The Power of Play
Play-based learning, especially with blocks and other building-focused models, is proven to enhance a child’s ability to problem solve, develop motor skills, and stimulate creative decision making. It is from these straightforward, tactical objects that children first experience and understand the world around them. The simple act of playing helps toddlers develop a sense of experimentation, while improving their ability to plan, organize, and investigate; so why can’t adults do the same? As it turns out, building-style toys have a long history of inspiring architects to practice creative and divergent thinking much like they do children.
Toy blocks, which have existed in some capacity for centuries, typically refer to wooden, plastic or foam pieces of varying shapes, sizes, and colors, used by children for recreational building and stacking purposes. Playskool, the largest manufacturer of wooden toy blocks in the United States, was a longtime industry leader until a new crop of building-focused playtime products emerged in the early 20th century.
Lincoln Logs, invented in 1916 by John Lloyd Wright, the second son of Frank Lloyd Wright, favored a log cabin approach for their design, while the original molds for the toy were based on the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. Similarly, the Lego Group began producing traditional wooden block toys out of a workshop in Denmark in 1932, though it wasn’t until 1947 that the brand began manufacturing plastic products and introduced their now trademark interlocking-style bricks.
In less than a century Lego has grown into one of the most beloved companies on the planet, and in 2008 launched a product range called Lego Architecture. Lego’s sub-brand aimed to celebrate the past, present, and future of architecture through the Lego Brick, while inspiring learning and development through play.
While the influence that architectural culture has had on the childhood world is evident, architects, too, have a history of looking to children for inspiration. In 1923 the Bauhaus School developed their own set of colorful building blocks, consisting of 48 rectangular pieces created by Bauhaus designer Alma Siedhoff-Buscher. Decades later, Japanese architect Takefumi Aida once again borrowed from children’s toys when designing a group of houses called “Toy Block Houses”. Referencing Dutch historian Johan Huizinga's Theory of Civilization, which argues that "play is older than culture," Aida’s series of buildings show how children’s toys can, in turn, influence the architectural design process.
Aida’s toy block project employs elementary volumes like cubes, cylinders, and pyramids derived from the block system to create full scale structures. The resulting buildings take on the appearance of huge toy constructions, while speaking to the nature of architecture produced within a framework of restrictions. Since 1974, Takefumi Aida has designed nine toy block houses following the same geometrical system, with each successive structure in the series becoming more sophisticated and complex.
Whether you’re a toddler at home experimenting with building blocks for the first time, or a celebrated architect who understands the possibilities that toy blocks offer to the creative process, one thing is for certain, you’re never too old for playtime.