Construction Toys Make Better Boys

Every year the National Building Museum in Washington, DC offers one accomplished researcher the opportunity to study its full collection in order to expand  the practitioner’s work while he or she learns more about the collection. So I was pleased to have been selected as the 2010 Field Fellow, and am examining thousands of building and architectural toys in their impressive collection.  This fellowship has also given me time to observe the many ways that experts and non-experts influence one another when building with Legos, the subject of the current exhibit. And to feed my academic interests, I have been reading hundreds of archival documents like manuals for building toy kits, research on pattern recognition in the military, and rapid spatial cognition.

In my own work, over the course of the past 14 years, ‘making’ has moved from being simply a design tool to helping create  inspiring dialogues, fantastic leaps in learning, vibrant collaborations, and design innovation. My materials have been as varied as my end goals, ranging from cake to 2 x 4’s to string, but the results have almost always been transformative. Each project served as a means to engage the community in design processes, fostering faster learning, greater empowerment, deeper explorations, and better design work—and, of course, a remarkably good time.

 Most of the toys in the museum’s collection are much more than playthings.  Many are analogous to the tools and processes that I have been using to help others realize their dreams. I see myself as having a unique opportunity, through my fellowship, to understand the rich history of building toys while considering how they might be redeployed in the service of much grander goals. These are some of the stories I would like to tell here.

Of particular interest to me are the instruction manuals for building toys, how manufacturers describe design, and what they do to help others build great things.

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One of my favorites is Dr. Richter’s Anchor Stones and the instructions that come with them. This is a rare example of a building toy manufacturer using storytelling and supportive drawings to create a compelling, immersive experience that is akin to a video game. In his stories, the eponymous Dr. Richter creates a scene or playframe (a la Gregory Bateson) that describes what it feels like to build and explore with Anchor Stones, as well as  how adults and other family members can make meaningful contributions to the building process. He tells the story of the skeptical mother, who thinks that toys and play are beneath her, not only getting sucked into the children’s design process but actually wanting to build her own creations—a process that  I see time and again in my own work. Richter details the experience of innovation, adversity, collaboration and joy, smartly countering such things as parental hesitation and creative inhibitions. The story is supplemented with fairytale-like drawings that show how people use and inhabit the buildings that the player will ultimately construct.

anchorstones1(click on image to enlarge.)

 I find Richter’s instructions for his Anchor Stones so compelling because they offer engaging approaches to describing and encouraging the exploration of design that are completely different from the norm. In them, I also recognize the rich, immersive experiences that have been behind my successes in the classroom or in the creation of a design project. But I’m sad to say that today such immersions are mostly lacking in classrooms and in community design processes. While I applaud the great work being done to test the limits of video games and the digital world to accelerate learning and social innovation, Dr. Richter’s Anchor Stones are an important reminder that we don’t necessarily need technology to create the immersive experiences for these things to happen.

To read more about building toys and urban design, and how to build a Lone Ranger Frontier Town, go to Alex Gilliam’s web site here.

Alex Gilliam is a self-described Cheerleader of Possibility and the Director of Public Workshop, an organization that creates uniquely engaging opportunities for youth and their communities to shape the design of their cities. Currently he is the Field Fellow at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. and is conducting research in its extensive Architectural Toy Collection. The opinions expressed in this article are his own. All included images are courtesy of the National Building Museum. To use or obtain copies of these images, or if you have any other questions about the collection, please contact:

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