We have a lot of building toys. When you are an architecture critic, married to an architect, people tend to give you one set after another of blocks. Soft blocks, wood blocks, blocks that snap together, blocks that all fall down. After the blocks they give you joints. Ball-and-socket joints, hub-and-spoke-joints, articulated joints. And then the brands rush in, and they give you Lego. Star Wars Lego, Ninjago Lego, Chima Lego, Lego knock-offs that light up. I await the onset of the programmable. We’ve already entered the realm of the digital, via Minecraft and the delightful Toca Boca apps.
I’ve now lived with these sets for five years. Here are the four that still get played with almost every day. All plastic, as it happens. Despite the modernist fetish for wooden toys, plastic is lighter and creates easier attachments, two aspects that have proved important to my kids. I’ve arranged the toys in the order you might consider purchasing, starting at age 2.
As I wrote in Living in Lego City in 2012, Lego proper offers a limited number of scenarios, the sets dividing starkly into those “for girls” and those “for boys.” Duplo, sized for smaller hands, suffers no such split personality. There are house sets and vehicle sets, which offer up useful pieces of domesticity like beds and fences, and transportation options like wheel bases. If you are lucky, as we were, you can score a hand-me-down bin of blocks, in rainbow colors, and a set of different-size platforms. My son began building on those platforms at age 2, and he hasn’t stopped. We’ve made houses and Bat caves, the High Line and garages, skyscrapers and mazes. Even though we now have Lego proper, the kids return to the Duplo for its scale and speed. You can throw something together in a minute to house a superhero action figure, or make a sketch of a city as backdrop.
When we got Tubation as a gift I sort of shrugged. Was it a bath toy? An instrument? We weren’t ready yet for a marble run. But then my son got his hands on it and better things happened. (Sometimes we lose imagination as we age.) Swords, dinosaurs, canopies, bracelets and, yes, a gun or two. Even little hands can put the tubes together and take them apart, and their gross scale makes it easy to create child-size tools. There are specialized sets with instrument add-ons, marble slots and transparent tubes but those are hardly necessary. This toy is like the stick of building toys, and it is inexpensive too.
This is an expensive toy, about $1 per tile, but I’ve recommended it over and over. We now have 300 pieces, through a combination of gifts, hand-me-downs and purchases. At times, when the castle turned into a skyscraper that needed a multilevel garage that stretched across the windowsill, we needed even more. Magna-Tiles are easier than Lego, and you can make something tall and beautiful in a flash. As kids get older, they move beyond the basic squares (in two sizes) and start thinking about the possibilities of the triangles, matching them into squares when they run out, creating geodesic hovercraft, bugs, spaceships. They teach the possibilities of geometry, and anything you make, even a little 2yo cube, looks beautiful. Since these things tend to hang around, it is nice when the creations are as good as sculpture.
Zoob comes with directions: totally unnecessary. Zoob is a set of plastic ball-and-socket joints that can be combined in various ways. They are easy to snap together (though hard for little ones to pry apart). If Duplo and Magna-Tiles suggest houses and vehicles, Zoob suggest creatures, manipulable skeletons that can switch from insects to dinosaurs to men in just a few clicks. I’ve been amazed to walk into my son’s room and find the floor suddenly covered in alien beings. The largest is always the leader, simplistic babies in the corner, and something new being hatched out of the pile in the center of the room. Because the individual pieces are small (but not so small as to be choking hazards), the range of possible scale is terrific. As with these other toys, you can watch the progression of your children’s imagination through the increasing number of possibilities they see in the toy.