to handle and not lose the little bolts); the evergreen Lincoln Logs (which quite young kids can work with); and Tinker Toys! which a just flat fun for all ages (except swallow-it sized kids).

Erector Build and Play - Construction Bucket 150 Pieces
Erector Build and Play - Construction Bucket 150 Pieces

Erector Sets mimic real-life steel construction.

 
Tinkertoy Classic Jumbo Set
Tinkertoy Classic Jumbo Set

Tinker Toy mimics... well, it's just its own funky fun thing.

 
Knex Bicentennial Edition Lincoln Logs
Knex Bicentennial Edition Lincoln Logs

Classic Lincoln Logs - build your own log cabin.

 
Photo borrowed from FastCompany.com
Photo borrowed from FastCompany.com

Wahoo! The Rosetta Stone of Blocks...

The Missing Link...

The Holy Grail of model builders!

A universal construction kit. Blocks that make all other building blocks work together. Lincoln Logs and Legos. Connex and Tinker Toys.

FREE!

Well sorta, if you have a 3D printer anyway. Read more here:

Better Than Lego Free Kit

A FastCompany article on this cool, cool, COOL connecto-block system.

Big Logs

log cabin under construction - Robert Chambers workshop
log cabin under construction - Robert Chambers workshop

Lincoln Logs are only the miniature version of a construction type rooted in world-wide architectural history - wherever forests existed - a tradition that continues today.

Linkin' to Logs

More info on log construction large and small.

A bamboo tipi, photo from Beautiful Bamboo Blogspot
A bamboo tipi, photo from Beautiful Bamboo Blogspot

Building with Bamboo

One of the cheapest (free if you grow the bamboo!) big-scale construction toys is to let your kids loose in the back yard with long bamboo poles, nylon or other cord, and some old sheets. Give a few lessons in knot tying, then see what they make: tipis, tents, forts, shadow puppet screens...

Lots of fun and creativity. The bamboo is very light and strong, so even small kids can construct something big - with a little help maybe.

(This photo is of a more polished tipi than my kid's. Click the pic to visit the Beautiful Bamboo Blog)

Wood Construction

St. Basil's Moscow (believed public domain photo)
St. Basil's Moscow (believed public domain photo)

It's a mistake to think that the wooden construction traditions that start with humble log cabins can't develop into sophisticated architectural styles. Here Russia's traditions of masonry building and wood building meet in the fantastic elaboration of St. Basil's in Moscow. Those roofs are all wood... distant cousins to your Lincoln Logs.

Bridges

Any "stick" style building toy lends itself to not just buildings, but to bridges. Now we're talking serious play with structural forces! Take those Tinker Toys and see just how far you can span with how few pieces before it... crashes!

Try building a bridge between two dining chairs. How far can you go? Will it take any weight? How much?

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge on YouTube - The famous bridge collapse!

One of the things real engineers have to design for is wind. On this day, at this bridge, the wind blew just right to set the roadway vibrating, then swinging, until it failed. This is the famous example that's shown in most first year engineering college classrooms.

On-Line Building Toys

It's a little dangerous to start in with building toys... because you always wish you had just one mooore pieeece...

You find yourself collecting more and more pieces to build bigger and more elaborate projects! So much fun.

Play Sand!

Sand Castle bu guyking English Wikipedia
Sand Castle bu guyking English Wikipedia

After the persnicketiness of the teensy building blocks, how about the refreshment of wild, messy, sandy construction?

Sand castles are the perfect kid-at-the-beach play, but grown-ups have been known to hold competitions where elaborate structures (not all castles) are built. Did you know there are Professional sand castle builders?

Sand Construction

Step2  Naturally Playful Sand Table
Step2 Naturally Playful Sand Table

A good basic sand table: the table part makes it more comfortable, the lid keeps the cat out.

 

"Sandbox" Games

Although I'm a bigger fan of real-world, hands-on construction toys, there's no denying that there are some terrific on-line building games too. Of these "sandbox" computer games, my personal favorite is Minecraft.

Turn off the silly monsters, I say, let me play with my blocks! Minecraft is an wonderful virtual world in which it's possible to build fantastic individual and collaborative structures... cube by cube. These cubes-as-building-blocks give an interesting and unique aesthetic to the entire world. (Besides, building all in cubes - of "sand" or "stone" etc. - is irresistibly funny to me.) If you have a computer wiz among your friends, you can even create a private shared world in which to create your structures.

