Great Building Toys for the Junior Architect

Toys That Foster an Interest in Architecture

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 Sets

child engineer in hard hat next to a drawing on chalkboard
Photo by selimaksan/E+ Collection/Getty Images

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 woodblock 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...

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Erector Sets

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 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.

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Bridge Constructor

"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

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 sets to build an Egyptian Pyramid, a Russian House, a Japanese House, a Medieval Castle, a Roman Arch, the Roman Coliseum, and a set of Middle Eastern Architectural Blocks.

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My Best Blocks

Basic, made in the U.S. hardwood blocks, in different sizes and shapes. They are more durable than video games and provide more invention than a building set with step-by-step directions. If wooden blocks were good enough for your parents' parents, why aren't they good enough for your grandchildren?

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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.

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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.

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Girder and Panel Building Sets

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, provided many types and packages that can still be found for purchase on the Internet.

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Avoid Buckyballs

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 — became 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. Maxfield & Oberton, the manufacturer, stopped making them in 2012. The U.S. Consumer Protection Commission recalled the product on July 17, 2014, and today it's illegal to sell or purchase them. The health risk? "When two or more high-powered magnets are swallowed, they can attract to one another through the stomach and intestinal walls, resulting in serious injuries, such as holes in the stomach and intestines, intestinal blockage, blood poisoning, and death," warns the CPSC. They recommend you safely dispose of this popular product.


Buckyball Recall Stirs a Wider Legal Campaign by Hilary Stout, The New York Times, October 31, 2013 [accessed January 4, 2014] Maxfield & Oberton to stop production of magnetic toy Buckyballs, Reuters, December 18, 2012,

Buckyballs and Buckycubes Recall Frequently Asked Questions, CPSC, September 30, 2015,

History at

History at, Meccano website

“Maxfield & Oberton to Stop Production of Magnetic Toy Buckyballs.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 18 Dec. 2012,
Six Retailers Announce Recall of Buckyballs and Buckycubes High-Powered Magnet Sets Due to Ingestion Hazard, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission

What is Girder and Panel? Bridge Street Toys,

What is nanblock? and History, Kawada Co.

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Your Citation
Craven, Jackie. "Great Building Toys for the Junior Architect." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Craven, Jackie. (2023, April 5). Great Building Toys for the Junior Architect. Retrieved from Craven, Jackie. "Great Building Toys for the Junior Architect." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).