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Party pieces

A tedious party prompted an innovative new building kit, writes Sean Coughlan

What do you do if you get bored at a party? Ordinary mortals might get drunk, disconsolate or order a cab home, but Joel Glickman, in the true American entrepreneurial spirit, pulled his straw out of his drink, bent it into a few strange shapes, had an idea for a new toy, and seven years later is making millions.

K'Nex, a construction kit for primary school children, has advanced by leaps and bounds since its inception at that grim party in 1988, to the extent that Mr Glickman's big idea had a turnover of $50 million last year, doubling 1993 sales. Not that it was all plain sailing. Appropriately for an idea born of an evening where the inventor didn't want to dance, Joel Glickman couldn't get a partner to develop his idea. Undeterred, he pressed ahead, manufacturing his own plastic kits and selling them directly to toy megachain, Toys R Us, where it proved such a success that the major toy company, Hasbro, bought into a partnership.

Now the K'Nex boxes of rods, cogs and wheels are being promoted in Britain an exhibition at York's National Railway Museum follows last autumn's "Great K'Nexhibition" at the Science Museum, London.

Open until June 11, the York exhibition shows how the kit's 23 colour-coded elements can be built into all kinds of different shapes, with a display of giant models, including a train, juke box and fairground wheel, all made from the snap-together pieces. Children visiting the museum can call in at the K'Nex area to play with bucketfuls of K'Nex for as long as they want, with the advice of adult "K'Nexplainers" to show how to build bigger and better models.

There are also free organised workshops for visiting schools lasting 40 minutes with the model building being shaped around the scientific and technological principles. The themes of the workshops are "Make It Move", for older primary, which looks at forces; "Strong Shapes", for all primary, which looks at structures; and "What Makes it Go?", also for all primary, on mechanisms.

The British construction toy market that K'Nex is trying to break into is dominated by the reigning heavyweight, Lego, and inevitably it will be against the ubiquitous Danish building blocks that the newcomer will be compared. According to K'Nex's estimates, Lego has a 90 per cent share of the Pounds 84 million building kit market, and tackling this little brick, with its strong educational links, will be no easy task.

One of K'Nex's strengths in this battle will be its ability to demonstrate simple engineering principles, such as gears and pulleys, or how arranging the rods in certain patterns can give structures great strength, and the principles behind bridge building or load bearing.

Rather than purpose-built pieces helping to make a model, such as a roof tile, windows or a human figure, K'Nex makes a virtue out of building everything out of the 23 basic components, so that the most simple or complex creations are made from the same raw materials. Encouraging children to think big with their model-building skills are booklets that accompany the pack, showing examples and ideas.

The K'Nex structures also look different from Lego. While Lego is built on a principle of interlocking bricks, K'Nex offers a "spatial" model, with the connected rods making frame-like shapes, rather than patterns based on blocks.

K'Nex is about to launch a pack specifically aimed at education, so if its success in the United States is repeated here, it could soon be making an appearance in the classroom. And remember, the next time you get bored at a party, get building.

Workshops can be arranged for the K'Nexhibition at the National Railway Museum, Leeman Road, York YO2 4XJ. Tel: 01904 621261

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