Gears and levers or nuts and bolts? Chris Drage looks at construction kits that have been designed to engage infants and juniors, and meet the needs of the curriculum at the same time.
Technology is about building working models of objects and devices from the real world using scientific and mathematical principles which children understand and can apply. The approach should be based on active, child-centred, first-hand experience; open-ended but in the context of the real world.
In terms of personal development, the child becomes an observer, researcher, investigator, designer, maker, problem solver, tester, recorder, modifier, evaluator and communicator.
Construction kit components possess precise interrelationships, thus accuracy of building is assured and, invariably, so is children's success. They provide an excellent springboard for the introduction of other building materials. Similarly, by presenting children with a variety of increasingly complex construction materials, their manual dexterity and technical competence improves. But how do you choose from the many construction kits on the market?
First, let's consider the uses to which construction kits can be put. Most kits enable children to investigate structures and the effects of forces: such as gravity and friction. This can be achieved by building models of structures children experience in their environment.
Some kits are particularly good at demonstrating friction, such as Lego and TacTic. It is interesting to note that very few construction kits (eg Meccano) emulate methods found in the real world.
Kits also permit investigations into movement, with many offering levers, pivots and wheels. Indeed the best means of investigating movement involving lever, pulleys and gears is by constructing mechanisms from construction kits. Energy transfer can be further investigated with the use of an electric motor.
Many kits offer these either as integral to the set or as an optional extra. Almost any construction which includes an electric motor can be controlled via a computer.
This may influence your decision in choosing a system which progressively leads to this stage. With familiarity, constructions can usually be completed or altered quickly enough to be useful in developing fair testing and experimenting with ideas and designs prior to building in other materials.
One of the major advantages of construction kits is that they can be used over a number of years, from class to class, enabling children to exploit them to their full, developing familiarity and confidence, speed and efficiency.
The decision must be made whether to purchase a number of different kits, each of which concentrates on a particular aspect of technology or to go for the all-purpose systems like Lego or Fischertechnik.
The technology orders emphasise the importance of a variety of joining methods. The implication for schools is that a variety of construction kits should be employed as any one alone will not offer the variety required.
Making a sensible choice is not easy. Apart from considering the age and ability of the target group, you must also decide whether or not the children are to grow with the kit and what work you intend them to do with it, although almost all construction kits include a step-by-step guide, Some kits do require more support than others, especially when first introduced.
Similarly, compatibility with other systems might be important as is the logistics of storage and space required when in use. It may be wise to check if that system on "special offer" is not in fact the end of a line which will ultimately cause problems when it comes to purchasing spares or supplementary kits at a later date.
Age 10 + years
MaKER: Unilab Ltd, The Science Park, Hutton Street, Blackburn, BB1 Price Pounds 246.14
Beaver Core Resource is aimed directly at primary schools. It comprises a self-contained workpack of tools, materials, teacher books, wall chart and pupil reference cards packaged in compartmental trays in two Stackerjack boxes.The materials, tools and publications can be purchased separately including additional individual tools if required.
Each set is designed to enable a resource area to be set up in the classroom (shared by six pupils at a time). Beaver is one of the few construction systems which uses real methods of fixing, having nuts and bolts (sharing a common thread), plastic rods and plates with gear cogs, pulleys, wheels and an electric motor.
The Tools Pack contains a range of screwdrivers, saws, files, drill bits and a very handy sawing jig with a guided saw and clamp and two special jigs which enable the children to try tapping and threading (skills which are not covered by any other kit here). Experience with building with resistant materials is certainly a prerequisite as familiarisation is required before items are recognised and their possible relationships understood.
Age 5-7 years
Supplier Economatics (Education) Ltd, Epic House, Darnall Road, Attercliffe, Sheffield S9 5AA
Price Pounds 75 Junior Kit
Brio-Mec as a free-play material has been popular for many years, but the junior kit with its accompanying resource pack is clearly focused on developing technological skills and concepts required in the technology curriculum and is a superb classroom resource.
