Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Lott's Bricks

Lott's Bricks were an English toy, apparently manufactured from 1918 through the 1960s, notwithstanding a 1911 copyright date prominently appearing on boxes and manuals throughout their existence! One story is, Lott's took over the British operations of Ankerstein manufacturer A. Richter during World War I. But the blocks are not Anchor Blocks - the composition is noticeably different and the size is slightly larger - based on an imperial inch of 25.4 mm versus a metric inch of 25 mm.

In some ways, I like the Lott's material - slightly slicker & apparently sturdier than Richter's - the pieces are in much better condition than older Richter's tend to be, in spite of obvious signs of having been played with. But I miss the characteristic linseed odor of Richter's, and am inclined to believe that the latter's rougher surface makes for sturdier large constructions. [addendum - I may not have noticed the linseed oil scent on the bricks, but after spending some time handling the Lott's manual, I notice the scent on my fingers!]

I didn't get the Lott's set for large constructions though, but rather for the charming smaller constructions - in fact, my primary interest in buying the set was the manual not the blocks! The booklet with my #1 set includes plans for sets O, OA, 1, 1A, and 2 - and the parts in set #1 will build any of the O or OA plans, as well as the set 1 plans. There is a lot of nice contrast to the typical Anker constructions.

This "goods shed," or railway freight house is from the OA plans, all of which are shown on the illustration page, though I have only included one of three pages of plans - be sure to click on these images to see the full size scans, especially the illustration sheet is a pleasure to behold. (I will share additional pages in the future.)

All of the blocks correspond to shapes in Richter sets except for the chimney base which is used here as the middle support under the loading platform. There should be two in the OA and #1 sets, and of course one of these was the only piece broken - with one of the broken halves missing! [Attention Lott's collectors: Anyone have a spare?]

I am contemplating supplementing my unit blocks with some homemade pieces to be able to build the Lott's designs large, in wood.

Even if I do, I expect my Lott's set will be getting quite a bit of use, and delivering quite a bit of pleasure.

Lott's Bricks are classic Good Block Play.

Ferris Wheels

Last week I did a fischertechnik ferris wheel from a 1990s set, a few days later I wanted to build with Engino, and ended up building another ferris wheel, partly for comparison, partly because I needed to work from instructions, and there aren't that many options yet.

The representation of the two models shouldn't be too directly compared, since the fischertechnik is a single-model kit, while the Engino is one of many models which can be built from its set. Usually, I would score that heavily in advantage of the multiple-model set, but there are only standard-mix parts in the fischertechnik set, no special or oddball pieces ala Lego. The main stretch is the inclusion of twelve of the 60 degree curved sections, which are created by using a curved side section to form a straight beam to a curve. FT's multi-model sets, like the Universal II, usually only include a couple of these. I do wish that FT had included twelve straight side sections as well, so the beams could also be used more conventionally.

I already knew that fischertechnik was head and shoulders above Engino in quality, but this exercise really emphasized that. Piece by piece, connection by connection, instruction by instruction, the quality difference stood out. It's not that Engino isn't satisfactory - part quality ranges from adequate to very good and there are only a few slips in the instructions that drop below adequate. But fischertechnik may well be the best quality toy available, and surprisingly enough there isn't that much of a price premium, if any.

For some purposes, I recommend the Engino 60 set over fischertechnik - there is less learning curve and the "fiddly bits" (small pieces) are neither as small nor as numerous. But for anyone wanting to make a long term commitment and get the maximum benefit in return, fischertechnik is the way to go.

Most importantly, both are good block play.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Unit Blocks & Froebel Gift #4

The Fourth Froebel Gift consists of eight oblong blocks which relate to the cubes of the Third Froebel Gift by being half as thick, the same width, and twice as long.

That 1:2:4 ratio is exactly that of the Unit Block which have formed the basis of Unit Block (or "Kindergarten Block") sets since 1914.

So, while I often do ift #4 exercises with the specified size blocks of 12.5 mm x 25 mm x 50 mm, I am also inclined to grab other blocks of the same proportions, and most often, those are Unit Blocks.

Going the other direction, if you have some Unit Blocks, and are looking for some basic designs to build, the patterns that appeared in old guides to Froebel Kindergarten activities are a very good start.

You can build them strictly by the rules, with just the 1:2:4 unit blocks, of you can use a mixture of half-units and units, as I did in the photo at top, a choice which may be forced on you by the occasional tendency of modern Unit Block sets to be somewhat sparse on actual Unit Blocks.

