Monday, November 21, 2016

SV Toddler's Building and Engineering Favorites

If one set of building toys is good,
two must be even better!
Toddler X wants to be an architect when he grows up -- he's said that consistently for years now -- so it's no surprise that his favorite play pastime is designing and building structures galore. He builds houses and apartments and stores and cruise ships, and he fills them with his play furniture, play food, and play people. He builds garages and fills them with cars. He builds geometric shapes and color patterns and abstract designs. He builds complex marble runs, and so much more.

I think this one is a cruise ship.
We certainly encourage his building -- it's a great way to develop a functional understanding of the laws of physics and geometry, build problem solving skills, engage in both creative and analytical thinking, and have fun! Plus, his dad and I love building alongside him -- hooray for family play!

There are many wonderful building/engineering toys on the market -- Lego (Duplo for younger kids), Magformers, Playmags, Picasso Tiles, SmartMax, wooden blocks, cardboard blocks, etc. -- and we own almost all of them. There are also a slew of ball and marble runs on the market, and Toddler X has checked out several of those at friends' houses and preschool.

SmartMax + Tegu = lots of fun!
But ultimately, our family has narrowed our favorites down to three -- Magna-Tiles, Tegu blocks, and Hape Quadrilla marble runs -- and that's where we've decided to invest our toy money, creating bigger collections that let Toddler X build ever more complicated structures. We're adding K'Nex building sets to the fold this Christmas, and I'll post a review as soon as Toddler X has given them some play.

In the meantime, here are the building sets we love and why. Following each section, you can find affiliate links to the products mentioned -- if you could use those links to access Amazon, even if you plan to shop around for something else once there, it would be greatly appreciated!

We packed our Magna-Tiles and playhouse furniture,
and brought our pretend play fun to Tahoe!
Magna-Tiles. Whenever I read a Facebook post seeking gift recommendations for a preschooler, I'm not surprised to see that 8 of the first 10 recommendations are for Magna-Tiles. Magna-Tiles are, simply put, a perfect toy. They promote creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving. They offer open-ended, child-directed play -- no need for instructions here! They are durable and long-lasting, both in terms of sturdiness and prolonged play interest. You can mix them with other toys. They encourage whole family play. Win-win-win-win-win!

We got our first Magna-Tiles set for Toddler X's 3rd birthday, and when we asked him a few days later what he wanted to buy with birthday money he'd received, his answer was immediate: more Magna-Tiles. When I spotted a deal a few months later, I bought yet another set, and when his baby sister was born this summer, Magna-Tiles were the gift she gave to him at the hospital.

For those who haven't tried them, Magna-Tiles are brightly colored clear or opaque (we've opted for clear) plastic tiles in various square and triangle sizes that have magnets embedded around the perimeter. There are no pole limitations -- any piece can stick to any other, along any side (a distinction from Tegu and SmartMax). The strength of the attachment is okay, but the pieces can pancake, meaning you really have to plan out what you want to add, where, and when (i.e., a square base before you try to make a cube). You can build up or out (or both!), and the longer you play with them, the more complex and sturdy your structures will become. I've seen everyone from 2 year olds to 50 year olds enjoy Magna-Tiles.

These get play...
Magna-Tiles form a major part of Toddler X's pretend play universe. As I mentioned above, he builds structures like houses, condos, cruise ships, grocery stores and more, then fills them with play furniture and figures.The brilliant thing about Magna-Tiles (versus just using a dollhouse, for example) is that you can constantly adapt and modify what you're building, adding rooms, creating hallways, bringing the roof up, etc. as the need arises. If only remodeling our real house were this easy!

A cruise ship movie theater with Tegu seats
and play food snacks for the viewers.
The key characteristic that allows this type of play is the solid nature of the tiles. We tried Magformers, with their open centers, and didn't like them as much. You can't build an apartment and put furniture in if there are holes in the center of each piece. Even Tegu, which we love, doesn't allow this type of building. For the most pretend play options, Magna-Tiles are the way to go.

