Building Toys That Teach
Constructive Learning
Posted: 2012-10-11 09:49:11 By: Joanne Oppenheim


For the youngest builder building often begins sideways. While you may picture tall structures, beginners usually start with long horizontal roadways of blocks that little cars ride over or side by side to enclose farm and zoo animals. From here the blocks begin going upwards into towers and structures that are fun to knock down. Blocks are versatile playthings that become whatever the child imagines. They can become a farm setting one day and a cityscape the next. They are open-ended material that puts the child in the center of the play. Building develops problem solving, creative thinking, math and language.

For the beginner it is best to bring home open-ended sets of construction toys that invite exploration instead of painstaking instructions to follow. Through such play children develop an understanding of symmetry, eye/hand coordination, and solve problems of their own making. Adding one more or one less block to make a bridge involves making simple decisions and discoveries on their own. Experiments that fail are as instructive as the ones that work. Learning to make a bridge that balances or putting two squares together to get a rectangle--these are ways children find out about the excitement of discovery.

Later, when they have greater dexterity, building models with detailed instructions requires another kind of discipline. Following the step-by-step directions requires stick-ability and solving math problems. Building detailed models also involves fine motor skills that young children simply do not have yet.
Here are some building toys that are arranged from easy to challenging.



2011 Awards
CitiBlocs Little Builders Rattle Blocks
(Citiblocs $35 Score: )

22 wooden blocks with rattle sounds inside, colorful rooftops, and staircases are designed for beginning builders. These are chunkier than the classic Citiblocs. These smoothly finished blocks play to sensory feedback for little hands and ears. Stack them up high or line them up sideways. There is no right or wrong way to enjoy these. After they have played with the blocks for awhile, kids may like using the colored graphics to match up buildings of one color or set them up in patterns. Younger toddlers will like building them up and knocking them down with a big kaboom! 2 and up. The company has signed a verification form complying with our safety requirements. We did not independently test this toy in a lab.

SNAP Activities: These blocks are chunkier and somewhat easier to grasp. They are also a bit more literal with premade roof tops and colored strips. They should be enjoyed independently, but you can aslo use them to reinfoce color words and sorting skills. Build an all red striped building or talk about the colors of the roof tops. Help build two buildings that are the same height. Talk about building by adding one more and one less. These concepts are basic to math, but they are best learned in concrete ways that build understanding.

Age: Toddlers, Preschool. Award Year: 2011. Click here to purchase the product on




2012 Awards
Haba Zoolino Effect Building Blocks
(Haba $74.99 Score: )

24 colorful wooden blocks, some with animal faces can be stacked in various open-ended ways. The pieces have interesting shapes and some have holes that fit on posts to hold the critters kids create. These are attractive pieces, nicely finished and pretty abstract. We do wish they came with a storage bag since it is nearly impossible to fit the pieces back into the box for storage. You will need to find a container for these to keep them together once you open the box. It is marked 1 and up, but a better choice for 18 months-3.

SNAP: These open-ended blocks can be used for simple stacking or to create creatures and whatever the child imagines. They also lend themselves to building color and pattern concepts as well as language. As you put them away together, ask you child to give you all the pink blocks, all the blue blocks, etc. These are teachable but playful moments. For kids who are not ready to follow such directions, build language by describing the block your child wants to put in the basket first, next, and so on. You supply the words for beginners. You take your lead from where they are and build from there.

Age: Toddlers. Award Year: 2012. Click here to purchase the product on




2011 Awards
PBS Kids Exploration Blocks: Building
(PBS Kids $29 Score: )

A 36-piece set makes a good choice for beginning builders or as an add-on to other block sets. Although these are not unit block size, they add interest as decorative elements. Some of the blocks are painted with small shaped that resemble windows. There are arches, cylinders, squares, rectangles, triangles and other odd shapes that kids will find useful for creative building. The set includes a cloth storage bag. All of the pieces are big enough to be safe for toddlers. 1 1/2 & up. There is also a smaller 23 piece set with interesting shapes that is also interesting. PBS Kids Tower Blocks (29.99)

The company has signed a verification form complying with our safety requirements. We did not independently test this toy in a lab.

