better toys

Here we hesitate to call everything bought in a toy shop a toy. For a few years I took on the task of finding better playthings, things that move children on. I was looking for tools for learning as I reviewed:

  • Lego Mindstorms
  • Microsoft Actimates Barney Dinosaur
  • Knex
  • Meccano
  • Lego
  • The British Toy Fair 97
  • The British Toy Fair 96
Taking Lego Mindstorms on a test drive (for Saab Magazine ’99)

Lego started a revolution with Mindstorms, a hi-tech construction set based on a Lego brick with a built-in microcomputer. It is a mind revolution for children, allowing them to write computer programs to make robots that know where to go and what to do. Launched at Christmas, the Danish brick builder is now set to win awards for a product that turns robotics, a fun and challenging subject, into child’s play.

“The world is full of intelligent devices of which children are passive observers” notes Christian Majgaard, Lego’s Vice President. “The philosophy behind Lego Mindstorms is to allow children not only to understand modern technology, but to become creative masters of it”. And after seeing the most respected names a development team in education including Seymore Papert, Nick Negroponte and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the new set demands a look.

Most familiar are the bricks, wheels and motors, all of which combine with any family’s legacy of Lego. Add cams, crown wheel gears and caterpillar tracks and you soon move into a world of mechanisms. But this is robotics so there are bumper switches that can trigger a buggy to change direction, while a light measuring sensor can make the vehicle follow a path. As the child’s urge directs, this buggy can back away from obstacles or aim towards a goal post, it might trace a route across kitchen tiles, or track the line of a tennis court.

If motors drove Lego before now, today there is software driving it too. With the sound of thunder strikes never far away (lightening is the brand’s icon), the software sets challenges for the child: make a robot that walks, make cart that turns, make one that travels fasts and flips over. There are many to choose each graded to suit their experience. Progress can be fast, although as in education, most will need to learn to walk before they flip over.

There is a tutorial to guide them through setting up a device that transmits programs to robots as infrared signals. The intelligent brick – it is the size of a fist, picks up the programs. It can then use signals from sensors, power the motors and act as its most free spirited owner might ask.

The way to gain such control is with a programming language called RCX code. It offers commands to turn a motor or sound a beep, while ‘sensor watchers’ help make the decisions. Children pull and fit these commands, like building blocks, into a sequence. For example, a bump on the push sensor commands the motors to reverse for a second and take another course. In the TV commercial, a buggy with an onboard camera steers into a bathroom, takes a picture of the person showering, and beats a fast retreat. As the commentary says, “Lego Mindstorms – your imagination rules”.

Building on more that a decade of collaboration with MIT plus many special products for the schools market, the new programming language is among the best of its genre. It features ways to make programs from sub-programs, which encourages a methodical approach. Its building block metaphor will help many to gain a perch on programming – indeed with parental support those as young as six will make headway. Lego are planning to release products for the younger set.

Currently, three expansion sets are available to add extra capabilities to the system. ‘Extreme Creatures’, lets them build dinosaur-like robots that mimic nature: offset wheels give a creature a frog like hop or a menacing lunge; gear wheels instead of tyres add noise and rattle; more gear wheel trickery delivers a creature that walks. Beady eyes and hi-tech flashing fibre optic antennae give a good measure of scare. The expansion idea continues in ‘Robosports’ where robots might slide a puck or throw a sponge ball. Robot names are amusingly themed – the ‘Dunkobot’ dunks balls, while intelligent hands of Grabitobot sort one colour ball from another. It all requires building cunning and programming strategy. The third in the series, ‘Exploration Mars’ has just been launched, with challenges to build Mars rovers driven by their owner’s programmed-in behaviour.

But themes aside, it is intriguing how Lego have implemented problem-solving tasks. They have made scenarios children can explore rather than be spoiled by over helping. True to the idea of exploration, it offers countless clues but few solutions. In particular, the manuals instruct on building a bare chassis that can walk or kick. They offer ingenious tips for holding a ball or building antennae-like bumpers. Likewise the software also offers a mix of solutions and clues to that elusive idea – how does one program a buggy round a tennis court?

And while the most inspired children might dispense with the help, Mindstorms offers the essential elements that take years of trial and error. It offers concepts such as pulleys, differential gears and of course programming clues that children can draw upon to solve problems – in much the way that vocabulary can be drawn upon to turn it into poetry. As Michael Resnick of MIT explains “You can’t just give children knowledge. Children learn best when they build their own theories of how the world works and try them out by building their own inventions”.