Great fun!

(And, as with any block play, Minecraft is educational training in 3D spacial relationships.)

Other good computer sandbox games?

I'm starting to research these. So far I can suggest SimCity and (if I can only remember the name!) there was a similar sort of game where you could create a simulated amusement park. But both of these had more rules and sorta "gameplay," where Minecraft can be purely construction.

More to come!

paper architecture by Ingrid Siliakus
paper architecture by Ingrid Siliakus

Paper Architecture

One intriguing way to explore architecture and the nature of materials is to build using only the thinnest and lightest of them - paper.

There have been cut-out paper buildings (like paper dolls) probably since paper was invented, but in the 1980s a new art form was invented by Prof. Masahiro Chatani. Perhaps paper architecture is a natural off-shoot from the Japanese art of origami and clever development of paper and cardboard packaging. Artists like Ingrid Siliakus and Jill Sylvia have taken off with the idea.

Paper Building

When you've had enough sand and water and dropping blocks on your toes, how about building with paper?

Eames' House of Cards

Now here's a building toy with a real architectural pedigree - the famous House of Cards designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1952. These classic cards - with colorful designs and textures, often from everyday things - slot together to build all sorts of creations.

Building With Cardboard

Cardboard house/sculpture by Ayako Rokkaku at Rotterdam's Kunsthal
Cardboard house/sculpture by Ayako Rokkaku at Rotterdam's Kunsthal

One of the best, most imagination-freeing gifts you can give your kid is a great big empty cardboard box. A house, a truck, a rocket ship... there's no end to its uses.

But don't think that only kids get to play with boxes and cardboard or that the results are just kid-stuff. In Rotterdam's Kunsthal (art museum), artist Ayako Rokkaku built this cardboard playhouse as part of a quite serious - while very playful - exhibit of contemporary art called "Colors in My Hand."

Pop-Up Architecture

The Architecture Pop Up Book
The Architecture Pop Up Book

Brunelleschi's famous dome in Florence was tough enough to design... then it's gotta fold up into a book page?! Crazy.

 

Architecture Books for Kids

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel
Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel

The classic book. My boy loved it. And it's a great introduction to construction.

 

Drawing Buildings

An even more classic way to explore architecture on paper? Draw!

All you really need is a blank sheet of paper and a pencil to get started. The book, however is a wonderful guide and explanation of buildings... with gorgeous line-illustrations. (Older child and adult.)

Design For Kids
Design For Kids

EVERY kid needs a chance to design.

 
Architecture, Form, Space and Order
Architecture, Form, Space and Order

A wonderful and beautifully illustrated book explaining the basics of architecture.

 

Artsy and Art Supplies

Sometimes you need exactly the right pencil. Or something different from a pencil. Blick is a great Chicago art supply house that I use myself to order hard-to-find materials.

Museum Store Toy Departments

Museums often have the coolest art-related toys. Plus great bookstores. Here are a few favorites.

Rubber Stamps and Rubber-y

Miniatures

This section is just a teaser - I'd need a LOT more room to do justice to the subject of model buildings.

The two most commonly played with versions are model train buildings and doll houses (farther down). There's something fascinating in seeing the world at a smaller scale. Some railroad model buildings come as a finished unit, but many come in plastic pieces to be assembled like an airplane model. Developing the same skills. And you can always start from scratch and create your own.

the world's biggest train set
the world's biggest train set

This photo shows part of Minatur Wunderland, perhaps the world's largest and most elaborate train set, built by two German brothers. Click on the Pic to go to a website on this fantastic train set - where there's a cool video. This isn't just a Train set... there are trucks, planes, a cruise ship (with fjord), Las Vegas, the Matterhorn, Carlsbad Caverns, and an attention to detail that is just amazing!

Model Railroad Buildings

Building a Model Railroad Step by Step (Model Railroader's How-To Guides)
Building a Model Railroad Step by Step (Model Railroader's How-To Guides)

Now this can be a wonderfully engrossing whole-family project.

