Monday, November 16, 2009

Tinkertoys & Froebel's Peas

There is an evocative feel to Tinkertoys, for adults who played with them as children. A tactile memory. A pleasure.

These may not be the colors of the Tinkertoys I best remember from my childhood, but they are the size and they have the feel.

At my grandmothers house, between the two upstairs bedrooms, there was a space that was more than hallway or landing, and less than a full room. It had a south-facing window, a chair, a small table, just enough space for a child or two to play on the floor, and a set of Tinkertoys. I played there a lot, retreating from the noise and hubub of the living room and kitchen, faintly audible voices drifting up the stairs. Tinkertoys.

Tinkertoys were invented in 1913. The story of how the inventor got the idea from watching his children play with spools and pencils on the floor has been widely repeated since Tinkertoys achieved their first success. Personally, I wonder how one makes the leap from a pencil in a spool hole to the eight holes around the circumference of the spool. That would be the more interesting story.

But again and again in reading about inventors explanations of their great breakthrough, one is stricken by how uninformed the poor inventor must have been to not be aware of prior art, yet somehow through sheer luck and fortitude invent something just sufficiently different from prior art to be patentable, and to not infringe on existing patents, if any.

Okay. They make good stories.

We don't really know that Charles Pajeau was aware of Froebel's Kindergarten, and in particular Gift 19 (the later supply-oriented "gifts" are now often called an "occupations" in contrast the earlier equipment-oriented gifts). But the Froebel Kindergarten movement was still very active in America, with a lot of activity in the Chicago area, and I suspect I recall, Pajeau's hometown of Evanston.

But whether by direct influence, subconscious suggestion, or simply prior development, we must consider Gift 19, "Peas Work," to be the precursor of Tinkertoys. As these images support, again taken from Wiebe's Paradise of Childhood, 1869, 1896, 1907.

Froebel's Peas appeared in a world prior to canned or frozen vegetables, or year-round availability of fresh, so when they spoke of "peas" they would generally be understood to be referring to dried peas. These, when softened in water, could have wires or sharpened thin sticks poked into them, and two- or three-dimensional structures created.

Tinkertoys are a better idea, and it is not surprising that "Peas Work" has been all but forgotten, and no longer plays a role in our kindergartens.

Tinkertoys would go on to be a major player for several decades, until eventually bumped down a notch by K'nex, but even yet surviving in a sturdier, larger version. There are also imitators, smaller, larger, and in-between.

Long time Block Play readers may find today's bridge familiar - it is similar to a K'nex bridge I did a while back, but less complex. Which is a major part of its appeal.

I am particularly pleased with the unit blocks as bridge piers & abutments. Unit blocks are so useful, and I find they complement Tinkertoys a particularly pleasing manner. I suppose with standard-sized unit blocks, the new larger size of Tinkertoys would be in similar proportion as my smaller blocks and smaller Tinkertoys.

Good Block Play.


My Boaz's Ruth said...

I've never played with K'nex or TInkertoys. From my research on Tinkertoys, it seems to be a good toy starting at 4 or 5. Does K'nex come into play at the same age, or is K'nex for older children and at those younger years I should stay with Tinkertoys?

Herman said...

Memories and peas... I liked this entry :)

Alan said...

[in reply to My Boaz's Ruth]

The people you need to ask about age-appropriateness for young children are not me.

I am about 60 & developmentally disabled, my girls are about 30, and there are no grandchildren. A couple of nieces in the right age group, a couple of grand-nieces coming along.

Being developmentally disabled, which delayed some things, but with above-average intelligence, which accelerated some things, I do know first hand that there is a lot of variation, even with neurotypical kids.

So whom to ask?

- The child: often they will have played with various toys at friends homes, or elsewhere, without parents even knowing.

- The child's daycare, preschool, sunday school, whatever.

- A knowledgeable person in a good independent toy store or learning materials store.

There is a Kid K'nex line, which is specifically directed at younger kids, and extends past your age range.

Tinkertoys are safe, and can be appropriate, over the same range.

The choice has so much to do with the specific child's developmental patterns and interests, and how much they play with other children, particularly older children.

One thing to keep in mind is that in general, too small is better than too big: you can add incrementally to a smaller set, but an oversized set can daunt and frustrate the child, at best wasting the toy, at worst potentially contributing to longterm developmental problems.