To compare Mindstorms with playing computer games is to invite only the briefest of comparisons. Games are no less exciting and engrossing, but it may be generous to say they develop the same skills. Lego Mindstorms is more about interaction and creativity than physical dexterity. A visit to an online galley at shows evidence – there’s a robot that deals cards and another that collects cans for recycling. Some samples are awesome – like a ‘camera’ where the light sensor scans a scene and draws the image on screen. It’s evidence too, that some parents want this for themselves!

Lego have cleverly constructed a learning environment for the home. Here children will assess a need, solve a problem and evaluate the solution – they use a technology paradigm, taught almost universally in schools. Maybe some day soon, as the child arrives at school, their teacher will ask them, “What did you learn at the weekend”.

The Lego Mindstorms range includes the Robotics Invention System at around £160. Extreme Creatures, Robosports and the new Exploration Mars expansion sets at around £40.

Lego construction set with ‘Scout’ microcomputer – Robotics Discovery System (age 9+)

One of those ironies of school is that computer control, that most tricky bit of the IT curriculum, is one of the most fun topics to teach.  With its roots in robots and machines, children need no goading to learn about control. But if like many schools you don’t have the gear, welcome an unexpected hand this Xmas as parents buy kids their own robotics kit. Ironically again, they will pretty much do your job for you.

Robotics today is hot as a potato. The Lego company’s new Robotics Discovery System quenches the appetite and what’s more it doesn’t need a computer. So there’s no irony here, just coloured plastic bricks, wheels, gears, cams and axles. They let you build amazing robots – from a bug that will explore dark corners of the house to an intruder alarm that will launch a rocket at your folks. You get good instructions to make these together with another – called a Hoop-o-Bot – where it throws a ball back when you dunk a ball in its hoop. As well as familiar Lego bits there are ‘cool’ extras like insect wings, feelers and eyes.


Cooler still is the Scout, a microcomputer that controls what your robot will do. It is a stage on from Lego’s intelligent brick, known as the RCX, which put challenging robot projects within the grasp of kids last year.  The new Scout brick has built-in light sensors as well as sockets for touch sensors and motors. What is really new is a button-controlled menu on a tiny LCD screen.  Almost anyone can use this to assemble basic actions into what makes a robot tick. For example, you can make your buggy move forwards and take a side step if it bumps into something. You can also make it search out the light, wait for a ball before firing it back. Yet more controls let you set how fast the bug runs or make it move in zig-zags and circles, or add insect-like sounds to robot actions.

Just watching it is an education: you see how two motors can make loop, or take avoiding action, or trace out a circle (one moves a bit, then the other). In fact, learning by example is a great starting way to other projects – for example, you could recycle the insect robot as a solar collector that tracks the sun through the day.  Likewise, the zigzag action might flap wings, or make a robot walk.

While the Scout has plenty of tricks for starters, you can also program it from a remote handset accessory or an expansion set planned for next year. It should work today using Lego’s current Robolab and Robotics Invention System systems.

We clearly have moved on: what used to be a computer, sensor box and befuddling control box for schools, now fits into your hand. What’s more it is sold in the high street and does the curriculum before break. Maybe things ARE going too fast to keep up. Any body remember learning to swim by lying on your classroom desk? Teaching control today could feel just like that.

Playing with the pink dinosaur that is “Microsoft Actimates Barney” – a review of a home computer (for the TES 1999)

The home computer is another species of computer. It’s a creature to be shared by all the family – so the more complete it is, the better adapted it will be.

Tiny’s Family Package begs attention for its completeness. Included with the latest Pentium computer is a printer, multimedia, Internet and a rich mix of software. Just add a talking, gesticulating pink robot and you have almost everything.

Remarkable too is the thirty-title software bundle which offers something for all ages and makes you breathless reading it. There’s Microsoft’s Encarta encyclopaedia, 3D Movie Maker, Flight Simulator, a set of Sesame Street activity discs as well as Dorling Kindersley’s top titles like their children’s dictionary. Unlike ‘bundles’, at least half are current favourites with great reviews, and they’re included at a price that seems like free.

