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Educational toys

basic cube and its component part

Part of my training was in the investigation of space and structure. There are many ways of doing this, and I believe it is good to use as many as possible in order to explore different media and the ways in which they affect the outcome of the studies. Traditionally, and most easily, lines on paper are a way of making the first essays into this study but, very quickly, you need to look at other materials in order to be able to see space and structure in the round.

Card, straws, string and glue are some of the most common materials used but clay, wood and metals also have their place in more mature work, the latter implying a more considered approach due to the time it takes to fabricate in these materials.

For a long time there has been the tradition in the toy industry to produce constructional toys for children to make things from. Perhaps the best known is Lego, but I remember with great affection Bayco and Meccano, the former relating to the construction of buildings, the latter more suited to engineering works.

Bayco, regrettably, is no longer made. It utilised plastic blocks which were assembled on a vertical metal rod framework fixed into a brown or green baseboard. Meccano was completely metal. Both of them suffered from a propensity to rust. Lego, of course, utilises plastic blocks and, in order to keep up with modern trends, has added to it a variety of mechanical and electronic elements in order to enable a wider range of objects to be constructed. Meccano is still in use and has also developed a much wider vocabulary in order to appeal to a wider market.

The reason I mention these three childhood toys is that I used them all at one time or another, and I‘m sure that in playing with them I developed subconsciously a better understanding of three-dimensional space.

Reflecting on this some time ago I thought I might make something similar for the benefit of children. The idea was that it would be a toy which was simple to make, nice to touch and handle, and was capable of being used to make something or other – but what, I wasn‘t sure of initially.

I thought that it would also be nice if it appealed to different age groups and, to cut a long story short, decided that it should also be suited to an up-market group or be capable of use to examine spaces more formally, or at least be capable of attractive display.

basic blocks basic blocks

These factors seemed to point towards something made from wood, and blocks seemed an obvious choice. There is a long tradition of wooden toys for children, particularly building blocks. There are a lot of wooden blocks of one sort or another on the market, so I looked for solutions which would encourage small children to handle a block with some shape to it, and which would also lend itself to construction. I don‘t imagine that this a novel solution and suspect it exists somewhere or other as it is a simple geometric shape.

These two photographs show the beechwood prototypes, all twenty-four of them. They are fabricated in two types, left and right handed in order that they can be joined together as cubes, for this requires one of each to accomplish.

a pair of basic cubes and their component parts

In the end this resolved itself to a relatively simple shape, a cube with its corners missing.

Although I described it as a cube with corners missing, in fact I came upon the shape with an assembly of square-sectioned rods in the proportion 3:1. This produces the basic unit seen to the right and which can be produced in a basic and mirrored form. The interesting thing to me was that in putting two together the cube is formed with a small hollow space in its centre.

basic three cylinders

Having written that I’ve just remembered that, as a student I had made a sculptural system along the same lines, but, at that time, with cylinders of the same proportion. I had a more practical reason for their design as I needed a lamp at the time and this arrangement enabled me to produce a simple, three-lamped light from plastic tubing which combined a pleasant sculptural form with a functional requirement. The only design problem was in dealing with the trailing leads for which I could find no easy solution. But that’s another problem.

basic three cylinders

In assembling the basic blocks, there is an interesting effect created by the ability to see the central, internal space which is not visible in the assembled square cubed section. As a consequence there is more to visualise and explore for those playing with the units, which means that not only are the eyes but the fingers able to explore the blocks in more detail. I also made a set of them from painted hollow tubes which gave an added interest to the volumes as you can see from the comparison drawing above.

From a structural point of view there is a far smaller point of contact between the tubes which makes this junction very important. Depending on the scale of the construction a careful decision must be taken on glues or mechanical fixings.

basic three cylinders

Both the rectangular and cylindrical units are pleasing objects to play with, particularly for small hands, and can be put together both at right angles to the floor, that is balancing along their plane edges, or on their pointed corners. Here the decision on size was to find the optimal size and weight. Larger units are more manageable by small hands but weigh more. This points to a relatively light wood as I believe that natural materials are more pleasant to handle, particularly for the young. Whether the hollow circular tubes are suitable for young children, I’m not that sure though they do have the advantage of giving children the chance to look through, as well as stuff things into them.

basic hollow square rods

Of course, there is also the possibility that the square rods might be made in the form of hollow rods, creating more interest in their three dimensional form than is the case with solid rods. In this case they are unlikely to be manufactured from wood unless the units are large and not intended as play blocks for small children or, as in the case of the sketch on the left, wood that has been drilled through. Plastic or metal might be suitable materials for this type of unit, though metal constructions are likely to be heavy, and there would not be the same tactile experience as there is with wood.

A wide range of variations can be made in the mutual arrangement of both the circular and square rods, solid or hollow, and the units can be stacked to quite a height, the natural friction of the wood maintaining some semblance of structural stability, even when they should logically fall, as is illustrated in the photograph below to the right.

basic cube and its component part

The wooden prototypes I made are not as perfect as I would like them to be but, even as they are, they have a pleasant tactile feel, are attractive to use and develop interesting shapes in their use of pattern and shadow. Although not useful for architectural model building, they are certainly capable of use for the study of the interplay of shapes and a useful introduction for students, though perhaps at a larger scale.


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