Gifts and Toys to Nurture Little Architykes

Practice Architecture and Engineering With These Classic Toys

Can you have fun building things without LEGOs? Of course you can. The LEGO architecture series kits may be the first choice of many, but the world has much more to offer! Just check out these great building toys. Some are historic classics and others are trendy. Either way, these toys might just inspire your young architect or engineer to pursue a building career.

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Anchor Stone Building Blocks

nchor Building Box #6 - Basic Starter by Anchor Stone
nchor Building Box #6 - Basic Starter by Anchor Stone. mage courtesy

German educator Friedrich Froebel did more than invent Kindergarten. Realizing that "play" is an important aspect of learning, Froebel (1782-1852) created "free play" blocks of wood in 1883. The idea of learning from building with blocks of different shapes soon was embraced by Otto and Gustav Lilienthal. The brothers took Froebel's wood block idea and created a soft stone version made from quartz sand, chalk and linseed oil—a formula still used today. The heaviness and feel of stone made creating large structures a popular activity for children of the 19th century.

The Lilienthal brothers, however, were more interested in experimenting with the new flying machines, so they sold their business and concentrated on aviation. By 1880 German entrepreneur Friedrich Richter was manufacturing the Anker Steinbaukasten, the Anker Stone Building Sets, from Froebel's original idea.

The now-pricey German imported bricks are said to have been the inspirational toys of Albert Einstein, Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius, and American designers Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Buckminster Fuller. Today's consumer might do better by going to Home Depot and picking up some bathroom and patio tiles, because Froebel blocks are expensive and difficult to find. But, hey, you grandparents out there....

Source: History at [accessed December 19, 2013]
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Erector Sets

Empire State Building constructed from an Erector Set.
Empire State Building constructed from an Erector Set. Image courtesy

What does an Erector Set have to do with Grand Central Terminal in New York City? Plenty.

Dr. Alfred Carlton Gilbert was taking a train to NYC in 1913, the year that the new Grand Central Terminal opened and trains were converting from steam to electric. Gilbert saw the construction, was intrigued by the cranes erecting electric wires throughout the city, and thought that the 20th century was due for a modern toy set where children could learn construction by working with pieces of metal, nuts and bolts, and motors and pulleys. The Erector Set was born.

Since Dr. Gilbert's death in 1961, the A. C. Gilbert toy company has been been bought and sold several times. Meccano has expanded the basic toy, but you can still buy starter sets and specific structures, such as the Empire State Building shown here.

Source: History at, Meccano website [accessed December 19, 2013]
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Girder and Panel Building Sets

Girder and Panel School Building Set by Girder and Panel
Girder and Panel School Building Set by Girder and Panel. Image courtesy

This toy, first introduced by Kenner in the 1950s, mimics the actual construction methods used today. In ancient times, buildings were constructed by stacking stone blocks and bricks to create massive walls, much like the plastic LEGO toy stacks pieces of plastic. Since the invention of steel in the late 1800s, construction methods have changed. The first skyscrapers were built with a framework of columns and beams (girders) and a curtain wall (panels) attached to the frame. This remains the "modern" method of constructing buildings.

Bridge Street Toys, a major supplier of Girder and Panel toys, provides three types:

  • Girder and Panel for basic building construction has been used for many science projects. Ages 6 and older.
  • Bridge and Turnpike set, with specialized pieces designed for this structural engineering. Ages 8 and older.
  • Hydrodynamic set includes tanks and plastic tubing to create systems that work with water. Ages 10 and older.

Source: What is Girder and Panel?, Bridge Street Toys [accessed January 3, 2014]
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Bridge Constructor

Bridge Constructor App
Bridge Constructor App. Image cropped from

"Bridging the gap between gaming and engineering" is how Bridge Constructor was once described by Canadian game publisher Meridian4. Developed by the Austrian gamers Clockstone Studio, Bridge Constructor is just one of the many bridge-making games/programs/applications breaking into the electronics market. The basic premise is that you build a digital bridge and see if it is structurally sound by sending digital traffic over it.

For some, the joy is creating a functional structure on your computer. For others, the delight may come when cars and trucks careen into the chasm below your construction. Nevertheless, CAD has become part of the architecture profession and simulation toys seem to be here to stay—the new classic toy. Titles from other manufacturers include:

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HABA Architectural Blocks

Haba Basic Building Blocks Starter Set
Haba Basic Building Blocks Starter Set. Image courtesy

Diversity is the name of the game for these toy sets. Made especially for younger children, the HABA architectural wooden blocks contain the special details found in architecture throughout history and around the world, including these sets:

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Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, and the White House Nanoblock Sets on Desk equal in size to a coffee mug
Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, and the White House Nanoblock Sets on Desk equal in size to a coffee mug. Image courtesy

Nano- is a prefix that generally means very, very, very tiny, but these building blocks are NOT for tiny children! The Japanese toymaker Kawada has been making LEGO-like blocks since 1962, but in 2008 they made the basic block half the size—the nanoblock. The small size allows for more architectural detail, which some professionals find addicting, so we hear. Special sets include enough nanoblocks to recreate classic structures, such as Castle Neuschwanstein, Leaning Tower of Pisa, Easter Island Statues, Taj Mahal, Chrysler Building, White House, and Sagrada Familia.

Source: What is nanblock? and History, Kawada Co. [accessed January 3, 2014]
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Magna-Tiles Clear building set
Magna-Tiles Clear building set. Image courtesy

Where Math, Science, and Creativity Meet is how this product is marketed by Valtech. Each geometric piece has magnetic material encased along its edges, within "a high grade ABS (BPA FREE) plastic that is free of phthalates and latex" according to the people at The magnetic construction pieces come in clear and solid colors for every aspiring Magna-Tect. Buy from Amazon »

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Buckyballs and Buckycubes

Buckyball Tower Inspired by Burj Khalifa
Buckyball Tower Inspired by Burj Khalifa. Buckyball Tower photo © Dave Ginsberg, dddaag on, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

There's "something strangely addictive about stacking the powerful little magnets into endless shapes," says The New York Times. Creating Burj Khalifa-like structures is easy because of the strong magnetic nature of the Buckyball spheres. Likewise, swallowing several can be very dangerous to tiny intestines.

Buckycubes are named after Buckyballs, which are named after the soccer ball-shaped molecule. The molecule is named after geodesic dome architect Richard Buckminster Fuller.

The highly magnetized metal pieces—5 mm in diameter and in a variety of colors—have become the perfect desktop adult toy for millions of stressed office workers. Unfortunately, hundreds of youngsters who have swallowed the little balls have ended up in hospital emergency rooms. For legal reasons, Maxfield & Oberton, the manufacturer, has gone out of business as they fight a recall by the U.S. Consumer Protection Commission.

Sources: Six Retailers Announce Recall of Buckyballs and Buckycubes High-Powered Magnet Sets Due to Ingestion Hazard, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission; Buckyball Recall Stirs a Wider Legal Campaign by Hilary Stout, The New York Times, October 31, 2013 [accessed January 4, 2014]