But the star here is Barney – the latest in plush interactive toys. Switch on the pink dinosaur and he asks if you want to play a game or sing a song. For example, you squeeze his hand to count numbers, his foot to sing ‘wheels on the bus’ or cover his eyes to play peek-a-boo. Like the TV character he plays, he’s totally warm and sweet – even to point of giving sweetness a bad name. A two-year-old would surely take to him, adults might find watching the interaction scary.

Barney alone does enough but the computer age begins when you use his software on the computer. You see Barney has a radio link that gets him talking to the child as they work through the software. In each of four CD-Rom titles Barney is the child’s playmate who encourages, sings new songs or compliments them on their choices of shapes, colours and numbers. When they colour in a picture with all the same colours, he charmingly brings it to their attention. When they get things wrong, he’s soon in there offering guidance with a hint. Even the child not ready for a mouse can play here – they squeeze his hand as the software plays and run it from here. If they cover his eyes, the characters on-screen play too. In time they’ll access more challenging exercises because the software has a few tiers of difficulty. In short, Barney adds a nuance of teacher interaction that you’ve really got to see. Encouraging others and politeness is part of the hidden curriculum here with the credits going to a prestigious team of teachers and psychologists.

Before anyone says ‘hey stop, where are we going with this’, you have to admire yhe promise for young and special children. When their friends have gone to someone else’s house, they’ll never be home alone, that’s for sure.
What remains in this mega-package is a smart Epson colour printer. It proves you can get good enough photographic quality today for around the £100 mark. Even on 2p a sheet paper it’s pretty good to print greeting cards, letters, and family photo collages that are worth framing. With better 10p a sheet card you can really go places and for only £30 more the sounds-even-better Epson 660 is yours. Add to this a faultless specification, a bargain price and you see a machine adapted to the 2+2 family, with Barney making one more.

The Tiny Family Computer costs £1150 including VAT and has CD-Rom software titles; Actimate’s Barney toy with 5 software titles, plus joystick, speakers, Epson 440 colour printer, 56K modem, manual and computer. Reviewed machine was a 350 MHz Pentium, 128Mb memory. Available from ‘Tiny’

A round up of the intriguing toys at the British International Toy and Hobby Fair 1997 (for the TES)

Now is the time of year when the toy trade gets ready for Xmas and the fluffy toys, techie toys, activity toys are on show for toy buyers. It is a strange new world, with hundreds of shopping days before Xmas, and Barbies by the kilo. We were looking for higher mileage toys and hobbies, but with over 300 product categories, it was hard to keep focused. I’m still easily distracted, the child psychologist who looks after a toy library and came with me, even said so.

One distraction was StickManiacs (£1) a swap-able, gamble-able, dog-bone shaped ‘stick’ to fill the place of ‘POG’ discs and cigarette cards of years past. Kids collect the set and flick them around and go wow. The toy trade calls them collectibles, our trade should call them obsessionals or even confiscatables.

We found the brand name toys too –finding Thomas the Tank Engine on the Internet and of all things, a Sooty play-suit – an idea which just I couldn’t get into. For fans of Goosebumps the best selling, scary books, we found the Goosebumps Monster Bag. Cut it open and out comes a dismembered monster in a mess of green ooze. It was time to get on task.

Encouraging children to try crafts or take up a hobby is a better way of making a mess. So there’s Waddington’s Colour Candles (age 10+), a kit for candle making, complete with dye, wax, and wicks. Here too are clever ideas such as putting ice in the mould to make holes in the wax. Or maybe the Chocolate Factory (age 6+) with its water-bath for melting, foil and moulds will show how easy this is to do anyway. Scented Soap Maker (age 10+) is the same all-in starter idea – and no less worthwhile. Home fun aside, these are tasters that an after-school club could try before investing in something substantial. In fact the Galt range is full of low price starter kits – new this year is a Marbling Set and Victorian Decoupage – a kit which makes gift boxes from printed scrap ( both age 7+, £3-£6).

There is plenty more crafty stuff and again the prices make party gifts of them. Unusual is Wax Works (£5, Chenille Kraft), which is wax that looks like plasticene, and peels off in strips for modelling. The strips can be coiled to make animal bodies, warmed to stick on legs, or stuck onto a drawing. It is novel, reusable and there are school packs to buy in bulk. If parties mean party bags, the bead craft packs from Hama at under £2 are respectable. Beading isn’t just a girlie necklace thing, as among the pink packaging you will find legions of sets with animal shaped bead boards, patterns to experiment with, and hand-eye co-ordination to develop. For quiet work in nurseries, get the see-through boards (under £5) where children can trace a picture using large beads.