In addition to his pretend buildings, Toddler X likes to create patterns, build with only one color, work on constructing geometric shapes, etc. These are learning tools disguised as a toy.

As you might guess, I can't recommend these enough. They are pricey and rarely go on sale, but I see them as an investment that can supplant several other toy purchases and still be worthwhile. I recommend them for kids ages 2+ -- a younger child might enjoy the bright colors, but they pancake together so easily that a little one won't be able to build much.

(Note that many people swear by similar magnetic tile products -- Playmags and Picasso Tiles and the like -- that cost much less and are compatible with Magna-Tiles. I haven't tried them so I can't recommend them, but I know many people go that route and are very happy. If you'd like to try this style of building set without making a huge investment, that might be your best option.)

Here are your Magna-Tile options. We have every set of the clear colors, and all are great. Note that the DX set includes a car platform and some more interestingly shaped pieces, but honestly, Toddler X just likes the plain tiles the best.

Tegu Blocks. These were the first magnetic building toys that Toddler X owned (purchased on recommendation of an SV Toddler reader, actually, when Toddler X was about 2 years old) and were his hands-down favorite until Magna-Tiles came along a year and a half later. Since then, he's alternated between the two, sometimes picking one for weeks at a time, and other times switching between them (or using them at the same time) on a given day.

While both Tegu and Magna-Tiles have a magnetic building element, the two are very different. Tegu are made of solid wood (by a very socially and environmentally-conscious company, by the way -- check out their story if you get a chance, it's really cool), and have magnets embedded at specific points in each piece. The columns, for example, have magnets at the two ends. The planks have two or three magnets, depending on the length. Only the triangles and cubes are magnetized on all sides. There are also various angled pieces to increase your building options. The magnets are strong, much stronger than MagnaTiles -- you can hang pieces from each other, lift them up, watch them pivot, etc. without breaking the attraction.

Unlike the MagnaTiles magnets, though, the Tegu magnets do have specific poles, and therefore each magnetized spot will be attracted to some magnets, and repelled by the others. While kids are endlessly fascinated by how one block can push another away without even touching it, the fact that the pieces are pole-specific and can't just fit together in any manner can be frustrating at first. Ultimately, it's a great opportunity for scientific inquiry, trial and error, and building an understanding of magnetic principles, but if your little one is still at an age when he/she loses interest quickly if something doesn't come easily, you may want to wait on these.

My favorite Tegu structure ever:
a Whole Foods, with produce, meat, dairy
and grain sections, and even a coffee bar
(on the left -- see the fireman with a laptop?)
How does Toddler X use these? Well, in some ways, similar to the MagnaTiles -- he creates pretend structures, but with open designs, and fill them with "stuff". He'll build a big house and declare a block sticking out to be a diving board, then have play figures jumping off. He'll make "rides," as the blocks are strong enough to hang and pivot. He'll build elevators and steps. He'll build cars (the wheels for Tegu are one of the best features).

Tegu are much more abstract than Magna-Tiles. I, personally, enjoy them more -- it's a fun challenge to get pieces to attach in the manner you want, and I love the bright colors of the Tints sets and the soft greens and browns of Jungle. We have a whole bunch of sets -- maybe six or seven? -- and the more we get, the more fun we have. I think Toddler X will be enjoying these for years to come. These, like Magna-Tiles, can be very pricey, but Amazon does occasionally have big sales (which is when I get most of my sets). Again, though, I see these as an investment -- the play is so creative and open-ended that it can change over time, preventing me from needing to buy other toys to keep up with Toddler X's interest.

I recommend these for families who love well-made wooden toys and kids (and parents!) who enjoy a bit of challenge in their play -- the feeling of success when you get things to line up perfectly makes it all worthwhile! I wouldn't put a lower age limit on these, as even a one year-old could play with them as simple wooden blocks (not using the magnetic element), and they're a really nice size for little hands. Unfortunately, unlike Magna-Tiles, there's nothing else quite like this on the market, so no less expensive alternatives that give the same experience.

