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I'm building myself the world

from Peter Thomas

Getting to grips with applications from real-world industry and technology in a playful way – this was made possible by metal construction kits 100 years ago. These days, however, it's robotics and virtual design that are taking classic values into the future. Children and adolescents can have a whole lot of fun – and acquire the core competencies of STEM professions in the process.

Tinker Toys App
Tinker Toys App

Digitally designing your own toys on a tablet computer and making them a reality with 3D printing? This is precisely what applications such as the TinkerToys app, available since May 2018 (for Android and iOS), make possible. Children can print their designs themselves or let TinkerToys take over production using recyclable bioplastics.

Being able to digitally produce your own toy is cutting edge technology. With its concept of the "Thingmaker", Mattel already showed in 2016 that 3D printing that is currently still being used in the maker scene in particular has great potential for children and teenagers Children and young people can use this technology to express their creativity and playfully acquire skills for the STEM professions of the future – because 3D printing is becoming increasingly important in industry.

Time Machine Building Kit

But what do such solutions have to do with the time around 1900? An awful lot! Because it was then that Frank Hornby invented the modern metal construction kit in England. He turned real-world industrial technology into a game: the principle of machine and bridge construction with prefabricated iron parts connected by rivets was transformed into a brilliantly flexible game system of punched tapes and screws.

Metal construction kit railway bridge
Railway bridge built by a metal construction kit for Maerklin electric locomotive E94.

Sold under the name of Meccano, the invention started to conquer the world in 1903. Large metal construction brands later also included Construction (now Eitech), Erector, Märklin, Merkur, Stabil and Trix. Generations of children built their own world with the aid of metal construction kits and the principles of genuine technology.

Toy Research

The Deutsches Museum in Munich, the largest science and technology museum in the world, displays numerous construction kits and models. And they are even carrying out research into the topic there. The research revolves around the interaction between the educational value of construction kits (which adults want) and the joy of playing (as experienced by the children).
A lot of metal construction kits were so close to the genuine engineering of their time that the industry also used them for training and development purposes. The automotive designer Sir Alec Issigonis, for example, experimented with Meccano when he was developing the first Mini.

From metal to plastic

Lego Technic – Wheel loader
Wheel loader and many more machines can be reproduced accurate in every detail with Lego Technic.

In the second half of the 20th century, plastic became more and more important as a material in industrial production as well as in toys. And new kits such as Fischertechnik (1965) and Lego Technic (1977) were also made from plastic. These products successfully carried the idea of the metal construction kit into the future.

In recent years, Lego Technic has enjoyed success with its large construction kits for vehicles. The latest model in the series will be introduced in June 2018: the supercar Bugatti Chiron. Fischertechnik also scores points with controls: they can even communicate with industrial software. That is why the system is used to test new industrial plants in the form of models with genuine programs.

The different ways that the current issues from industry can be used in a playful way are manifold, says Professor Gernot Bauer from the Münster University of Applied Sciences. He has worked on the new Fischertechnik kit called Robotics TXT Smart Home, which depicts the fascinating world of building automation and its control – and is a whole lot of fun.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Spielwarenmesse eG.

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Author of this article:

Peter Thomas, Journalist

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