Roger Frost discovers the joy of building things from assorted bits and pieces, otherwise known as construction kits, and looks at the shift in market leaders for use in school or at home.
In 1994, around Pounds 84 million was spent on construction toys. Last year this increased to over Pounds 92 million, and there is every chance that in 1996 we will spend yet more. Lego has done well by having 90 per cent of the market. Only Meccano, the number two construction toy, could boast a conspicuous share of what was left, and that amounted to 5 per cent. But things change - a couple of years ago K'nex, a new type of building set, arrived from the United States and figures suggest that it has already grabbed a 12 per cent share of this lucrative market, with Lego dropping to 70 per cent. While there's little agreement on figures, it appears that K'nex is certainly thriving.
It's hard not to find K'nex, even though last Christmas stocks ran out. It's the construction toy success of the moment and has won toy of the year awards, including Best Construction Toy of 1995, and this year's Best New Toy Range. If in any sense K'nex made a mistake, it was in predicting just how popular it would be.
The construction set is a present-buying fail-safe. It is fun and it's educational. But the sets schools choose to develop design and technology capability might be another matter.
At first sight K'nex will leave many wondering whether it's possible to build anything. Even looking at other people's solutions will have you thinking that you'd never do it like that. But this creative angle, they say, is part of its appeal.
Each set has rods of different lengths and snow-flake connectors with different connecting points. In all you'll count 39 parts, all colour-coded to make it easy to spot the part you'd want across the room. To get things moving there are the inevitable wheels, pulleys, gears, and motors.
At Wood End Infants School, in Northolt, North London you'll find sets of ReoClick, TacTic, Meccano and Lego as well as the remains of other kits bought over time. There are also raw materials, such as card and wood. But this morning a reception class is doing K'nex. They've used it a few times and they're working from cards which show finished models of a motorbike, hang-glider and various pin wheels you'd call windmills.
Design and technology co-ordinator Catherine Blackett tells how weeks ago a few children were given a set simply to experiment with. But now the whole class is using it, together with the cards, some making two-dimensional shapes like a cake with candles, and a house with doors and windows. Others are ready for three-dimensional models such as a helicopter or beach buggy and one is doing a free-style cobweb. No one's quite up to the huge gondola balloon.
Ms Blackett agrees that the system looks really complicated but says that having the sets with everything in compartments really helps, and in any case this impression soon vanishes when you get started. She adds that it's unusual in that you can take a finished model car and add an extra like a gear without dismantling it too much.
As the class works, it's remarkable how the snowflake connectors help and you can see models sprout branches at all angles. In time the pupils will develop little tricks, or skills, like snapping together two blue connectors to build a very versatile corner joint. And eventually (meaning months) Ms Blackett optimistically predicts that pupils will have the sort of fluency where they can try projects in the "design a stand to hold an encyclopedia" genre.
Unusually, what pointed her to this still new construction set was a free K'nex kit with Weetabix offer. It got the whole school eating for technology, and started them with two tubs of material. That in turn encouraged a pupil to bring in his kit for a try-out which led to an INSET day. As Ms Blackett says, "We had plenty of construction sets and wanted to take pupils beyond playing with them. So we needed to look for some progression in our kits".
On the INSET day they started to classify the sets - sorting them into stacking-brick types like Lego; nuts-and-bolts types like Meccano; small open frameworks like K'nex; and large open frameworks like TacTic.
Wood End bought the K'nex Education Super Set costing Pounds 200. This has five trays - nearly 3,000 pieces in all and enough for the class I saw. In addition there are activity cards and a teacher's guide.
The guide not only looks at using the kits for work on pulleys and motors, but also shows how the sets can help in art, maths and science. For example, under maths it deals with how K'nex might be used in work on rectangles, trapezoids, repeating patterns and even bar charts.
The teachers were pleased with the quality but it is an essentially American guide. Till now this has been the only exclusively education pack, but two new K'nex sets will be out soon.
