Adventures in Ethics and Science

The human mind seems to like creating things, and kids will use whatever tools are at their disposal to build. My uncle used to build death-defying systems of roadways with Hotwheels track and masking tape. A childhood friend of mine built elaborate structures out of Fig Newtons (largely because they were in abundance in her home and she couldn’t stand to actually eat them). When you have a creative itch, almost anything can serve as the scratcher. Here are some toys for building that are probably less likely to attract ants than are Fig Newtons:



Strictly speaking, you might not classify this as a building set, but it’s a play set that lets you create assemblies of interlocking gears. Technically, this is a baby toy, but it’s almost always the case that the grownups will be hovering impatiently for a turn (trying to get the baby distracted with food or a book, bundling the baby off to sleep, etc.)

The set consists of a magnetic board with a “driver” in the middle on which you can position one of the colorful plastic gears. (The larger-diameter gears work best here.) Then, you can stick the other gears in various arrangements on the board and turn on the driver motor (in forward or reverse, and on two different speed settings). Not only do the gears spin, but many of them make neat little noises, or flip various doohickeys as they turn. If the batteries run out, you can also spin the gears manually.

Not only does this set give kids a good feel for the mechanics of gears, but it’s pretty and noisy. Plus, there’s no waiting to assemble something elaborate before you can start playing. Instant gratification!


Gears! Gears! Gears!

These are for bigger kids (in part because some of the little pieces are choking hazards), but they seem like the logical next step for the kids who loved Gearation. Here, you get a whole mess of plastic gears plus interlocking base pieces with axes for the gears. As well, there are connectors that let you build your gears upward, rather than just outward. And, there are fun extras like flexible spring connectors, propellers, and crank handles.

Gears!Gears!Gears! comes in many assortments, each of which is compatible with the others, enabling kids to build gigantic interlocking systems of whirly goodness.


Erector sets

Plastic building sets are fun, but every now and then you get a hankering to build with metal. The classic Erector sets, which are available in many varieties (including those with all the pieces to let you build scale replicas of famous skyscrapers), fit the bill. You get your long girder-y pieces, your corner connectors, and loads and loads of little bolts.

An added bonus: the satisfying metallic clatter when your structures collapse (or are intentionally caused to collapse). Let us not forget that destruction can be just as satisfying as construction.


Kid K’Nex

The Free-Ride offspring love Kid K’Nex to distraction. In constrast to Erector sets, which encourage you to think of the world in terms of right angles, the plastic building pieces and flexible spokes in Kid K’Nex give you a wide range of angles with which to configure your creations. Naturally, some of the angles you choose turn out to be more stable and others turn out to be less stable. Figuring this out is a natural part of playing with these building sets.

Kid K’Nex comes in sets of varying sizes (and prices) and complexity, and the pieces from different sets can be used together. Some of the sets come with wheels, encouraging kids to create vehicles. Others come with eyes, feet, fins, horns, and wings, encouraging the creation of fantastical critters, like the one pictured here. (I can’t remember now why we posed it on a cutting board with knives nearby. I’m pretty sure we weren’t preparing for a Kid K’Nex alien autopsy, but it was a long time ago.)

There is also a bigger-kid version that is plain old K’Nex, but we haven’t yet exhausted the possibilities of Kid K’Nex, so I have no firsthand information about it. I imagine it’s good.



This is another plastic building system that exists in multiple sets that can be combined. There are wheels, propellers, gears, and battery-operated motors that let kids build machines and vehicles where they get hands-on experience with torque, friction, traction, and buoyancy (fill that bathtub!), not to mention electric circuitry.

Each Capsella set comes with a booklet that sets out a bunch of projects you can assemble with the included pieces. However, the cool kids also figure out their own projects. If you have a cat, you might want to help it find a good hiding place.


A molecular model kit

Technically molecular model kits aren’t children’s toys, but they’re at least as much fun as Tinkertoys, and they can help a kids develop a sense of what structures are possible with tetrahedral geometry as your starting point. There are many different kids of molecular modeling kits on the market, and their prices range from very affordable to scary expensive. If you live in a college town, you may be at a good moment to buy a (barely) used set for a reasonable price from a student whose intro or organic chemistry class is ending. My own preference is for kits where the connectors really convey the strain in strained ring molecules. (Indeed, a pair of safety glasses can be handy when you’re building a strained ring so you don’t get an eye full of plastic atom when the potential energy is released.)

