There are two toys from my childhood which I enjoyed the most, which undoubtedly pushed me towards the career path I am on today, Lego and Meccano, yet terrible things are happening with these toys.
Though before I rant, first, a very brief history lesson about the two.
1816 -Danish carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen purchases woodworking shop in Billund.
1932 -Workshop almost bankrupt, Christansen makes toys.
-British toymaker Hilary Harry Fisher Page starts Kiddicraft company.*
1940 -Page patents Self Locking Building Brick (see image to the left).
1947 -Christansen buys plastic moudling machine.
1949 -Lego starts making “Automatic Binding Bricks” based on Kiddicraft blocks.
1949 Onwards -Lego conquers the world.
*Yes that's right, Lego came from a British invention, that’s why its so good.
1890’s -British bookeeper Frank Hornby has two sons and a daughter
1899 -Starts making toys for the two sons (girls don’t play with Meccano) from pieces of cut sheet metal.
-Realises that if pieces were regular than toys can be adapted.
1901 -Patents toy as “Improvements in Toy or Educational Devices for Children and Young People”
1902 -Sells the toys as “Mechanics Made Easy”.
1907 -Meccano name adopted.
1907 Onwards -Meccano conquers the world (with several financial problems and takeovers).
Both toys provide the child, or adult, with a wide array of modular pieces which can be connected together in all manner of combinations with the only limitation being that of the imagination. There is even the possibility for the more adventurous to combine the two different toys together. What could be a plane could seconds later be a house, a car after a few changes of parts could become a bridge. And being modular there are no limits on the size of the construction. A testament for this comes courtesy of television’s James May when in his show James May’s Toy Stories he created a full size Lego house in Surrey and a Meccano bridge crossing a Liverpool canal.
80's TV advert for Lego as it should be
Lego and Meccano’s pushing of the imagination turns them into great educational toys encouraging amazing problem solving and construction skills in children, whilst they just think they’re having fun. The amount of ‘players’ is unlimited providing you have enough bricks or plates in your toy box to go round, the name Lego itself comes from the Danish “Leg godt”, meaning “play well”.
These educational benefits are missing from most of the toys available to children these days, where the need for imagination is taken from the child. Playstations, XBoxs and Wii’s channel pre-determined images into the zombie like corpses of the children playing on them, there is no need to imagine anything as it’s on the screen in front of you. A look at the ‘Toys R Us’ website shows there current best sellers for 5-7 year olds are:
1. A Kung Zhu Special Forces Hamster (I have no idea what one of these is)
2. A Nintendo DS Lite Handheld Gaming System- Cobalt/Black
3. A Nintendo DS Lite Handheld Gaming System- Mettalic Rose
4. A Nintendo DS Lite Handheld Gaming System- Crimson Red
Across the entire store the best seller is Call of Duty:Black Ops for the XBox360.
With so many parents giving out these Nintendos to their children it makes you wonder how they’re ever going to develop an imagination of their own. Unfortunately even if a well-meaning uncle were to come along with a present of Lego or Meccano the imagination is not going to come from that. For imagination, even in Lego and Meccano, is dead.
If one takes a look at the sets of Lego and Meccano currently available it won’t be long till you notice that no longer is it a box full of generic modular pieces with a vague set of instructions** to make one of a million possibilities. Instead the box has a minimum amount of generic modular parts with the rest being specialist pieces for that model, you get to make the toy on the front of the box and nothing else.
**Meccano purposely used to make instructions wrong so the child had to provide their own solutions.
A prime example is the Lego ‘Cars’ range which is currently available, which like so many of the current Lego ranges is cashing in on a Hollywood Blockbuster. To ensure that the Lego toys look just like the characters in the film, without having to use any imagination, they’ve created new specialist parts which can only make that car. So you start out with ‘Lightening McQueen’ and few changes later you have....’Lightening McQueen’...oh. It’s not just the ‘Cars’ range, Lego have completely sold out with of 38 product ranges, only 4 of them contain pure untarnished generic modules, the rest are all themed with specialist pieces.
And its not just Lego that are guilty of this, Meccano have fallen foul to believing that children can’t imagine for themselves. At ‘ToysRUs’ the best selling Meccano set is the ‘Erector Spykee Micro Remote Control Robot - Green’, a build your own robot kit which can be operated remotely through IR, emits four sounds and light effects. Fascinating stuff, who wouldn’t want to build their own robot, apart from ‘build your own’ in this case means assemble a kit of 20 pre-fab parts and insert a pre-programmed computer block. Not quite the inventive engineering Frank Hornby first sought to teach.
But why at Archiendo do we really care that children want to play Nintendo instead of playing Lego, and that those who do want to play with Meccano are just part of a final fit assembly line?
It’s the same imagination in children that allows them to see a pile a 4x2 Lego blocks and assemble them into a house that fires lasers whilst driving around on wheels that will inspire them to become architects which come up with novel social housing designs.
It’s the same imagination in children that allows them to see a pile of nuts and bolts and construct a swing bridge with working crane either end that will inspire them to become engineers that will design a bridge spanning further than any other has before.
And it’s not that children have changed, they still want to be creative. I visited the Laing Gallery in Newcastle-upon-Tyne this summer to see a exhibition called Institute of Play by Colin Booth, it featured a load of wooden blocks lined up that you weren’t allowed to touch and was very serious, thus quite dull. However in the room next door, as a spin off activity to the main exhibit, were a lots of wooden blocks you could play with. And the children had gone to town with them creating bridges, walls and towers and enjoying every second of it. Pinned around the edge of the room were slips of paper written by the children on what they had done, many proclaiming that in the future they wanted to be ‘Arcitekts’ or ‘Eginears’.
It is the toy manufacturers who have changed, they have broken the construction toy, and for the the sake of the future of design, they need to fix it again.