I have included here all of the Gift #4 "Forms of Life" included in Edward Wiebe's Paradise of Childhood, of 1869 (mine is a 1907 printing of the 1896 edition; recently reprinted in paperback), where the author acknowledges that "the plates accompanying this work are reprints from 'Goldammer's Kindergarten,' a book recently [also in 1869!] published in Germany."

The plethora of designs for the various Froebel Gifts that were widely published in a variety of books (in many languages) may have been a key part of the downfall of Froebel's style of Kindergarten: the designs were taken by uninspired teachers as being prescriptive, ignoring Froebel's intent that the designs be mere examples, and that the children should construct "forms of life" that had meaning for them, in their own lives. [See Inventing Kindergarten for more on Froebel and early Kindergartens.]

I think that in their reaction to that, the inventors of modern Kindergartens and modern Unit Blocks have tilted too far the other way, and ask us to do everything from scratch, rather than giving us some ideas and practice constructions to get us started.

With any design set, I suggest building some example designs to learn the syntax of constructing, then modifying the plans from ones own inspiration, and only then building entirely new creations. And even after exploring with full creative freedom, I believe returning to example designs, occasionally or frequently, can be an important process of the learning process.

Creative opportunities for modification or freestyle building can be enhanced by adding additional blocks, a few at a time, but I suggest starting with just enough to build the designs: 8 unit blocks, or if there is a shortage, as many unit blocks as are available, and two half-unit blocks in place of each missing unit block.

If more than eight unit blocks are available, then initial expansion of the play set might best be more basic units - in recent years, much has been made by having block sets consisting of blocks of all the same shape, such as Kapla or Dr. Drew's Discovery Blocks, and there is indeed some value in that, as Friederich Froebel discovered some time before 1836.

So click on each of the design sheets for a high resolution version, print them out, and enjoy some good block play.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Bridges & towers

For several days I have been working on bridges out of K'nex. First, I built the odd looking thing at right from a 1997 K'nex "educational" bridge set. The bridges of that set seemed to have been designed from sketches of different bridge types, not from real bridges - which may be why K'nex came out with a larger, more accurate, and much more expensive "Real Bridges" set. It surely inspired the name.

After building that bridge "by the book" (or at least "by the card"), I more or less duplicated it using longer K'nex rods, and omitting that truly odd support structure.

I continued to fiddle with it over the next several days, which included an excellent "research" (more accurately "inspiration") trip to a lovely Pratt truss on the Snoqualmie Valley Trail - the former Milwaukee Road Cedar Falls to Monroe railway line, converted in that segment to a hiking and biking trail.

I like the results (top). This version is about five feet long.

Today, I decided I had had enough K'nex, and it was time for some fischertechnik, so I brought out the Universal set again, and built this nice communications tower (left).

I've fiddled with a few short bridge trusses out of fischertechnik, and am just about ready to do something substantial. It may have to be a mixture of yellow and gray - a bridge in the process of being repainted?

Whichever direction I take with it, I am sure it will be Good Block Play.

Just as these projects were all Good Block Play.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Stack play

Wooden blocks, rectangular mostly, being stacked on each other with nothing but gravity and friction at work. Outdoors, in the sun, on a lovely Sunday, with children at play.

The best kind of block play may well be stack play, even if lately I seem to have been mostly doing tech play (connecting things, especially with mechanisms involved). I've been doing pattern play lately as well, my third general category of block play (we'll get to that here again soon, I hope).

Today's outdoor exercise was partly inspired by some block construction designs I found online with a gaudy multicolor set of plastic blocks. I didn't like the blocks much, even if they were in legitimate unit block format, but the designs intrigued me - they are far more interesting than usually accompany block sets (click on image for a larger view).

So I printed them out, along with a guide to which blocks I would need, and made up an appropriate set from my unit block collection. It's actually a nice little set, once decolored - which shouldn't come as surprise given the quality of the constructions.

Once outside, I soon discovered that the concrete stepping stone I intended to use as a building surface was too uneven, so I built the cathedral on the box lid - which sagged, giving us a bit of an A-frame effect.

My neighbor offered up a sturdier foundation, and her younger girl offered assistance. Assistance quickly became supervision, and I found it best to sit back while she created "a whole family of houses." It was well worth the interuption to see real early-childhood block play in action. She's also a sweetie.

Once she moved on, I was able to go back to building the old fashioned gas station (top), followed by the chair & table, and the dog - though she did return periodically, demanding explanations as to what I was up to. She was especially concerned as to what dog that was.

Great block play.