For flip-chart artists, Chunkie (£5 for 3, Perrin & Nissen) is a new kind of felt-tip marker. It is quite thick, drawing a half-inch line, so you can use it for scribbling a temporary sign or colouring in on a grand scale. What is excellent is that they don’t dry up when the cap is left off, and that the colours are washable. A nice school feature is that they are refillable and available in bulk. For more delicate work, the not-as-new Blowpens (age 6+, £3 for 5, P&M) let you do stencilling and pointilistic stuff just by blowing one end of the pen over paper. It is quite easy to get a result and say, make a nice card, but the hygiene thing limits use at school.

The most impressive new toy is Logiblocs, (age 9+, from £20) which allows children to build ‘control systems’ such as burglar alarms or lighthouses. If children plugging together colour coded blocks to make circuits sounds familiar, here they build, not circuits, but working ‘systems’ pushing together the bits they need to do a job. The blocks include logic gates, timers and latches but the technical side is almost hidden. Just a glance at this hints at something that design and technology specialists might want to use in school. As always, the bigger sets will offer much more scope and make a better buy.

There is more ingenious technology around: how about Lego models that don’t just move but can be programmed to go forward and back, go ‘beep’ and so on. So someone’s dream comes true with the Barcode Truck (9 years up, about £89 – Lego) which has a control unit which you swipe over bar codes to make it do the business. It is clever for sure, but for another dream see the K’nex Big Ball Factory Set (age 11+, £) which builds into five foot high roller coaster model with loops, windmills and lots of rackety noises. It is a challenge of a build for sure, but this multi-award winning construction system uses the same generic parts, so the annoyance of missing parts is no more. Schools will like the idea of modelling with this: you can build 3D structures with unusual ease, and get good value for money. For just a taster, there is now a range of pocket money starter sets (age 5+).

Nurseries will know how toddlers are magnetised by the Cosy Coupe (under 5’s, £30 – the foot or ‘Flintstone-drive’ vehicles that, they say outsell every car in the world (Little Tikes). As second-hand prices are so remarkable, those thinking of a trade up could go for a Sporty 4×4 (age 2-6, £49) which seats two – it might even avoid a few arguments. What IS nice about this range is a rare attention to special needs: for example, there is a doll’s house with a wheelchair and ramp. And a real size Patio Playhouse (age 2-6, £300,) has a big wide open side that takes a wheelchair. Inside they’ll find the usual kitchen sink, breakfast bar and dolly feeding area. Another great asset, that needs a garage size play area is the 8-in-One play centre (age 2-8, £250), with tunnel, platform, steps, and slide which might sit on a bed of cork chippings, and gets re-born in a new arrangement from time to time.

Some firms pick up awards every year – Orchard Toys have done well on their Shopping List Game (age 3-7, £6) and they now have Hey Diddle Dominoes – where the idea is to match domino ends according to pictures from nursery rhymes (age 3-6, £5). On the same theme there is Find the Rhyme, a jig-saw puzzle that when you finish and then find the 26 hidden rhymes in the picture (age 4-8, £6.50). And there’s even a jig-saw puzzle for babies – Farm Animal Puzzles (age 18 months, £3) which has four two-piece puzzles – not quite hours of fun – but making excellent presents.

Another regular award winner, Living & Learning do kits which get children experimenting at home. For example, Science in the Bathtub (age 4-8, £8) has 15 experiments to do with boats, ducks and a water wheel. While Jam Jar Science Amazing Eyes (age 6-10, £6) includes lenses, optical illusions, and shows them how to make a pin hole camera. It is not infinite, but it is wholesome and helps to involve parents.

If there’s any change after spending the £140 that we spend per child, then it’s time to think of grown-ups. Anyone skiing this season, with a love for ‘poubelling’ – sliding down a mountain in a black bin liner – can now go with style. Snowmotion (£23, Q Leisure), the first roll up toboggan, is smarter than a bin liner and a nice but dangerous idea.

