"Directions aren't necessary, no rules or instructions are needed. Children are just provided space to grow," says Judith Ellis, founder and chairwoman of the Toy Design department at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology.
"Construction toys empower children. They offer a child a chance to be adventurous — to ask, 'what if,' to think abstractly, developing creative intelligence. Building develops strategic thinking. It provides visionary perspective and it increases attention spans," Ellis says.
While Lego and Mega Blox are category stalwarts — Lego celebrates its 82nd birthday this year and has a hit movie in theatres — there are other interesting options to consider.
At the recent Toy Fair 2014 in New York, the building category was robust, according to Adrienne Apell, trends specialist for the Toy Industry Association. "It's been very hot, and that's going to continue," she says. "We love this trend because it speaks to the fact that classic play patterns appeal to kids, generation after generation."
Parents enjoy building stuff too, and bring their own childhood memories to the play table.
Magna-Tiles are colorful geometric tiles with embedded magnets along the edges. There are also translucent tile sets to make see-through creations, including "stained glass" windows. The plastic is Pthalate- and Latex-free. (www.magnatiles.com )
Tegu blocks are also magnetized but are crafted of wood, harvested by co-operatives in Honduras certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. The smooth-sided blocks, rectangles and triangles come in soft, natural colours in both starter-set sizes (with a felt travel pouch) and larger sets of 40 to 480 pieces. There's a car-building set, too. (www.tegu.com )
Toddler builders might like to start with Edushape's sturdy foam blocks and shapes. After mastering simple tangrams, stacked castles and rudimentary fitted bits, kids can graduate to Kiddy Connects — a collection of snap-and-lock plastic pieces that include elbows and other unusual shapes. (www.edushape.com )
K'nex has kits to make simple machines like windmills, sail carts, water mills, elevators and levers, allowing kids to tinker at home with concepts they may have been exposed to in the classroom. (www.knex.com )
And targeting science-oriented young girls, Goldie Blox kits offer the chance to build things like dunk tanks, spinning machines and belt drive machines. Developed by Stanford engineering graduate Debbie Sterling, the kits feature intrepid young inventor Goldie, her friends and her dog Nacho tackling various obstacles using innovation and savvy. (www.goldieblox.com )
Finally, for the kids who are always taking apart broken appliances or rewiring the stereo, consider littleBits. It offers what you need to make all kinds of electronic circuits, but without worrying about wiring, programming or soldering. The magnet-embedded modules snap together, and you can add buzzers, lights or other components to create more elaborate contraptions. An online library offers free plans, and you can share your creations there as well. (www.littlebits.cc )