Here are the sets I recommend. Note that all come in various color schemes, and they're often priced differently by color, so you may want to do some comparison shopping (the prices below are real-time). We've chosen Tints, Jungle, and Mahogany for our sets, and they all look great together.

Finally, I recommend buying sets that contain angled pieces, cubes, and wheels -- those really open up the possibilities beyond just the basic planks and columns (the first set we bought was a pretty limited one, and it wasn't until we got angles and cubes that we really saw what Tegu can do). If the set you purchase doesn't have those elements, there are add-ons you can buy -- the wheels and cubes are particularly useful. The pocket pouches are really cool, but I wouldn't start a collection with those.

Here's our favorite color scheme:

And our second favorite:

And here are some add-ons to create more building options -- triangles/parallelograms, cubes, and wheels.

Hape Quadrilla Marble Runs. This is another of the all-time greats -- a toy that combines creativity with physics and logic, allows for open-ended play and develops problem-solving skills, and just begs for the whole family to play together. What's more, these marble runs offer action, and lots of it! With something like 50 marbles included with a set, you can generate lots of activity at the same time -- it's noisy and visually interesting and fun!

We discovered the Quadrilla marble runs at a friend's house when Toddler X was just shy of three years old, then found a display one set up at Diddam's a few weeks later. He couldn't get enough of it -- and because it was up on a pedestal, too high for him to reach, I found myself holding him up again and again to place a marble in the top hole. I determined that we needed a set for ourselves...and that I would put it at ground level! When I saw a pre-Christmas Deal of the Day, I jumped on it.

On Christmas Eve, Mr. X and I decided to set up the run for Toddler X to discover on Christmas Day. We quickly discovered that that was not the best plan. First of all, there is definitely a learning curve to these. Even following the directions, as two adults, it took some effort to figure out how it should all come together. (Note that they include directions for a number of set-ups, but after you understand the concept, you can build on your own.) What's more, it hadn't occurred to me that the marble run at Diddam's had been glued together. It wouldn't tip, and pieces couldn't get knocked out. As Mr. X and I set ours up, it quickly became apparent that it was far from stable -- Mr. X pointed out that Toddler X would knock it down immediately (after all our effort setting it up) and obvious frustration would ensue. After taking stock of the situation, we packed the marble run back up and waited a full year, until Toddler X's fourth birthday, to give it to him. It was an immediate hit.

The issues we saw when we first tried to set it up still exist. It does have a learning curve, and setting it up can be tricky -- at first, your child will need some help (and you may too!). But after a month or so, Toddler X called me into the living room one morning to proudly show me a fully-functioning run that he'd created himself (not out of the instruction booklet), and since then he's been building like mad.

The other issue is that they are unstable. We tried various methods of holding the pieces together that would also allow them to be removed and re-arranged (half the fun is building different runs), including rubber cement, glue dots, and double stick tape, but none really helped, all caused stickiness, and the glue dots actually exacerbated the instability, as the pieces need to be on a flat surface and flush against one another for the run to work. We did knock over several at the start (and actually, we knocked over yesterday too), but we eventually just learned to be more careful around it, and as building them became easier and quicker, a knock down didn't cause much frustration at all.

Hape makes several versions of the Quadrilla, and they can all work together. We started with the Roundabout, and just ordered the Loop de Loop as a Christmas gift. We're also going to order -- and I highly recommend -- marble catcher add-ons for the bottom. The runs need to be on a hard surface, and what happens when marbles are propelled onto a hard surface? They roll here, there and everywhere. We tried various methods of containing them, but ultimately I think we'll be much more successful with the catcher.

I would recommend these for kids 4 and up if they are inquisitive and focused enough to learn how to build these -- depending on the kid, these runs may not be appropriate until age 5 or 6. Plan on spending some time at the start helping your child figure out the physics and "rules" of the runs, and after that just sit back and enjoy watching your little engineer build awesome, action-packed structures.

Here are some of the offerings in this category:

And more...

Hope this is helpful! Enjoy your building!

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