 
Georgian doll house courtesy of gothicteasociety
Georgian doll house courtesy of gothicteasociety

Doll Houses

A subject that definitely need more space. Doll houses can be nice model buildings, but more importantly, they are model INTERIORS. Playing with these comes closest to the art of interior design and decoration. Building a doll house can be an ambitious and engrossing modeling project - involving building and collecting every facet of life. Historic doll houses are archeological artifacts and teach a lot about earlier times. Maybe yours can be a museum exhibit someday, explaining the early 21st century?

Great Doll House Links

If you like doll houses, you HAVE to visit Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum website to see the on-line tour of the Doll's House of Petronella Oortman - link below. Built in the 17th century as a grand lady's hobby (no grubby kid paws playing here, please!), this doll house is really a cabinet, veneered with tortoise shell and silver... for the same price as a real Dutch house of her period.

Just as exquisite are the Thorne miniature rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago.

More Building and Educational Toys

Other sites with children's building toys.

Construction and Charity - Canstruction

One design/structure built entirely from cans of food donated to local food banks.
One design/structure built entirely from cans of food donated to local food banks.

For this charity design competition architects, contractors, and other building industry folks collect canned food - which becomes the building blocks of the built design - and then the bricks, er, cans of food, are donated to local food banks to feed the hungry.

Fun and Food.

Try this with your pantry. Better still, get involved! Donate! Build!

Tip o' the Hat!
Tip o' the Hat!

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    • profile image

      ldtaboada 6 years ago

      I loved this kind of toys.

    • Heatherseesthel profile image

      Heatherseesthel 5 years ago

      What a creative lens--I love all the photos! As a kid, my favorite toy was my set of logs to build log cabins. I could spend hours coming up with new combinations... This lens brought back such great memories and so many ideas for new toys! Keep up the good work, cdevries!

    • cdevries profile image
      Author

      cdevries 5 years ago

      @Heatherseesthel: Thanks! Glad you could visit. Building toys are a lot of fun - even for adults!

    • Scarlettohairy profile image

      Peggy Hazelwood 5 years ago from Desert Southwest, U.S.A.

      What a great selection of building toys! Great ideas for gifts here.

    • Lee Hansen profile image

      Lee Hansen 5 years ago from Vermont

      Fabulous! I still own a collection of Tinker Toys, Legos and Lincoln Logs, and we also have a big basket of cedar scraps we use for blocks and a sand table made from an old coffee table. I guess you can tell the grandkids and I really enjoy building stuff. Just finished designing a new porch - but had some talented carpenters do the construction.

    • cdevries profile image
      Author

      cdevries 5 years ago

      @Lee Hansen: Bits of 2x4s and such make great building toys. One of my kid's favorites was long bamboo poles (cut from the yard) and old sheets... to make teepees and forts etc. Thanks for visiting!

    • Ilonagarden profile image

      Ilona E 5 years ago from Ohio

      This is a great lens! It pretty much covers everything- at least as much as one can take in during one sitting/visit. I think it provides wonderful ideas for a child's Christmas gift list. These are things I played with, my children did, and I expect my grandkids will. And Falling Water is always a favorite example of a fabulous house. oops- wrote a small book;)

    • cdevries profile image
      Author

      cdevries 5 years ago

      @Ilonagarden: Thanks! I love these kinds of toys - forget the educational value (lots!), they're just flat fun!

    • cdevries profile image
      Author

      cdevries 5 years ago

      @thesuccess2: Thank you! Glad you could stop by.

    • agoofyidea profile image

      agoofyidea 5 years ago

      I love to play with blocks of all types and I am a grown up (in years anyway). Great lens. The Tacoma Narrows footage still amazes me. Great lens.

    • cdevries profile image
      Author

      cdevries 5 years ago

      @agoofyidea: Thanks! Blocks ARE fun. And that bridge failure is amazing... and not so very rare either.

    • profile image

      valiapegli 5 years ago

      What a lovely lens! building toys in such a marvellous way! I was really moved! I would like to invite you on my lens about green energy sources and share your comment with me

    • cdevries profile image
      Author

      cdevries 5 years ago

      @valiapegli: You got it! Thanks for visiting.

    • profile image

      TeamRform 5 years ago

      Holy Crow - had no idea there are so many great architectural toys and books for kids available! Thanks for the lens, my kids will love you for it this christmas!

    • cdevries profile image
      Author

      cdevries 5 years ago

      @TeamRform: You're very kind! There are even more building toys out there - i like the ones that are most open-ended, that don't tell you what to build out of them.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      enjoyed this lens too, see ya around.

