Constructing a case for the return of building toys
Innovation talk:Do children receive alphabet building blocks for Christmas any more? Or how about Meccano sets?
All the boys in our house got Meccano when they were young. It was a Christmas certainty that at least one of us would spend Christmas day sprawled across the floor, blocking a hallway or corner of a room all day creating structures and building towers.
I have a thing about building toys and in this I include train sets, which, in a real sense, are about construction. These toys are good for children in lots of ways. They develop dexterity through having to manipulate numerous small and often fiddly pieces. More importantly, they encourage creativity in the freeform design of structures and innovation, and problem-solving when they run into difficulties or have to overcome a shortage of pieces.
All manner of construction toys, from wooden brick sets to kits to build-your-own transistor radio, were delivered at Christmas through the years to a household with, at the time four and later five brothers.
Lego, of course, would have been on the agenda, too, although back in those days they were boringly simple, with few of the fancy pieces you get today.
One Christmas when I was about 10, good old Santa decided to deliver a different kind of construction toy, a Kenner Hydro Dynamic Set.
This was something completely different and none of my brothers ever had anything like it. It came with plastic girders and I-beams for constructing industrial buildings. It came with side and roof panels that made the structure look like a real factory.
The innovation, however, was it had plastic tubing and tanks that could be assembled. It had a small pump that pushed water up into the top tank, valves could be opened and closed and the vegetable-dyed water piped across your “chemical plant” as seen fit.
Construction toys don’t seem to appear on Santa lists or in birthday requests so often these days. Anyone offering such a gift risks having it thrown back at them by a disgruntled kid who actually wanted a new game for their Nintendo DS console and not some lame baby toy.
Lego is one of the exceptions, although it has changed utterly from the old days. Then they showed you pictures of buildings you could make, but mostly you winged it and built your own castles and forts.
Now you buy kits with the parts to build a specific model. You follow the instructions step after meticulous step and in the end you have a perfect space ship or race car. While you can take the pieces apart and build something else, the high number of specialised parts means you probably won’t bother and will just make the same model again.
And herein lies a grossly unscientific theory about the low uptake of science and maths subjects by students these days.
It involves no data and is probably just humbug but then this is Christmas and people should be generous.
There were plenty of students doing science and maths back in the days when children got building toys and train sets for Christmas.
The numbers doing STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – has been in decline for some years; I wonder if this doesn’t coincide temporally with the advent of computer games, the toy that basically wiped out demand for building sets.
Back in the day, building and train sets came with sparse instructions for what to make. You were shown a few drawings but you were expected to figure it out and assemble it on your own. If you ran into a problem you had to improvise and most of the designs ultimately came from your own imagination, with a high degree of creativity involved.
Fewer toys demand imagination and creativity these days. Lego is a wonderful toy but the sets tend to direct what the child should build, at least initially.
As with other building toys, children are tending to abandon them earlier and earlier as they migrate to computer games, often conscious that their friends might mock them for not having the latest console or game title. While these games are wonderful for hand-eye co-ordination, there is much less creativity required to play.
Science, engineering and maths are subjects that demand creativity, innovation and problem solving skills, all stimulated when assembling your own Meccano or Hydro Dynamic designs.
Maybe we lost more than we realised when children abandoned these “old-fashioned” toys.