From Classic Toys To New Twists, Kids Go Back To Blocks

Jun 19, 2013
Originally published on June 28, 2013 12:39 pm

I visited Toy Fair in New York City hunting for ideas for our summer series about kids' culture. One of the big takeaways was the increasing popularity of construction games such as Legos. Sales shot up nearly 20 percent last year. Now, it seems, every major toy manufacturer is scrambling to add new games geared toward kids building things.

Concurrently, I happened to visit the National Building Museum, where an impressive exhibition, PLAY WORK BUILD, showcases the museum's vast collection of block sets and building toys. It also takes blocks into the future – with the David Rockwell-designed Imagination Playground, an azure-blue block fantasy for the under-5 crowd.

That prompted this story on blocks, which starts with a small business selling wooden blocks made in the U.S. (specifically the Unblock, designed and created by the Azmani family in Wisconsin) to the gigantic Legos, Hasbros and Mattels of the world, selling high-concept blocks that often seem like nothing so much as vehicles for cross-promotional licensing.

That prompts the question — what makes a block a block? I asked Karen Hewitt, a toy designer who's written about the history of blocks.

"That it's three dimensional," she offered. "That it's nonrepresentational, it doesn't have anything until a child gives it a name or function. And usually, blocks are modular. They relate to each other in some forms in ratio of size, or shape. They're predictable, so they keep their shape, no matter the material. And blocks basically rely on balance for building."

What would Maria Montessori or Friedrich Froebel think of Minecraft? They were pioneers of early education who made block play central to their philosophies. Minecraft is the hugely popular virtual game that invites its 10 million players to manipulate a world made of blocks.

"Montessori was quite a brilliant woman. I think she'd be very interested in what's going on today," Hewitt observes dryly. She was polite about Minecraft ("It just doesn't have that sensory feeling for me") but copped to a real fascination with new games that synthesize real blocks and with ones on screens. For example, the inevitable Lego-Minecraft tie-in, or a math-based game, Building Blocks, that uses actual and virtual blocks.

But Hewitt believes the lesson of blocks is even more fundamental and powerful than exploring ideas of geometry, spatial relations, patterning and numbers. When kids play with blocks, they're beginning to build.

"The ability to construct has to do with our whole culture — where do we live, how do we make our homes," she says. "It's really the beginning of thinking about survival.

Kids have loved blocks for so long and so loyally, it's a bit of a surprise Hollywood has not attempted to cash in. Blocks: The Movie. Sounds like a blockbuster.

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This month, we're taking a closer look at media for young people. And while toys may seem more and more high-tech, one of the hottest toys right now is low-tech: the building block. Last year, sales of building toys were up 20 percent, as NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: If you want to hype the newest, trendiest toys, Toy Fair is the only game in town. It's the giant, glitzy showcase for the next big thing in toys. Once a year, New York's biggest convention center is crammed with robots that can draw, zombie Disney princesses, digitized doll outfits that glow with pink LED lights. Meanwhile, Youssef Azmani has set up a booth selling wooden blocks. Don't blocks get boring?

YOUSSEF AZMANI: Not these. We've got everything from triangle blocks, to regular blocks, flat blocks.

ULABY: Azmani is among dozens of little guys selling blocks of various varieties. But Toy Fair's real estate is ruled by Lego, Hasbro and Mattel, all showing off the slickest in construction sets for boys and girls.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: See what happens when you build in style with the fab new world of Mega Bloks Barbie. You can build. Wow.

ULABY: Yes, those blocks are pink. But when do blocks stop being blocks? These sets come with little figures, half-completed castles or forts and, inescapably, cross-promotional licensing.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: "Lego Harry Potter: Years 5-7."

ULABY: That's if you like your Legos with owl accessories, Harry Potter dolls and preexisting stories. Marketing and gimmicks have been around as long as block sets themselves, says curator Sarah Leavitt. That is, since the mid-19th century.

SARAH LEAVITT: A lot of these, even the old ones, have pretty extensive instruction booklets about what to build.

ULABY: Maybe because a parent in the 1880s would wonder, why buy a block of wood for my kid to play with?

LEAVITT: I can get one out back.


LEAVITT: Exactly.

ULABY: But people were beginning to understand how block play develops kids' sense of spatial relations. Entire educational philosophies were built upon the block: Maria Montessori, Friedrich Froebel.

LEAVITT: Frank Lloyd Wright himself is famous for having played with blocks - in his case, the Froebel blocks - as a kid.

ULABY: Frank's son, John Lloyd Wright, invented Lincoln Logs back in 1910.

ROSALEE GONZALES: Are you building a house? A house?


ULABY: Kids still get lost in Lincoln Logs at the National Building Museum.

GONZALES: What are you going to build?

ULABY: There's an exhibit there all about blocks. It's dominated by a futuristic block playground created by David Rockwell. He's a major name in the design world. Small children heave around blocks made out of foam as blue as the ocean. They stack and demolish blue tubes, balls, bricks, bars and cubes.

GONZALES: What are you building?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: The Empire State Building.

ULABY: It's a regular block party, says mom Rosalee Gonzales.

GONZALES: He loves huge blocks so this is amazing.

ULABY: Older kids transfer their love of block play into "Minecraft." That's a video game where you build block-based worlds of fields, woods, caves.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Let's go to a place where everything is made of blocks.

ULABY: From fluffy sheep to the green block grass they eat. "Minecraft" has about 10 million players all stacking and demolishing virtual blocks and teaching each other how to play on YouTube.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I've set up a map here with all these blocks laid out in one spot so we can go over them. And all these blocks are dirt.

ULABY: What on earth would Maria Montessori even think about these computer-generated blocks and the complicated games kids play with them?

KAREN HEWITT: Montessori was quite a brilliant woman. I think she'd be very interested in what's going on today.

ULABY: Karen Hewitt is a toy designer and historian. She doubts Montessori would find much use for "Minecraft." Karen Hewitt gives us this definition of what makes a block a block.

HEWITT: That it's three-dimensional, that it's nonrepresentational, it doesn't have anything until a child gives it a name or a function.

ULABY: This, she says, is how you define a block. Blocks are modular. They relate to each other. They keep their shape no matter the material.

HEWITT: And blocks basically rely on balance for building.

ULABY: So much for the mouse-driven digital "Minecraft."

HEWITT: It didn't have that sensory feeling for me.

ULABY: Hewitt is fascinated, though, by new games that combine real blocks and screen blocks, like the inevitable Lego-Minecraft tie-in, or a math-based game called Building Blocks that uses actual blocks and virtual ones.

HEWITT: Exploring ideas of geometry and spatial relations in patterning and number.

ULABY: But Hewitt believes the lesson of blocks is even more fundamental and powerful.

HEWITT: The ability to construct has to do with, you know, our whole culture of where do we live, how do we make our homes. It's really the beginning of thinking about survival.

ULABY: Kids have loved blocks for so long and so loyally. It's kind of amazing Hollywood's never tried to cash in with, you know, "Blocks: The Movie." It could be a blockbuster. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.