For the kid who comes in contact with chemists, having a molecular model kit handy makes the inevitable discussions of water, or alcohols, or benzene, etc., more concrete. But these are also fun just for messing around.

Brain-Friendly Giftables, part 1: Books
Brain-Friendly Giftables, part 2: Games
Coming soon, the last installment of the Giftables list: measuring devices! Stay tuned.


  1. #1 chezjake
    December 12, 2006

    “The human mind seems to like creating things, and kids will use whatever tools are at their disposal to build.”

    Yet only one of your listed goodies involves the possible use of actual tools – the Erector set. I think teaching kids to use hand tools is another basic part of the learning process. Obviously, this is something that requires some parental judgment on the age where a kid is capable of using some tools safely, and hands-on parental supervision is a good idea at the start. It may also be necessary to set some rules about where, when, and how the tools may be used.

    Nonetheless, a small set of decent hand tools and some materials to work with can lead to hours of fun and creative play. Certainly, a set of tools for doing bicycle maintenance and repair, along with some lessons in how to do it safely, is another good gift.

    Suggested first set of tools for an 8 or 9-year-old:
    – a small, but sturdy hammer
    – a small hand saw
    – assorted screwdrivers
    – pliers
    – an adjustable wrench
    – a tape measure

    Let’s also not forget one of the best ever “building” toys — the large, empty cardboard box.

    It’s too bad that produce doesn’t get shipped in wooden boxes anymore. I can remember any number of things we built out of orange crates and similar containers when I was a kid.

  2. #2 chezjake
    December 12, 2006

    Almost forgot. Your mention in the previous post of kite flying reminded me of all the fun we had building and flying our own kites when I was a kid. Maybe not the best gift for this time of year in many parts of the world, but something to keep in mind for an appropriate occasion.

    “Go fly a kite!” can be an invitation to adventure.

  3. #3 Super Sally
    December 13, 2006

    What, NO LEGO? The original Lego sets (no people, motors, etc), what ever size or brand provide even more opportunity for free-form construction, than some of these other offerings. Thinking up a structure and then executing it (within the limiting resources of the ga-zillion Lego pieces in the playroom–if one pulls out all the ones in the corners of floor, drawers, couch, and even pockets) really challenges the brain in ways that can produce useful expertise in later life.

    Even when “copying” from the booklet of samples included (in some circles call the “constructions” rather than directions) there is something that happens in brain development while making the 2-D rendition into a 3-D reality. I suspect that since we give our boys, on average, much more time on and encouragement in this endeavor than our girls, they have a better working understanding of spatial relationships when we start testing them in school.

    But that is just my guess. I’m only an observer.

  4. #4 Katherine Sharpe
    December 13, 2006

    Makes me want to play with toys!

    When I was a kid, my grandpa made me a great set of blocks. It’s hard to beat plain old blocks. Though I definitely cheated on them with Legos and other Lego-like things…

    I like your commenter’s comment about tools, too. Give a kid some simple tools, and some old telephones, TVs, or computer CPUs to take apart. Endless hours of edu-tainment.

  5. #5 JYB
    December 13, 2006

    My new favorite is the Quadrilla marble set.

    Design a marble track out of very nice wooden pieces. Its endless fun assuming the sprogs don’t choke themselves on marbles.

  6. #6 rdb
    December 21, 2006

    Via the mailing list
    the Digi-Comp I v2.0 kit might interest, as might other things linked from the Toybase
    (Stirling engine kits, etc)
    (Have window shopped only)

  7. #7 hmm
    December 6, 2007

    That first toy has small bright pieces with magnets… I thought anything with small magnets was potentially quite hazardous for small children, who often ingest things? They say 3yrs and up but I would be pretty reluctant to have this in a house with small children.

  8. #8 Mac
    June 9, 2008

    I’m not sure these count as building sets, but 3D puzzles of animals have to be brain-friendly somehow.

  9. #9 Jim Larsen
    July 6, 2010

    This book shows how to build three Stirling Engines using ordinary tools. It is called “Three LTD Stirling Engines You Can Build Without a Machine Shop”. More information is available at

New comments have been disabled.