Those who regularly miss daytime TV’s embarrassing Supermarket Sweep, can fill up their trolleys on the board game (£20, Britannia). Those after something cerebral could try Oxford (age 14-adult, £35 Falcon) – a game based on the famous dictionary. Here those with brains like dictionaries, or those that aspire to one, tour a board and answer questions about the meanings or spellings of words. Unusually, you can play on different levels – and coming very soon is a junior version which needs to be seen.

So there’s a taster of the year ahead in toys. If buying them isn’t an exact science for us, it surely is for the toy trade who know that four-fifths of their customers are female, and that we spend more on sons (28 %), than on daughters (23%). For our 11 million kids however the science is even clearer – you pay, they play. And they know their rights!

psychologist and some advisory teachers visit the “1996 toy fair” and picked off the promising toys (TES 1996):

Last Xmas parents spent £112 on toys for each of their children. Figures for January to September last year, the latest available, show that we spent £620 million on toys in that period. Add to that the astounding Xmas splurge, accounting for 80% of the year’s spending and you see we’re dealing with something big.

A round up of the intriguing toys at the British International Toy and Hobby Fair 1996 (for the TES)

We were at the annual Toy and Hobby fair. “Hello Sindy, Hello Barbie, and HEL-LO Action Man.” we said, walking past. You can’t help showing some respect for those at the very top the top of the market. But we were in search of something deeper and more meaningful than Ken and Barbie ever managed. So we missed out the cuddly toys, the bendy toys and Sindy in her pop star outfit. We weren’t dismissing them, we were just ignoring them today.

We tried to ignore Gooey Louie – a model head where you pull the green things from her nose ‘until her brains go pop’. There was mild interest in Play Doh that now changes colour in your hand, and Playstuff doh that does glitters. But that interest didn’t last and that might be one criterion of a good toy, or it might not.

With board games, the crunch comes when you’ve bought and played them. However, we could definitively say that the Teddy Bear Mulberry Bush game (Orchard Toys – £7, age 3-6) had a ‘belongs in the nursery’ feel to it. Here the children have to get Teddy ready for school, and they match cards and mime actions – like combing hair or brushing teeth. The pedigree is good – Orchard’s past hits with Shopping List (£5) and Teddy Bear Colourmatch Express (£7) put this one in a very positive spotlight.

And funny how “educational’ means toys with numbers and letters, although ‘My First Scrabble Words’ (Spears Games – £10, age 4 +) is a promising example. The children need to find the letters to make a word. Colour clues help to narrow down the choice to a few letters while keyed slots confirm the correct choice. The tasks are graded in difficulty, and lead on to words that cross like real Scrabble.

Children more attracted to games rather than toil might like Readspin (£8, Imperial) where they turn wheels to form different words. The eight letter wheels can be split up so that two can play with four each and the idea of course is to make more words and score more. There are lots of versions including some for maths.

Baby needs some fun too. I mean, when you’re strapped into your car seat and facing backwards, the view will have anyone screaming. Galt’s Drive Time Bunny offers some respite with a large bunny to see and touch. And the Duplo range has spawned ‘Primo’ for those from six to 24 months. Here are rattle bricks, mirror bricks and characters – and each with a clever dome fitting that’s less exacting than real Duplo.

Nurseries stuck for space, or who can’t leave things out overnight might be interested in a very practical Folding Climbing Frame (£200, TP Activity Toys). It’s an indoor or outdoor frame which easily ‘gate-folds’ flat by removing a platform and loosening four wing-nuts. We liked the suggestion to disguise it as a play shop or double decker bus or add accessories such as a slide (£50) and a hoop tunnel (£35).

For pretend play, the ‘Bi-plane U wear’ (If Cardboard Creations) is a hilarious strap-on aeroplane that high flying headteachers could use to zoom around the school. Shame it was made of card or it would be brilliant nursery toy.

Most uncouth toy we found was Wild Planet’s Bug (Juniors) which has a hunter style belt with compass, microscope and animal containers. You then feed and keep your bug, like a circus act in a plastic desert, kitchen or cityscape. Very suspect we thought.

Being forever stuck for a toy to take to a birthday party, Chuft’s Originals have wood toy classics like yo-yos, cup and ball game, and some esoteric items at prices from £2 to £12. The packaging is woody and has that middle class appeal.

Construction sets are the whole food of toys. You’d want a child to have all sorts of construction sets, so there’s no clear ‘best’ here. You’d want the set to make a range of things, not just one. And for school you need to occupy several children, not just one.