Age: Toddlers, Preschool. Award Year: 2011. Click here to purchase the product on




2011 Award
Lego Duplo Play With Letters
(Lego Systems, Inc. $29.99 Score: )

A big 62-piece sets of chunky Duplo blocks, some with upper case alphabet letters. The set is otherwise an open-ended construction set with a wheel base for making a working vehicle. It comes with windows that can be attached as well as one play figure, a cat, and flowers. There is no right or wrong way to build. These classic blocks are good for reinforcing colors as well as spatial relationships. They are good tools for also developing dexterity and problem solving skills. In addition, each letter sound is reinforced with a small image of an object that goes with the letter. These can be used with older preschoolers for knowing and naming letter names and beginning sounds, and for language development. The set is labeled for 2-5. Wed say the letter part is for more like older 3s and up,up,up.

Age: Toddlers, Preschool. Award Year: 2011. Click here to purchase the product on




2010 Award
Citiblocs Hot Colors Building Blocks
(Citiblocs $24.99 Score: )

We fell in love with these open-ended building blocks last year.   They look alot like the pricier original French, Kapla blocks. Compatible with the originals, they are all the same size pieces of natural wood.  The open-endedness of these blocks truly challenges the builder's imagination and dexterity. The smooth and precision cut blocks are made of Radiata Pine from certified renewable forests in New Zealand and come packaged with suggested projects kids can build without glue or pegs.  What's new this season- sets of Hot (pinks/reds) and Cool (blue/green) colors. These make interesting patterns and may hold added appeal to some young builders.  They come in different sets: 100 piece set costs $24.99, 50 pieces for $12.95.    The packages say 3 & up, we think older builders of 5 & up will find them more interesting.  The activities suggested will challenge even older kids.  Our recommendation--put them on the coffee table and see what everyone, young and old, comes up with.  We found them addictive.
The company has signed a verification form complying with our safety requirements. We did not independently test this toy in a lab.

Age: Preschool, Early School Years. Award Year: 2010. Click here to purchase the product on




2011 Awards
Guidecraft Unit Blocks
(Guidecraft $40 & up Score: )

If there's one toy every child should have, blocks are it! Nothing is more basic to play than a set of wooden unit blocks. A set with 34 pieces is a place to start, although a 76-piece set ($90) would be even more versatile. Pictured here is a school size set that has 28 shapes($200+)Unit blocks come with built-in possibilities for discovery as they are scaled to each other; putting two squares together, kids discover the two equal one rectangular block; two of the triangles makes a square, etc. Blocks develop kids' spatial understanding, their eye hand skills, their problem solving abilities, imagination, and language. They are the raw materials for dramatic play that put kids in charge. They are great for using with wooden trains for making bridges and roadways for toy cars, barns for small animals. Be sure to add some scaled down vehicles, and animals and even some doll house or action figures to the mix. Give them a place where the blocks can stay up for a while so that they can make settings for their dramatic play.  Blocks can be used solo and in cooperative play. Beginners often will start off by building horizontially...but soon enough preschoolers will start building upwards. These are basic gear for kids with lasting play value because they are completely open-ended and can be used in multiple ways. They may be a farm one day and a bridge the next. One of a favorite lines of props for blocks are the Jungle and Farm Animal sets from Learning Resources($25.99).

Age: Preschool, Early School Years. Award Year: 2011. Click here to purchase the product on




2012 Award
TinkerToy Transit Building Set
(KNEX $43.99 Score: )

Many may remember TinkerToy sets that came with wooden pieces with a happy sense of nostalgia.  We think in this case, that this new set with "bendy" plastic pieces are even better than the original. K'NEX has licensed the trademark from Hasbro (in case you were wondering).  Our testers also liked the ability to make vehicles with this set that comes with lots of wheels as part of this 150 piece set. Fun to explore together. There are 15 suggested builds, but encourage your child to create their own builds.  The box the set comes in is sturdy enough to be used again and again for storage, also a plus!  The only comment of our testers "we wish there were more bendy pieces!"

