blurb via Archinect

Everyone can recall their favorite toy as a child. For some, these childhood toys inspired interests and passions that led to specific career pursuits as an adult. Thinking back on one’s own experience with toys like LEGO and Lincoln Logs, these simple pieces of wood and plastic led to endless amounts of fun and creative possibility. As a child, I recall spending hours playing with Little Tykes Waffle Blocks and Playskool’s colored wooden blocks. 

Play-based learning, especially with blocks or other building-focused models, enhances a child’s ability to problem solve and stimulate creative decision making. These simple, tactical objects allow for children to experience and understand the world around them, especially the built environment. Through stacking and connecting, these types of educational toys enable children to experience trial and error through forms of continuous self-assessment. The anticipation of stacking one more block on top of another, or connecting one more piece with the hopes of it not falling, is something most adults today can recall. 

This level of play develops a sense of experimentation and curious iteration. If a building starts to wobble or lean to the left, it initiates a sense of self-reflection in terms of construction approach. For example, Charles Renfro, of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, recalls playing with Kenner building sets which allowed him to experiment with his own design strategies. In a recent New York Times piece by Emily Spiack, Renfro shared his experience with the Kenner Girder & Panel building set and how this toy influenced his architectural career. 

Another architect known for his playful and literal approach to the beloved toy block is Takefumi Aida. The Japanese architect designed an entire series of houses called “Toy Blocks House.” In using the architectural shape and form of toy blocks, Aida used this typology at a greater scale. According to Aida, “architecture is produced within the framework of restrictions and conditions characteristics of an era, just as toy blocks are played within the framework of certain given condition.” Rectangles, prisms, and cubes allowed the architect to embrace the framework of the toy as a building material to explore the interior and exterior of space.

In this current tech-heavy world, young children experience building scenarios and imagined construction a bit differently. Although LEGO is still one of the most popular toys for all age groups, games like Minecraft and Roblox have taken the place of building blocks, and Kenner sets. Although these digital versions of building play promote design exploration through imagination, I find the tactile feel of physically playing and interacting with building toys adds another level of development and cognitive understanding.