So, ever Lego-lovers, we were none too attracted by tractor kits and car kits. “If you want a nice tractor, then buy a nice tractor” was the comment. “I’ve been there and done it and got family handed down kits, always sans vital bits and instructions”. She added.

Fourteen month old K’nex are aiming at 20% of the construction market over the year, chipping away at Lego’s fantastic 90% share. New this year are battery and spring motors to power their models. And there are school packs (£50-£200, NES Arnold) with teachers guides. Another original and liked system is Interstar – ‘star’ shapes which fit together by a unique interlocking system (£ Commotion). These now have some important add-ons including twister spheres (£ ) which help you build a model in different directions and also boxes of wheels and axles (£19) to make those mobile.

Magnetico is an award winning Lego derivative where the bricks stick together using magnetism. Special needs schools might find a place for bricks that don’t need to align precisely to stick precisely (£8 – £30, NES Arnold / Galt). And a really interesting new arrival is Morphun – soft yet strong plastic foam ‘bricks’ which use star shaped pieces to lock them together (from £15, Sales Partnership). Children use their manipulative skills, and imagination to turn just 3 different pieces: squares, triangles and small locking pieces into letters, rockets and animal shapes. The mix of colours let you add pattern to your shapes while the fact that they float makes bath time creative too. We’d rate this for over 4’s because of its small pieces, but a larger prototype was on show.

And finally a favourite for age 7-12, and one in our top six, are IQ Builders’ Capsela science kits (about £23, Hope / NES). The Capsela 250 kit builds 15 models which use see-through plastic bubbles to make things which move, flash lights and even generate electricity. You can actually see how its switches, gears and belt drives work and the models look really spacey and great. Inevitably, the largest kits offer more creativity, whether you get this for school or home.

We found such a lot of great stuff but when Sindy and Action Man are top dolls, and Talking Barney is the top plush toy, you can’t help but feel you’re going against the grain.

The stars of the 1996 toy show – novel, engaging and even useful in school:

Creation 1 (age 2- 8 )

Pine and cherry wood wheels, dowels, and abstract shapes in a 100 piece kit that will do well. Makes the weirdest collection of vehicles and creatures and comes in a practical case with a marked place for everything. Even though there’s only enough here for maybe two children, nurseries and special needs will see the potential. It’s so new that a UK dealer has yet to be arranged. A half-size kit, with small parts, is also available. Price: £80. From Matoys sprl, Rue Marot 19, B-5503 Sorrinnes. Tel: 00 32 82 22 26 79 Fax: 00 32 82 22 26 79.

Timberkits (age 9 to adult)

Really sweet, rough and rustic working models – including a roundabout, a wave machine and a caterpillar which undulates as a butterfly flies over it (strange science, I think). These delicate pine models beautifully illustrate mechanisms like levers, cams and push-rods and are worth having as a ‘reference collection’ for any level Technology. An adult can build one in a couple of hours, but for school I’d buy them ready-made. Power them with your own pulley and motor and sit back and be charmed as they work. Prices: Kits about £11, ready-made models from £13. From Timberkits, Caemadog, Bont, Lllanbrynmair, Powys, SY19 7AB. Tel: 01650 521449.

Body system (age 4 to 7)

Block-like figures where you can twist the limbs and set the figures in different poses. Or twist some plain chains together, like modelling balloons, to make a deck chair or even add wheels to make it into a buggy. Earthy and woody, these are nice to play with. You constantly stumble on new ways to arrange them and this is a key part of the fun. You’d need a collection of these to really get creative. For anxious adults, they make good worry-beads. Prices: ‘Animal’ bodies at £10. Wheel kit £5. Plain chains £9. From Active Wood Ltd, The Spinney, Edward Gardens, Havant, Hants, PO9 3JJ. Tel 01705 483772.