It offers progression, a variety of rigid and pivoting joining methods (screws, nails, nuts and bolts) and a small range of safe but easily-managed tools.
Most of the construction pieces, blocks, slats and cubes are made of wood, but some wheels, pulleys, gears, nuts, bolts and nails are made of plastic.
Just one size of gear cog is available in the larger pack but two other sizes are available via an optional gears pack.
Brio give children a good range of joining methods which relate well to the real world. The resource materials take a developmental approach to creating models of increasing complexity which fit neatly into the primary topics.
Age 9+ years
Maker Economatics (Education) Ltd, Epic House, Darnall Road, Attercliffe, Sheffield S9 5AA
Price Pounds 145 Junior 2000 kit
Fischertechnik is a construction system based on a block that can be joined on all six sides. About 500 high-precision, rigid and plastic components exist providing a precise modelling medium suitable for all ages from upper primary children to university level.
It is extremely versatile. It's only when you begin to use Fischertechnik that you appreciate its precision and strength. It is popular with most pupils once they are familiar with it. In fact, considerable pupil familiarisation is required so that the subtle differences and relationships between pieces can be appreciated.
At first it is a difficult to get structures square and problems can arise when trying to get gears to work until the basic structure is adjusted. However, with Fischertechnik it is not difficult to remove or adjust an incorrect component from a structure as it is not a layered system. By the time you read this look out for new Fischer kits from Economatics.
Age 4-6 years
Maker Commotion, Redburn House, Stockingswater Lane, Enfield, Middlesex, EN3 7TD
Price Pounds 50 (bulk pack) Pounds 5 (supplementary pack) rating ****
This kit may be purchased as Luna Park, Start-gear, Play Park or Gear Up. It is particularly useful introduction to gears and has proven popular with children.
The system uses thick, durable base plates with castellated edges which simply push together. The three sizes of gear cogs can be connected either horizontally or vertically using push-in connectors which link into the square plates from which an amazing number of quite intricate mechanisms can be set up. When several cogs are intermeshed friction can increase substantially or, worse, they jam.
Gear Up has none of these problems. The simple design means that constructions can be altered and improved very quickly. The system helps develop manipulative skills, promotes problem-solving skills and introduces gears in a most interesting and relevant way.
Age 4-6 years
MaKER Commotion, Redburn House, Stockingswater Lane, Enfield, Middlesex, EN3 7TD
Price: Pounds 30 (bulk pack) Pounds 5 (supplementary pack) rating ****
Super Glisso comprises 10 thick geometric shapes all of which have parallel interlocking grooves around their perimeter which enable them to push or slide together. The circular shapes can be added to the cuboid shapes to make wheels, permitting vehicles to be made.
Glisso is robust and simple to handle and its versatility encourages imagination and creativity. Constructions are quite large, colourful and very rigid. Apart from the wheels, no other movement is possible, although two wheels will lock together rather like gear cogs and one can be rotated round the other.
Glisso will encourage observation, develop co-ordination and dexterity and promote problem- solving skills.
MaKER Valiant Technology, Myrtle House, 69 Salcon Road, London SW11 6DQ Price Pounds 95 Starter Pack Pounds 15 Mini Kit
Inventa is an integrated construction system for seven to 13-year-olds designed to be cut and joined, offering a range of rigid and flexible materials. It also offers gears which mesh smoothly and have sensible ratios (10-20-30-40-50 teeth), pulleys with elasticated cord and a range of components like angle brackets, flanges, joiners and adaptor pins, all of which have been designed to link with the 10cm wooden strip, wooden and plastic dowel and the unique link strip.
The link strip can be joined with adaptor pins (used as rivets) to the wood strip and dowelling and can provide a structure when the adaptor pins are used as pivots for mechanisms.
The Starter Pack contains all the basic mechanisms and structural elements as well as a full range of support materials. A range of low, cost tools is available including a unique, custom worktop, designed to be clamped safely to the class desk or table.
Inventa introduces design, construction, mechanics and safe practice in a most pragmatic and systematic fashion. Look out for the new Mini Kits which take even the most tentative by the hand and present four simple, focused tasks.
