Beginner Building Sets: The Yay to the Nay
My daughter has always been a huge fan of traditional wooden building blocks (we’ve got a 60 piece set of standard blocks from Melissa & Doug), so this week I decided to test out some of the more innovative variations on the genre. Apparently, regular wooden blocks are SO TODDLER 2011 and I should get with the times.
It’s interesting how many different skills are tested when the process of putting blocks together changes. While I still think wooden blocks offer the most options for creativity and exploration, these newer varieties offer a lot by way of fine tuning motor, visual and spatial skills.
1) Dado Cubes ($25)
Dado Cubes come with 10 plastic cubes, scaled from 1 inch to 5 inches, all nested together. Each cube has a slit in it that interlocks with the other cubes, allowing you to create interesting 3-dimensional structures. Dado says that building with their blocks helps develop visual spatial intelligence which is very important to a child’s development.
I found fitting the slits together to be less than smooth— the plastic pieces often scraping together and getting semi-stuck. The structures you can create are interesting but in the end, they all look very similar. When Mazzy builds with regular blocks, she creates buildings and trains and cities. I don’t think Dado Cubes challenge her imagination in quite the same way. It is more about fitting the slits together and balancing the structure.
Perhaps, if we got more Dado Cubes, there would be larger opportunities to be more creative.
The Learning Resources Gears set comes with 150 pieces including gears, various connectors, and interlocking bases for beginners to learn a bit of mechanics. Put the pieces together and then use a lever to turn the whole structure at once.
For starters, the interlocking bases are so hard to fit together, I was convinced I was doing something wrong. Nope. Just had to push harder. There is no way for my toddler to do it on her own. Secondly, it seemed very unintuitive how to fit the pieces together, to the point where it just wasn’t that much fun. Mazzy seemed to feel the same, as she was interested initially, liked turning the gears but then got frustrated and hasn’t gone back to play with them again.
If you do decide to buy the gears, I would suggest buying the tub. We got ours in a disposable box and now I have no idea what to do with the 150 pieces currently crowding my living room.
3) Magna-Tiles ($52)
The original Magna-Tile set contains 32 translucent plastic tiles with magnetic edges, which can be used to create both two-dimensional and three-dimensional designs. Magna-Tiles say they promote patterning, shape recognition, building and motor skills.
Most importantly, Mazzy adores them. Of the three building sets, she spent by far and away the most time with the Magna-Tiles, coming back to them day after day. She also was every interested in recreating the images on the box— a rocket ship, a castle and a tunnel. And the magnetic nature of the tiles added another dimension to building because it let her create walls and roofs, something she is not able to do with regular blocks.
Also, since the pieces fit together easily (as opposed to the skinny slits of the Dado Cubes and the confusing connector pieces of the Gears), she experienced no frustration while testing out her new skills.
In conclusion, I think using building sets beyond traditional wooden blocks can be very valuable in encouraging and developing new skills. But they are in no way a substitution. New skills are important, but nothing gives the creative freedom to build in an uninhibited fashion like regular old blocks.