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Architecture and Building Toys
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)
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.
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.
Come on - you always need one more block...
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.
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
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
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!
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?
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!
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.
Also kid-friendly storage, plus easy to carry just one tub with you as you play.
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.)
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 Sets mimic real-life steel construction.
Tinker Toy mimics... well, it's just its own funky fun thing.
Classic Lincoln Logs - build your own log cabin.
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.
Well sorta, if you have a 3D printer anyway. Read more here:
A FastCompany article on this cool, cool, COOL connecto-block system.
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.
- Ohio Log Home Restoration blog
Articles and links to information on full-sized log construction.
- Lincoln Logs site by K'nex
The mother-shop for buying Lincoln Log sets.
- History of Lincoln Logs
These favorite log cabin style building toys were invented by John Lloyd Wright - son of the famous American architect.
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)
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.
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.
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?
A good basic sand table: the table part makes it more comfortable, the lid keeps the cat out.
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.
(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!
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.
Links to Paper Architecture
- Ingrid Siliakus Paper Architect/Artist
The fascinating work of an artist who designs architecture cut from a single sheet of paper.
- Make: Magazine
A paper architecture competition
- Oddity Central - Paper Buildings of Jill Sylvia
Using ledger paper, but cutting away (by hand!) all the writing-the-number background to leave only the grid, Jill Sylvia builds architecture.
- Jill Sylvia's Website
The artist's online portfolio.
When you've had enough sand and water and dropping blocks on your toes, how about building with paper?
This could be a ton of fun.
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
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."
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
The classic book. My boy loved it. And it's a great introduction to construction.
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.)
EVERY kid needs a chance to design.
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.
- National Building Museum Shop
The kids' department with lots of toys and books.
- Chicago Architecture Foundation Shop
The Chicago center for architecture has fantastic shop with a good kids' department
- Museum of Modern Art Shop
The kids' department - books and toys.
- Metropolitan Museum of Art Shop
The Metkids department.
- Kimball Art Museum Shop
The kids' department, mostly art books, some toys.
- Chicago Art Institute Shop
The museum shop - some children's books.
- The Smithsonian Museum Shop
Some children's toys, mostly books.
Rubber Stamps and Rubber-y
Looks like inky fun.
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.
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
Now this can be a wonderfully engrossing whole-family project.
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.
- Rijksmuseum - 17th Century Doll House
A virtual tour through a fabulous antique doll house. Click on the boxed phrase "doll house" to move through a list and navigate the pictures.
- Art Institute of Chicago - Thorne Miniature Rooms
Not, strictly speaking, a dolls' house but, rather, beautifully made miniature rooms. This collection of model rooms walks you through the history of interior design.
A fascinating ELECTRIFIED build-it-yourself dollhouse / model system that helps girls play with science and tech... and dolls too. Looks really intriguing.
More Building and Educational Toys
Other sites with children's building toys.
Construction and Charity - Canstruction
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!
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