Blitzer airbrush (age 6 up)

Not very new, but this squeezy plastic bulb with a slot for a felt tip pen makes a really creative non-messy tool. With a bit of practice, a quick squeeze gives that great misty, spray effect of a real airbrush. Graphic instructions, and a video if you want it, show lots of ways to use it. You can spray over stencils, shapes or even torn paper edges – for example to do the sky. And for the home market there are accessories like stencil sets, felt pens and even food dye pens for decorating sweets and cakes. Pointilisti-tastic. Prices from £7. From P&M Promotions, 4 Endsleigh Road, Merstham, Surrey, RH1 3LX. Tel: 01734 645006

Motormec (age 5 – 9)

With Motormec, you can build working models like a crane, train, plane or car. You start with a special block, and fit plastic plates to it using nots and bolts. It reminds of Junior Meccano with its battery powered tool, but the final and perhaps unique coup is that this power tool fits into the block and then powers the model. At home a child will enjoy the success of building working models. In class you would find these valuable to illustrate working mechanisms such as gears and so on. The pieces in the large kit make eight models which seems like a reasonable number. Price: £30 Galt, Culvert Street, Oldham, OL4 2ST. Tel: 0161 627 5086

Thanks to Rosie Kentish, consultant psychologist, Queen Elizabeth Children’s Hospital, London; Pat Strack and Bill Hodder, toy sellers and advisory teachers for science and technology, at London Borough of Haringey.

Construction sets – Knex; Meccano; Lego

We spent around £84 million on construction toys in 1994. Last year we spent over £92 million, this year we’ll spend more again. You could say that Lego have done well by having 90% of the market. Only Meccano, the number two construction toy could boast a conspicuous share of what was left, and that amounted to 5%. But things change, a couple of years ago ‘K’nex’, a new type of building set arrived from the states. Today’s figures say that K’nex has grabbed a 12% share and that Lego has dropped to 70%. While there’s little agreement on figures, it still looks like K’nex is doing very well too.


Stuck for a present to buy, there’s always that fallback, the construction set. They’re fun and they’re educational. The sets schools choose to develop design and technology capability might be another matter. But school choices ripple through the system, till once again a parent is shop-struck and stuck for a present. It’s hard not to find K’nex, even though last Christmas stocks ran out. It’s the construction toy success of the moment and has won ‘toy of the year awards’ including Best Construction Toy of 1995’ and this year followed that with ‘Best New Toy Range’. If in any sense K’nex made a mistake, it was in predicting just how popular it would be.

A first sight of K’nex will have many wondering whether it’s possible to build anything to solve anyone’s problem. Even looking at other people’s solutions will have you thinking that you’d never do it like that. This creative angle, they say, is part of the appeal. A set has rods of different lengths and ‘snow-flake’ connectors with different connecting points. In all you’ll count 39 parts, all colour coded to make it easy to spot the part you’d want across the room. To get things moving there are the inevitable wheels, pulleys, gears, and motors.

At Wood End Infants School, in Northolt, North London you’ll find sets of ReoClick, TacTic, Meccano and Lego as well as the remains of kits bought over time. There are also raw materials, such as card and wood. But this morning a reception class are doing K’nex. They’ve used it a few times and they’re working from cards which show finished models of a motorbike, hang-glider and various pin wheels you’d call ‘windmills.

Design and Technology co-ordinator, Catherine Blackett tells how weeks ago a few of the class were given a set to simply experiment with. But now the whole class is using it, using the cards with some making two dimensional shapes like a cake with candles, and a house with doors and windows. Others are ready for 3D models such as a helicopter or beach buggy and one is doing a freestyle cobweb. No one’s quite ready for making the huge gondola balloon.

Ms Blackett agrees that the system looks really complicated but says that having the sets with everything in compartments really helps. In any case this impression soon vanishes when you get started. She adds that it’s unusual in that you can take a finished model car and add an extra like a gear without dismantling it too much. As the class work, it’s remarkable how the ‘snowflake’ connectors help and you can see models sprout branches at all angles. In time the pupils will clue into little tricks, or skills, like snapping together two blue connectors to build a very versatile corner joint. And eventually, meaning months, Ms Blackett expects that pupils will have the sort of fluency where they can try projects in the “design a stand to hold an encyclopaedia” genre.

Unusually, what pointed her to this still new construction set was a free K’nex kit with Weetabix offer. It got the whole school eating for technology, and started them with two tubs of material. That in turn encouraged a pupil to bring in his kit for a try-out which led to their INSET day. As Ms Blackett says “We had plenty of construction sets and wanted to take pupils beyond ‘playing with them. So we needed to look for some progression in our kits”. On the INSET day they started to classify the sets – sorting them into stacking brick-types like Lego, nuts and bolts types like Meccano, ‘small open frameworks’ like K’nex and ‘large open frameworks’ like TacTik. In this way the staff weeded out the overlaps. Some were phased??? by the many different components in Tactic so this was positioned further up the school. Nevertheless, the time to get some hands-on was a key to their way forward.

