Construction toys consist of “many different individual elements which can be built together and taken apart”, according to Noschka & Knerr (1986).
Construction toys are intended to realise a model. A model is quite simply an analogue of the object about which the person-at-play seeks knowledge and information. During the process of gaining information the analogue replaces the object itself.
Construction toys are motivated by the idea of putting a variety of forms together so children from about six months old can be presented with these toys in the form of geometric figures. The most common of these are six geometric categories:
bricks, plates, rods/pipes, solids, bars/logs and moulds.
Back in history these were always made of wood or stone. Today’s construction toys are mostly lightweight plastic. Many children are also familiar with a variety of moulds for use with natural materials like clay, modelling clay, mud, pastry and especially sand.
In order to build something, the elements have to fit together in some way. There are six types of connecting principles:
studs (as in LEGO bricks), screws and bolts, spring lock, snap lock, string or adhesive/glue.
Through play with these shapes and materials, small children start to learn the elementary construction principles and combinations. They then progress, encountering the same principles but with a variety of degrees of difficulty, different types of models and materials and different types of complexes, dependent on the size and manufacture of the model.
The following ten points represent the kind of knowledge the child will gain about elements/geometric forms - their physical qualities and the relationships between them:
1. Geometric forms are solid, isolated, suitable for stacking, transportable and cannot be bent or broken
2. In addition to colour and pattern, geometric forms have a specific surface, they have structure and they have a certain smell (especially when they are new).
3. Geometric forms sometimes make a soundwhich changes when they are put together, banged together or hit with other things or when they fall on the floor.
4. Each geometric shape has angles, corners, surfaces, shape, length, width, height and volume and they can be put together to create new angles, corners, surfaces, shape, lengths, widths, heights and volumes.
5. The elements take up spaceaccording to their form, length, width and volume.
6. Geometric shapes are named after their shape, length, width and volume.
7. Any one element can be used in different connections which greatly increases the number of different forms which can be made out of a set.
8. There is equivalence between the length/volume of e.g. bricks - Four quarter units placed end to end equal the length and volume of one whole unit.
9. Elements can be arranged and rearranged.
10. Contrary to clay and water, geometric elements are discontinuous (or separate) and can be spread out and gathered together again in a conglomerate pile or they can be put together systematically to create continuity/connection.
Throughout the ages, children have played with natural materials, e.g. stone and wood. Opportunities for play and learning have naturally changed with changes in society and in the materials we use.
In the 19th century there were Fröbel bricks. The LEGO brick, well-known across the globe, is an invention of the 20th century and is based on a principal of basic 4-stud and 8-stud bricks in different colours. Other construction toys with different types of elements are also well-known, e.g. BRIO-MECH and MECCANO elements with holes, nuts and bolts, and soft plastic pegs from K’NEX.
The LEGO TECHNIC construction system is unique. There are hundreds of different units and elements, building instructions and manuals where the structural complexity of the models approaches the level of a functional technical science.