LEGO - Did you know that LEGO has been around for 75 years?!? I remember playing with Lego with my brother, who was the creator of such masterpieces as the LEGO potty (complete with a LEGO poop) and a mini-LEGO bicycle with moving parts. My oldest son, Merlin, has a huge collection, and seems to be following in his uncle's footsteps.
The LEGO Group is amazingly environmentally conscious and see it as their responsibility to minimize the waste and energy used during the manufacturing process, and to avoid using toxic substances that may cause harm to either consumers or employees. They use a special ABS plastic designed only for LEGO, and meet all European and American safety standards. You can read more about LEGO safety here. Lego is made in Europe and can be found everywhere.
The LEGO Holiday Train is half price (now $44.98) on the LEGO website.
LEGO also offers the Belville collection for girls, and Duplo for younger children. The Belville Winter Wonder Palace ($69.99) should appeal to girls who love princesses and unicorns.
K'NEX offer a slightly different building experience than LEGO. Like LEGO, K'NEX are available everywhere and made in the U.S.A. Merlin used to spend hours building moving machines using rods and connectors. Many K'NEX sets have engines and remote controls. K'NEX is currently offering 10% off orders over $100.
Stompin' K'NEXosaurus ($14.99)
Zome is a building toy that is both similar and different. Like K'NEX, Zome is made up of sticks and connectors. Awards for Zome include:
Parenting Magazine: Best Toys of the Year 1995
Parents' Choice: Approval Award 1995
Dr. Toy: Best Smart Toy Product 2005
Zome is very versatile and lightweight, so children can be build in any direction and size is not a problem. This is why Zome is sometimes used by scientists to construct molecular models. But, in our experience, Zome, while possibly more educational than K'NEX or LEGO, was not as much fun. After reading many reading glowing reviews, I bought this for Merlin when he was thirteen. But other than just checking it out, he never played with it.
Zome Pioneer Kit ($19.95)
Geomags are another building toy, this time made in Switzerland. Geomags are magnetic balls, rods and panels that come in a variety of colors including primary colors, metallic, glow-in-the dark, girly pastels and even glitter.
Geomag Pastelle Panels 84-Piece Set($16.99)
Geomag Metal 60 ($14.99)
Geomag can be found at Amazon, ToysRUs and Target. This does have the Merlin "Seal of Approval". The cool thing about Geomags is that because it uses magnets, some sets allow models to be dynamic, so kids can make thins like magnetically spinning tops. However, since these are strong magnets, they shouldn't be played with near small children that might swallow parts.
I seem to be on a roll of Merlin's old toys. Fractiles are magnetic tiles that are made of angles based on the number 7. The tiles can be used to make your designs with repeating and non-repeating patterns, such as starbursts, spirals, butterflies, mandalas, flowers, robots, spaceships, etc.
I have had a set on my file cabinet for about ten years. Merlin enjoyed it, and when I wasn't looking a fleet of spaceships or a large robot would magically appear. A small set works well as a travel toy and it can be used on the included activity board or on any magnetic surface. Fractiles-7 are a winner of the Parent's Choice silver honor award.
Just a few more building toys - :-)
Tree Blocks are blocks made out of tree branches cut in 2" increments. The bark is left on, so they have a natural feel and kids know that they are playing with trees. Tree blocks have come a long way since we purchased our set in 1997. When I bought our tree blocks, the blocks were made from damaged tree limbs in orange groves. Now they use the discards of managed paper forests and abandoned apple, hazelnut and cherry trees. Living trees aren't harmed.
Tree Blocks have won many awards, including:
Winner of a 1999 Early Childhood News Director’s Choice Award
Winner of a 1998 Parent’s Guide to Children’s Media Outstanding Achievement Award
Winner of a 1997 Parent’s Choice Gold Award
Family Life Magazine, November 1997, Best Educational Toys of the Year
Parents Magazine, November 1997, Best Toys of the Year
My older children put theirs away when they became teenagers, and Linnea and Arielle are so young, we haven't taken them back out yet. After ten years, most are in good shape although a few have lost their bark. Merlin says his favorite thing about these was that the shapes were unique and varied, while the sizes were uniform, and that allowed him to be more creative.
Tree blocks starter set ($27.95)
Keva Planks are identical maple construction blocks. Every piece is the same. They are about 1/4 inch thick, 3/4 inch wide and 4 1/2 inches long and can be used to build a variety of structures.
Keva Plank sets start at $34.99. They are sold out for this holiday season, but may be available at some museum or educational stores.
Marble Runs - The one Merlin had was made out of thin sticks and didn't stay together. The ones that I've seen recently are more solid. The Wooden Wagon has two options.
The Haba set which has many components, tracks, whirlwinds, jumps, lifts and other parts. It could get quite expensive - although has the option of starting small and adding on over time.
Haba Marble Run Master Building Set ($199)
The award winning Cuburo set ($189) is made of 54 cubes of beechwood that can be combined in endless ways. Add-ons are available for this as well.
Quadrilla is a more affordable marble run system that combines elements of both the Haba and Cuburo system. However Quadrilla is made in China.
This is what the HaPe company says about safety.
"We care for the quality of the products from the very beginning and insist on continuous quality improvement.In 2000, we successfully earned the ISO9001 quality system certification and became one of the first ISO9001 certified enterprises among wooden toy manufacturers in China. We also passed the LGA examination (Landesgewerbeanstalt Bayern).
Our Quality Policy:
All of our products are certified to CE / EN 71.
Our Company is ISO 9001 certified.
We always conduct a 100% quality inspection before shipment -- that means each product is tested eight times.
The majority of our products have passed an LGA examination and have been awarded the GS mark of quality.
60 Inspectors and supervisors examine production after every stage of development. "
Quadrilla is available at Hearthsong. Basic Set ($59.98)
Playmobil Playmobil is another classic that has been around since my childhood. Playmobil is produced in Germany. It is a plastic universe of play - everything from fairytale castles and doll houses to pirates, hospitals and haz-mat teams. There's something for almost every child.
Fire Station with Tower ($69.99)
Warrior Ship ($44.99)
Bunny School ($18.99)
Unicorn Fantasy Land ($39.99)
Le Toy Van makes high quality wooden play sets in Europe. They are hard to find in the U.S., but I did find some on Amazon. They are a nice, though expensive, substitute for plastic play sets.
Papo Surcouf Royal Flagship($89.99)
Fairy Tower ($119)
Ack! Scratch Le Toy Van off the list. See Kristen's comment. I contacted Le Toy Van and here's what they wrote:
Thank you for your interest in learning more about Le Toy Van.
The products are made in Indonesia and are tested to ASTM and EN71 standards. They are very high quality and are sold in specialty toy and gift stores in the US.
Please contact me if you have any further questions.
Larry J. Hotaling
Hotaling Imports Inc.
315-363-5594 ext. 225
So the sites that claimed they are made in Europe are wrong. Thanks, Kristen.
How did all the building toys effect Merlin? I'm not sure I can blame it all on Lego, but Merlin is currently applying to colleges for physics and engineering (Proud mama). A little Lego can't hurt.