Wood End bought the K’nex Education Super Set costing £200. This has five trays that’s nearly 3000 pieces in all and enough for the class I saw. In addition there are activity cards and a teachers guide. The guide not only looks at using the kits for work on pulleys and motors, but also shows how the sets can help in art, maths and science. For example, under maths it deals with how K’nex might be used in work on rectangles, trapezoids, repeating patterns and even bar charts. The teachers commented on the quality of this, but an essentially American guide it obviously is.

Till now this been the only exclusively education pack, but out soon will be two new K’nex sets. The Bridge set builds familiar beam, truss and arch bridges and includes activity cards and photographs of famous bridges built with K’nex. The other new set is the Racing Energy set which touches on secondary school work and shows how to build ‘racers’ for work on forces and energy. It makes good of the fact that it’s easier to build identical models from construction sets and compare them in experiments. It’s rare to find schools not having two bricks to rub together, in many the opposite is the case as it was at Wood End, and where they decided to focus their efforts.

If one of the joys of using a construction set is being enabled to get a result then the sadness’ is that it’s broken up as the bell goes. Some schools take photographs of models and proud inventors, but some eschew kits, favouring traditional materials such as card or balsa. But this isn’t to do with extremes – it’s more one means to one end. Once pupils gain the confidence to build in K’nex, Lego, Meccano or whatever they can start to turn those models into unique card or wood creations, that say I did that.

Meccano – classic nuts and bolts

Meccano is the definitive, construction toy and even a collectors item. Classic it may be, it’s been a solid buy ever since Frank Hornby, of model railway fame, produced the first nine-piece set in 1901. Here you’ll find those gears, pulleys and ideas about structures that are so much part of the design and technology curriculum. Add to that Meccano’s bolts, beams and fixing plates and you’ve got a real-world set that’s often much closer to your mechanical project idea.

Today Meccano continues the tradition of bolted models that ought not fall apart too easily. Meccano Junior was re-launched in 1994 and its big brightly coloured plastic nuts and bolts make this a friendly sight to the under sevens. There’s now a rigid and chunky quality that makes ‘Junior’ very much in place in school, even though it will still be translated into the same cars and cranes that children seem obsessed with. Putting it beside old ‘Junior’ you’ll see that the waxy polythene pieces have gone, but you can still raid older kits for spare wheels and so on.

Primary schools will be most interested in the 1720 and 1730 ‘Meccano Junior’ sets, the largest in the range. Making around two or three models without pillaging, and with instructions for up to 25, the 1730, costing around £50 would suit a small group. For the juniors and secondaries, the same big is best logic applies. For example metal Meccano Set 6, makes over 70 models – a few at the same time and costs around £95. And to indulge that gift problem, there are now simple sets to make a bike or a buggy for around a fiver.

Lego – a structured exercise

It’s not that Lego is complacent about losing ground in the retail market, it’s that when it comes to their packages of materials and teacher support there’s little to compete with. There’s evidently more than free play with Lego as here you’ll find kits that support for activities that are structured, progressive and matched to the curriculum.

This massive range of bricks, with kits for two year olds up till the late teens says ‘progression’ very loudly. And with last year’s launch of Primo, a new kit for mere babies, you could say that even louder. For example, at the top end there are kits which allow students to build and model devices with pneumatic controls and sophisticated gear and chain drives. Without any Lego-capability these prove seriously challenging. That capability might develop using their Early Simple Machines packs which use Duplo scale pieces to build working models. As children build a roundabout, a see-saw or the inevitable buggy they learn about levers, gears, pulleys and movable joints.

The activity cards are impressive. They feature Lego’s usual colour coding where green cards develop familiarity with the bricks and blue ones show exactly how to build something. Eventually, pupils move on red cards and meet more open design briefs, like ‘build a trolley to carry the computer’.

If these structured exercises are Lego’s key stage one success, then Mini Sets manage that again for key stage two. Here a range of separate kits each cover gears, levers, pulleys and axles. Even teachers without experience will appreciate how they break ‘an issue’ down into digestible bites of the ‘machines’ theme.

The Lego Scout

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