    • profile image

      DanCooper 5 years ago

      great lens. thanks!

    • rorymullen lm profile image

      rorymullen lm 5 years ago

      Lens is now 100%

    • flycatcherrr profile image

      flycatcherrr 5 years ago

      I grew up with Erector sets and like many people have a bit of an obsession with all things tiny and of human construction... I can tell right now, a good chunk of my holidays will be spent browsing through your lenses! :)

    • profile image

      ScrollSawChuck 5 years ago

      Great lens. I guess when it comes to building toys, there is a little bit of a kid left in all of us.

    • cdevries profile image
      Author

      cdevries 5 years ago

      @ScrollSawChuck: Absolutely!

    • SimplyLiving LM profile image

      SimplyLiving LM 5 years ago

      I love this lens! Architecture and toys together -- two of my favorite things. Plus, it keeps going and going, and when I'm sure you've exhausted the topic, I scroll down only to find more great stuff!

    • profile image

      getmoreinfo 5 years ago

      These are great I love the toy building.

    • profile image

      MintySea 5 years ago

      The big blocks grandma gave saved christmas gave the kids something to do while they waited to wrap gifts.

    • cdevries profile image
      Author

      cdevries 5 years ago

      @MintySea: I keep a building toy handy to entertain visiting kids.

    • Ram Ramakrishnan profile image

      Ram Ramakrishnan 5 years ago

      Know this, O worthy and diligent lensmaster;

      With accomplishment youâve earned a tryster.

      As a token of immense appreciation expressed,

      A squid angel leaves this lens heartily blessed.

      On a rendering that is sparkling in its own right,

      Propagating an appealing thought well and quite;

      If you were to notice a slender shimmering crust;

      From the angelâs wand, it is a spill of stardust.

    • cdevries profile image
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      cdevries 5 years ago

      @SimplyLiving LM: Thanks! And thanks for visiting.

    • cdevries profile image
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      cdevries 5 years ago

      @Ram Ramakrishnan: Thank you!

    • profile image

      charly_1987 5 years ago

      If you would like to get some ideas about architecture visit my article in squidoo

      http://www.squidoo.com/architecture6

      Regards

    • i Dia1 profile image

      i Dia1 5 years ago

      Real nice lens. Lots of interesting things.

    • profile image

      lovinglife7 4 years ago

      Wow, nice lens. I'm also an architect...

      Greg

      baton rouge architect

    • cdevries profile image
      Author

      cdevries 4 years ago

      @lovinglife7: Thanks! And thanks for visiting What architect can resist building toys?

    • John Uwen profile image

      John Uwen 4 years ago

      wow, very comprehensive lens. the video showing the bridge is quite scary!

    • cdevries profile image
      Author

      cdevries 4 years ago

      @John Uwen: Yeah, the failure of that bridge is a sort of Grim Warning shown to young architecture and engineering students! Thanks for visiting!

    • artbyrodriguez profile image

      Beverly Rodriguez 4 years ago from Albany New York

      Love all the choices. I like the bridges.

    • cdevries profile image
      Author

      cdevries 4 years ago

      @artbyrodriguez: Thanks! Bridges are cool.

    • cjbmeb14 lm profile image

      cjbmeb14 lm 4 years ago

      All of my children loved playing with blocks, great lens.

    • cdevries profile image
      Author

      cdevries 4 years ago

      @cjbmeb14 lm: Thanks! Blocks are wonderful toys.

    • CoolFool83 profile image

      CoolFool83 4 years ago

      These look awesome! Really cool lense.

    • profile image

      crstnblue 3 years ago

      Very nice lens! Made me wish to be a child again and take the chance to play with all those creative building toys... : )

    • cdevries profile image
      Author

      cdevries 3 years ago

      @crstnblue: Who says you can't? (I may, ahem, play with a few myself now and then.) Thanks for visiting!

    • Charito1962 profile image

      Charito Maranan-Montecillo 3 years ago from Manila, Philippines

      Nice toys! When I was younger, I built models using Lego pieces and building blocks.

    • cdevries profile image
      Author

      cdevries 3 years ago

      @Charito1962: Legos are great! Though I'm not too happy about the Lego company making "girly" pink sets and so many branded sets... i prefer the gender free make-it-up-yourself buckets o' blocks. Thanks for visiting!

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