The Bridge set builds familiar beam, truss and arch bridges and includes activity cards and photographs of famous bridges built with K'nex. The other new set is the Racing Energy set which touches on secondary school work and shows how to build racers for work on forces and energy. It makes good of the fact that it's easier to build identical models from construction sets and compare them in experiments.
If one of the joys of using a construction set is being able to get a result, then the sadness is that it's broken up as the bell goes. Some schools take photographs of models and proud inventors, but some eschew kits, favouring traditional materials such as card or balsa.
But this isn't to do with extremes - it's more one means to one end. Once pupils gain the confidence to build in K'nex, Lego, Meccano or whatever, they can start to turn those models into unique card or wood creations, that say "I did that".
Construction sets are available through the technology suppliers' catalogues and of course toy suppliers. The K'nex Education Super Set is exclusively available through NES Arnold, Ludlow Hill Road, West Bridgford, Nottingham, NG2 6HD, tel: 0115 945 2200 * Lego Dacta, Ruthin Road, Wrexham, Clwyd LL13 7TQ. Tel: 01978 290900 * Meccano Toys, Barley Mow Centre, 10 Barley Mow Passage, London W4 4PH. Tel: 0181 742 7898 * K'nex International UK, Century House, Station Way, Cheam, Surrey SM3 8SW. Tel: 0181 288 6600 NUTS AND BOLTS
Meccano is the definitive construction toy and even a collector's item. Classic and a solid buy ever since Frank Hornby, of model railway fame, produced the first nine-piece set in 1901.
Here you'll find those gears, pulleys and ideas about structures that are so much part of the design and technology curriculum. Add to that Meccano's bolts, beams and fixing plates and you've got a real-world set that's often much closer to your mechanical project idea.
Today Meccano continues the tradition of bolted models that ought not to fall apart too easily. Meccano Junior was re-launched in 1994 and its big brightly-coloured plastic nuts and bolts make this a friendly sight to the under-sevens. There's now a rigid and chunky quality that makes "Junior" very much in place in school, even though it will still be translated into the same cars and cranes that children seem obsessed with. Putting it beside old "Junior" you'll see that the waxy polythene pieces have gone, but you can still raid older kits for spare wheels and so on.
Primary schools will be most interested in the 1720 and 1730 Meccano Junior sets, the largest in the range. Making around two or three models without pillaging, and with instructions for up to 25, the 1730, costing around Pounds 50, would suit a small group. For the juniors and secondaries, the same big-is-best logic applies. For example, metal Meccano Set 6, makes over 70 models and costs around Pounds 95. There are now simple sets to make a bike or a buggy for around a fiver.
Later this year a Meccano Roadshow will visit city centres for schools to bring classes to. There'll be hands-on, make-and-take workshops and maybe something for the teacher. Local schools will be mailed, sometime in the new term.
STRUCTURES AND STYLE Lego
It's not that Lego is complacent about losing ground in the retail market, it's that when it comes to their materials and teacher support there's little to compete with. There's evidently more than free play with Lego as here you'll find kits that support activities that are structured, progressive and matched to the curriculum.
This massive range of bricks, with kits for two year olds up to the late teens, says "progression" very loudly. And with last year's launch of Primo, a new kit for mere babies, you could say that even louder. For example, at the top end there are kits which allow students to build and model devices with pneumatic controls and sophisticated gear and chain drives. Without any Lego-capability these prove seriously challenging.
That capability might develop using their Early Simple Machines packs which use Duplo-scale pieces to build working models. As children build a roundabout or a see-saw they learn about levers, gears, pulleys and movable joints. The activity cards are impressive. They feature Lego's usual colour coding, where green cards develop familiarity with the bricks and blue ones show exactly how to build something. Eventually, pupils move on to meet more open design briefs, like "build a trolley to carry the computer".
If these structured exercises are Lego's key stage 1 success, then Mini Sets manage that again for key stage 2. Here a range of separate kits each cover gears, levers, pulleys and axles. Even teachers without experience will appreciate how they break "an issue" down into digestible bites of the "machines" theme.