Age: Preschool, Early School Years. Award Year: 2012.




2010 Award
GuideCraft Mirror Blocks
(Guidecraft $25.95 Score: )

For kids who are into building blocks, here is an exciting add-on - a set of ten smooth wooden blocks with mylar windows that reflect like a glass mirror without the danger of glass. They have rounded corners, include four shapes (rectangles, squares, triangles, and half moons) and are sized to match standard unit blocks. These will add a new dimension to buildings, inviting creative optical explorations. 3 & up.

The company has signed a verification form complying with our safety requirements. We did not independently test this toy in a lab.

Age: Preschool, Early School Years. Award Year: 2010. Click here to purchase the product on




2009 Award
Plan Toys Build N Spin
(Plan Toys $75 Score: )

Instead of a ball run, this wonderful building set comes with several spinning "rollers" that will glide down the ramps and curves that can be arranged in many different roadways. This is an open-ended building set that challenges kids problem solving skills, their eye hand coordination as well as their spatial visual skills and imagination. Made of chemical free rubberwood, the set has 36 pieces in natural and colored pieces. They say 4 & up. We think 4's will need some help in learning how to construct a run. We know slightly older kids will enjoy building all sorts of constructions with this handsome set.  

The company has signed a verification form complying with our safety requirements. We did not independently test this toy in a lab.

Age: Preschool, Early School Years. Award Year: 2009. Click here to purchase the product on




2012 Award
K'NEX Build A Bunch
(KNEX $19.99 Score: )

Our testers really enjoyed exploring and building with this 30 piece plastic construction set.  Comes with building ideas for 30 models--but we're big on allowing this to be an open-ended experience with no right or wrong results. The process of problem solving how pieces go together is what's valuable here as well as the creative aspect of making your own creations!  "I like the wheels" and the "funny eyes" - were some of the running dialogue of our testers in action.

Age: Early School Years. Award Year: 2012. Click here to purchase the product on




2011 Award
Playmobil Falcon Knights Castle
(Playmobil $104.95 Score: )

Our testers loved this large scaled castle from Playmobil. We're always clear to say the following about Playmobil builds: the directions could be clearer; the construction of Playmobil structures requires an adult; there are LOTS of pieces.  With all of those disclaimers, our testers consistently enjoy the product and the level of detail once it's put together.  Specifically, our experienced builders did have more difficulty this year putting the smaller castle in this line together. We recommend having two adults for some aspects of the build--to hold the pieces as the connections are being made.  We also suggest that large structures be built and possibley glued down on a board or table top where they will not be moved or knocked around. True, this means it is less open-ended than a set of block, that will also falls over with active play, but these large structures do become pretend settings that are fun to use, although they will surely require some rebuilding and fine tuning from time to time. Once this castle is put together, it is great fun. It has a main gate that you can crank close (and there is an "iron" gate to put down when you really mean to keep the bad guys out).  There are trap doors, walk ways and one really big tower.  Our testers also gave high marks the play figures (complete with period appropriate clothing) and spectacular horses as well. This is not a toy for preschoolers or even young early school kids.  The level of detail requires more dexterity than most kids under 8 bring to their play.

Age: Early School Years, Later School Years. Award Year: 2011. Click here to purchase the product on




2011 Award
LEGO STAR WARS Jedi T-6 Shuttle
(Lego Systems, Inc. $62.99 Score: )

What's super neat about this build, is how the wings turn from being horizontal to vertical. This kind of moment is exciting when you get it to work (as a builder) and even more fun to play with when you're using the Shuttle as part of your pretend play.  LEGO has a new circular piece this year that allows for this type of rotation. The shuttle comes with play figAnakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Saesee Tin, and Shaak Ti.  The set has 389 pieces so really designed for intermediate builders.  Also a favorite with our testers, Anakin's & Sebulba's Podracers (810 pieces)  - straight from the movie. The set comes with Watto, Sebulba, Anakin Skywalker, Wald, Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Age: Early School Years, Later School Years, Tweens, Teens. Award Year: 2011. Click here to purchase the product on


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