PLAY WORK BUILD takes children and adults alike through an exploration of play with an immersive, hands-on installation featuring molded foam blocks of all shapes and sizes and an original virtual block play experience.

Block construction is more than simple playtime. Early philosophers dating back to Plato wrote about the links between play and learning, believing it helps children process basic laws of physics and principles of architecture.

In 2006, the National Building Museum acquired George Wetzel’s collection of architectural toys. The 2,200 toys, mostly from Europe and the United States, represent the impressive scope of Western toy making from the 1860s into the 20th century.

Block play has been linked to the development of critical social, emotional, physical and cognitive skills. Children touch, feel, lift and pull in order to comprehend their tools.

Children face challenges and come to understand the value of learning from their mistakes while building environments. Many realize that, to reach their goals, they must effectively communicate and work together with others.

Through block construction, children are able to explore the limitations of gravity, the concepts of balance and the aesthetics of design.

After acquiring George Wetzel’s toy collection, the National Building Museum has come to hold one of the largest and most sophisticated toy collections of its kind in public trust within the United States.

The toys are studied by collectors and researchers, giving them the opportunity to further our understanding of play, material technology and the built environment

In the 1840s, German educator Friedrich Froebel developed a series of educational materials for small children called Spielgabe (“play gifts”).

Hilary Fisher Page originally invented these plastic-injected building bricks for the English toy company Kiddicraft Ltd. in 1939. Featuring special window and door pieces, the green, yellow, and red bricks could be used to build a house on the included black platform piece.

This set of 33 blocks was meant to be used for dual construction; the blocks are reversible and depict parts of different structures on each side. The patent for the “toy blocks that make a house” claimed as new the idea of building blocks marked on different sides for the purpose of constructing two structures with one kit.

In the 1950s and 60s, special attention to math education led to expansion for the market for mathematical toys such as Cuisenaire Rods.

Italian educator Maria Montessori designed carefully structured “sensorial exercises” with blocks to train children to observe the world around them, compare objects, form judgments, and make decisions. The directions for this Pink Tower, originally designed in 1907, ask children to stack ten wooden cubes from large to small, take down the tower, and rebuild it again.

The Sky-Hy blocks celebrated the skyscraper, then a popular new urban building type in America. The heavy square blocks could only imitate such soaring structures.

F. Ad. Richter & Co. introduced the Fortress Series during World War I. The all-gray blocks came with designs for accurate models of the modern, reinforced-concrete bunkers built by the German military during the war.

The Toy Town was designed like a puzzle, with building outlines drawn on the town layout so children could place each building only on its correct location, without variation. The toy had a specific message about the layout of commercial, residential, governmental, and transportation zones.

This town planning set came with a 30” x 40” street plan to help children arrange all the important buildings of a town. With this set, children were free to make their own decisions about the placement of buildings and each one’s relationship to the entire imagined community.

A.G. Spalding & Bros. bought the Tinkertoy brand in 1952. In the 1960s, Spalding increased the reach of his toy to attract older children—particularly boys—by adding battery-powered motors to spin the framed creations and by including more complicated construction ideas with the sets.

These picture puzzle blocks were illustrated with architectural details associated with particular building types.

This scale model house set was part of a collection that included a store, a church, a garage, a cottage, and a school—a complete “Bumpalow” town. The toy introduced children to basic design features in the structures that made up a specific, suburban vision for an imaginary town.

These popular, durable cast-stone blocks were made from a mixture of quartz sand, chalk, and linseed oil, and have long been valued for their craftsmanship, their natural feel, and their weight, compared to blocks made out of wood or cardboard.

Plastic mold injection, a new technique, enabled toy makers to create a variety of colorful, durable, interlocking brick construction toys that anyone could use to build complex structures. By alternating plastic pieces, just like real brick construction, children could build stable walls and other structures.

Erector sets could be used to make realistic motor-operated structures such as a Ferris Wheel, a Parachute Jump Ride, a Merry-Go-Round, and even a walking robot. This set included instructions for all of those projects, each of which would take time, space, and patience to complete.

Developed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son John Lloyd Wright in 1918, the notched, interlocking Lincoln Logs could be used to build traditional houses and forts.

These lightweight, ring-shaped, stacking contraptions can be stacked using the rounded pegs that fit into hollow legs. Imaginary structures built with this colorful toy could rise high or stick out to the side, though that would compromise the stability of the resulting tower.

These alphabet blocks use words, images, and letters in colorful combinations. The stackable cubes helped familiarize children with touchstones of their culture—such as the all-American turkey—as well as letters, the building blocks of language.

Erector Sets were almost exclusively marketed to boys, presumed to have an interest in complex engineering and construction. The box for this early Mysto set featured two boys building a giant bridge as one exclaims: “Come Daddy! See what we’ve built.”

Town planning is often based on a grid system, utilized here by the Toy Town Peg Board. Children can manipulate trees, single-family homes, and fences within the constraints of the pegs, laid out in straight lines.

This cardboard scale-model house featured a flat roof, glass block windows, and attached garage features, touchstones of mid-century modern residential design. Quickly assembled, the house taught children not about construction techniques, but about the stand-out features of contemporary architecture.

Self-styled “tinkerer” Charles Pajeau and his partner Robert Pettit invented Tinker Toys in 1913. The toy’s signature “hub and stick” parts were said to be inspired by Pajeau’s experience watching children play with pencils and empty spools of thread.

Expanding the educational mission of alphabet blocks, these blocks feature simple words that can combine to make sentences. Though parents might prefer that their children arrange a tower in noun-verb order, the blocks could be stacked regardless of grammar or syntax.

Lincoln Logs were so popular in the mid-20th century that many other toy manufacturers developed their own log-based construction toys. This Roy Toy set featured slightly thicker and less rounded logs, but the forts and pioneer settlements looked much the same.

The beams, panels, and skylights of this set replicated the look of real 1960s skyscrapers, “modern as tomorrow.” Children built a frame with girders and completed the building using prefabricated walls, curtain glass, and roof panels.

Erector sets provided realistic building experiences for older children, introducing them to current architectural principles. The basic construction element was a perforated steel metal strip held together by nuts and bolts – just like structural steel girders.

This Noah’s Ark block set expanded the educational reach of the traditional alphabet blocks with colorful renderings of animals saved from Biblical flooding. While stacking blocks and demolishing towers, children were introduced to bird and deer, boar and goat.

The small round plastic disks in the Dis Kit set connect to one another using notched edges. Each piece can fit together with each other piece in one of eight places, encouraging free play rather than advanced planning.

Educator Caroline Pratt’s Unit Blocks, still used in preschools and kindergartens after a century, used the same system as the Fourth Froebel Gift in the proportions 1:2:4 and came in a variety of simple shapes, including the semi-circle and the arch.

These 3-D puzzle pieces came together with sturdy connections, enabling long, tall, colorful creations. The instructions emphasized the endless possibilities, featuring ideas for how to build “dozens of BIG models!”

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