Age 6-11 years
MaKER K'nex International UK, Century House, Station Way, Cheam, Surrey SM3 8SW
Price Pounds 79.99 Giant Set
K'nex is a new system, arriving here from across the Atlantic. It comprises only 23 different colour-coded components from which an endless array of "wire-frame" type of constructions can be undertaken, most of which are quite large.
Surprisingly, there are only four component types: connectors, rods, tyres and pulleys all of which simply snap together - even gear cogs can be constructed from differing connectors. Complex models can be created once children are familiar with the system and these have both rigidity and strength.
Children really enjoy using K'nex and appreciate the range and variety of structures which can be attempted. However, in a classroom you will need plenty of space to store completed constructions.
Early next year the Educational Super Set should be available (2,900 pieces) complete with activity cards, teacher's guide and enough compartmental boxes to facilitate four building stations in the classroom. Depending on cost this may prove to be a valuable supplementary construction system.
MaKER Lego Dacta, Lego (UK) Ltd., Ruthin Road Wrexham, Clwyd LL13 7TQ Price Pounds 40 Technic 1 Pounds 65 Technic 2 Pounds 18 Pneumatics Pounds 57. 76 Control Centre Pounds 11-Pounds 12 Mini Sets
Pounds 4 Teacher's Guide
Designed for pre-school and infant children, Lego Duplo is familiar and loved by generations of young children. Toolo now adds a completely new dimension, employing girder-like building elements of various lengths and thicknesses which can be assembled using a torque wrench-like driver.
Coupled with Duplo, Toolo prepares children well for both construction and tool handling. Early Simple Machines further extends this into a "Technic" system by adding gears and pulleys.
For junior children, the popular Lego Technic 1 and 2 sets include elements which extend into areas like structures, mechanisms, driving systems, manual and computer control, providing an excellent introduction to these areas and forming the basis of a design from which much larger models can be attempted in other materials.
The four new Mini sets, which cover gears, levers, pulleys and wheels respectively, are an excellent, cost-effective introduction for those who feel that Technic 1 is a step too far. Every aspect has been simplified to make it all very easy to understand.
The Lego pneumatics system successfully fills the gap between existing pneumatics using syringes and secondary pneumatics systems. It successfully introduces a new dimension to primary technology and an alternative, controlled, driving system for existing Lego Technic kits.
Finally, there's the Control Centre, which enables children to program a model without the need for the classroom computer. It is clearly an introduction to control and does not pretend to be able to cope with feedback systems using sensors and uses only the newer Lego 9-volt components.
Age 5-7 years
MaKER Educational Technology Ltd, Locomotion Way, Camperdown Industrial Estate, Newcastle-upon- Tyne, NE12 0US PRICE Pounds 26.99 Starter Set Pounds 49.99 Technology Set
Lokko is a system of coloured plastic triangles, squares, pentagons, circles and two types of connectors. The shapes share the same-sized edges, thus solid shapes are based on cuboids, cubes and pyramids while individual pieces can be used to draw a variety of 2-D shapes.
Although simple in concept, Lokko pieces can be joined in three different ways: edge-to-edge, corner-to-corner or by stacking. Moving networks of cogs are possible but there are no pulleys or levers although the circle shape doubles as a wheel.
The Technology Pack contains photocopiable teacher's notes and a range of cross-curricular activities. This can be supplemented with a Track Pack for building up networks of gears, and a motor pack which allows models and gear cog constructions to be motorised.
There is no doubt that young children enjoy using Lokko and find it a delightful alternative to the framework kits and Stickle BrickOctons type of construction kits.
Junior Meccano, Metal Meccano
Age 4-7 Junior Meccano 8+ Metal Meccano
MaKER Meccano Toys Ltd, Barley Mow Centre, 10 Barley Mow Passage, London W4 4PH
PRICE Pounds 49.50 Meccano Junior Pounds 34.99 Metal Meccano (Set 4) rating ****
As a child I remember looking longingly into toy shop windows and wondering if my pocket money would ever be enough for that Meccano set I had set my heart on. Despite being around for years, Meccano is an ageless system due in no small part to the fact that it has constantly evolved to suit changing needs.
For example, the plastic Junior Meccano provides an easy-to-use system which is totally compatible with the Metal Meccano. It introduces simple tools which are further extended by Metal Meccano, a system which relates well to real engineering.
It is an extremely versatile system but does take some getting use to. The effort involved is well worth it and supplying bolts with Allen key heads certainly helps children manipulate these components better. Meccano provides a consistent growth of skills in both structures and driving systems and can easily be extended to involve computer control.
It is very useful to get a copy of Teaching Technology: Metal Meccano Books 1 amp; 2 (Pounds 11.95 each, from NESArnold). These books of photocopiable masters help both teachers and children over the familiarisation stage and offer some useful challenges and solutions.
Quadro Universal Colour 470
Supplier Quadro (UK) Ltd, Biggon, North Yorks, LS25-6HJ
PRICE Pounds 199
Quadro is one of the few large-scale, framework kits which can be used successfully with children. It is a system of polypropylene 50mm tubes which are pushed into joint pieces and locked with small plastic keys using a screwdriver or 10p piece.
Coloured plastic panels are secured to the tubes in a similar manner, providing floors, sides, seats and shelves. It is extremely versatile and robust, lending itself to group problem-solving activities.
The kits start with the Baby Colour 234 culminating in the Universal Colour 470 with an optional wheel's kit providing two large, durable wheels which can be secured in various positions on tubular axles which combine with the other packs in the series. Finished constructions are extremely strong, lightweight and durable enough for outdoor use.
The 470 Universal set also includes a Mini-Quadro Design Set, a 15th scale Quadro kit containing the same number of components as the parent kit. It proves ideal for designing and planning scale models of larger Quadro constructions. In use, young children often need adult assistance while older children, on the other hand, can connect Quadro quite easily. It is excellent for older children to design and make play apparatus for the younger ones.
TacTic: Design and Technology System
Age 7-11 years
MaKER London Emblem Plc, Emblem House, Blenheim Road, Longmead Industrial estate, Epsom, Surrey, KT19-9AP
PRICE Pounds 175
The TacTic twist and lock framework system is a construction concept which really appeals to children as components push together to quickly form large and quite complex shapes. It comprises tubes, connectors and joints which have small ribs. Firm connections are made when you push a tube into a connector etc and twist it tight. There are some very interesting angle joints which encourage children to experiment and try out ideas for themselves. The Design and Technology kit has over 150 additional components to the standard primary system and these comprise mainly pulleys, gears, cogs, belts and blocks. But these extend the range of possibilities far beyond simple structures to movement, forces, driving systems and, with the optional electric motor kit, to energy transfer. Similarly, to fill in the framework there are panel packs, and additional upgrade packs further extend the scope of the system.
TacTic constructions are not as large as Quadro but sufficiently so for children to be tempted to climb on. Although the system is not designed to carry children, it does provide opportunities for testing the strength of structural designs. Children really enjoy this one.
Age 8-11 years
MaKER Economatics (Education) Ltd, Epic House, Darnall Road, Attercliffe, Sheffield S9 5AA
PRICE Pounds 48 Basic set
Pounds 68 Super Motorised Set Pounds 79 Universal Set
Another system which permits quite big models is Teko, one which uses 12mm, square-section wood to construct frames. Each kit provides plastic brackets, corner pieces, wheels, spindles, keys, spacers, gears and motors, depending on which particular kit is purchased.
The system is robust and can easily be combined with reclaimed materials and child-manufactured components to produce a huge range of models. The wooden beams slot into the various Teko components resulting in quite precise joints. The emphasis is on correct measurement and cutting of the wooden pieces.
Gear cogs (of three sizes) all intermesh in line or at any angle up to 90 degrees while the wheels interlock to form pulleys and drives. Both the cogs and wheels have holes which will accept spindles, straws and dowelling. Such is the size of the models that a battery pack can be mounted with ease.
This system could be well suited to special needs education.
****: Very good
**: Limited use