From Wooden Blocks to Wooden Robots: A History of Educational Toys

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Einstein is sometimes quoted as saying: ‘The highest form of research is essentially play.’

Unfortunately, like so many quotes that fly around the web, this is misattributed. What Einstein actually said was:

‘The desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of a vague play with basic ideas. This combinatory or associative play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.’

Not quite as pithy but, still, you get the idea. When we play, we learn.

Today more and more educators, academics and policymakers agree that play has a vital role in children’s social and psychological development, particularly young children’s. In a Play England report, research found that play encourages a child’s creative thinking and independence; develops problem-solving skills and their ability to deal with stressful situations; and aids their physical and mental health. 

In this blog post, we look at those essential tools that for centuries have helped children learn through play – toys.

More specifically, we follow the story of the educational toy – from humble wooden alphabet block in the 16th century to the increasingly sophisticated coding toys of today.

What is an Educational Toy?

First, let’s get our terminology straight. What exactly do we mean by an educational toy or learning toys in general?

Many would say, quite rightly, that any toy can educate in one way or other. However, we’d argue that there’s a difference between a plaything that has incidental educational value and one that has been designed specifically to educate.

So when we talk about educational toys and games in this post, we mean those that are built to help children of different ages reach different educational milestones, in order to enhance their intellectual, social, emotional and physical development.

Some Enlightened Thinking on Toys that Teach

One of the first recorded mentions of an educational toy as such, comes from the great Enlightenment philosopher, John Locke (1632-1704).

In 1693 he published Some Thoughts Concerning Education, which is today regarded the most influential British book on childhood. In it Locke put forward the revolutionary idea that the way a child turned out had nothing to do with God (a great anxiety of parents in the Middle Ages and Protestant Reformation), and everything to do with education.

As part of their upbringing, Locke argued, they should ‘not be hinder’d from being children, or from playing’ and, importantly for our story, they should also ‘have Play-things’. More specifically, he promoted ‘dice and play-things, with the letters on them to teach children the alphabet by playing.’ In short, Locke believe that alphabet blocks would make early literacy more enjoyable for children. 

1800s to the 20th Century: The Evolution of the Wooden Block

Children’s wooden blocks weren’t novel, but Locke’s assessment of their educational value was. In the centuries following, several other European pedagogues developed systematic ways to utilize play in educational programmes, building on the principles of wooden blocks.

Froebel’s Gifts

In 1811 the Anglo-Irish writer, inventor and politician Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744-1817) described wood blocks as “rational toys”, which could teach children about gravity and physics, as well as spatial relationships.

Then in 1837 and Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852), the German pedagogue best known as the inventor of kindergarten, developed his ‘Froebel Gifts’ – a set of wooden play materials designed for hands-on learning.

Froebel intended that these ‘gifts’, which included wooden blocks alongside objects like a wooden sphere and cylinder and a soft, colourful woollen ball, would teach children about themselves and the world around them.

For decades after, Froebel’s gifts were considered the best educational tools for toddlers and preschoolers around. In his autobiography, the celebrated 20th century architect and designer Frank Lloyd-Wright, reflected on their enduring influence in his own work:

‘For several years I sat at the little Kindergarten table-top . . . and played . . . with the cube, the sphere and the triangle—these smooth wooden maple blocks . . . All are in my fingers to this day.’

An idealist, Froebel asserted that his materials could help children understand that different things could be created by different materials, while also demonstrating the unity of the universe – that opposites could be resolved. Moreover, alongside helping the child realise that he or she could create beautiful objects, these simple wooden toys and games might even teach morality too. Quite the advanced toddler toys.

Educational Toys in the 20th and 21st Centuries

So the first thing to say is that the 20th Century didn’t mean the end of *ahem* ‘wooden block innovation’. In the 1950s George Cuisenaire, a violin player who also taught arithmetic at school, introduced his own wooden, cuboid learning aids.

‘Cuisenaire Rods’ were designed to help elementary school pupils learn mathematical concepts like the four basic arithmetical operations, working with fractions and finding divisors with a hands on approach. Like Froebel’s gifts and Montessori’s sensory materials, these simple objects remain popular in mathematics classrooms across the world today, and have even been embraced warmly by language school teachers too.  

But it would be a dull, and not a little remiss, if all we did was wax poetic only about the history and evolution of the wooden toy. In the latter part of the 20th century, innovations in digital technology (computers, robotics, the internet), and a greater emphasis on the importance of a child’s education, saw the rise of the educational toys that we know today. Some good, some less so. Here we run through five of note.

1) The Logo Turtle

Another blog post, another shout out to the Logo Turtle. (It’s impossible to write a history of the educational toy, however, brief, without doing so.)

It begins with Jean Piaget, the Swiss clinical psychologist, who theorized that children must first construct knowledge through “concrete operations” before moving on to “formal operations”. In doing so he provided an epistemological foundation for the ideas and objects created by Montessori, Froebels and Cuisenaire. But also inspired his student, Seymour Papert (who would become the grandfather of educational coding) to build his own educational toy informed by Piaget’s constructivist thinking.

For those who haven’t seen the Logo Turtle in action, the child writes commands for movement to produce line graphics with a small robot – a turtle armed with a pen. Writing in Mindstorms, his phenomenally influential book on how to introduce computational thinking to children, he called the turtle an ‘object to think with’.

For many of my own generation, this was our first introduction into programming. If I find myself mentioning the Logo Turtle for the first time in a conversation with a new friend, colleague or acquaintance of my age, it’s always a pleasure to see their eyes light up.

2) The Raytheon Lectron

Released before the turtle, the Raytheon Lectron also deserves a mention. A modular electronic experimentation kit designed to introduce young people to basic electronic circuits and theory, it was distributed from 1967 in the US and Europe (where it was sold as the Braun Lectron system).

A series of magnetic of blocks that children could – as one ad put it – ‘explore the exciting world of electronics with a new transistorised Electric Dominoes. No oops required. No fuss. No Soldering. No wiring. Easy as playing with blocks.’

While no sets were sold past 1969 in the US, the toy is still being manufactured in Germany today.

3) Lego Mindstorms

Today these kits, which are billed as a simple way for children to build and program their own robots, are still going strong almost 20 years since the first set was launched in 1998. Taking their name from Papert’s book, and inspired by the MIT programmable brick research, a press release at the time excitedly proclaimed: ‘Students can spread computation throughout their worlds: they can use Programmable Bricks to build autonomous robots and “creatures”; to create “active rooms” (for example, making the lights turn on whenever anyone enters the room); and to organize “personal science experiments’.’

Lego Mindstorms were the first widely available and desirable toys that could help kids learn with robots – a trend that promises to keep growing as our world becomes increasingly connected.

(For more on how robots can help kids learn, whether it be self-discovery as designers and inventors, or to gain a deeper understanding of mathematical and scientific concepts, check out our recent blog post here.)

4) The Leap Pad

Released in 1999, this talking book helped kids learn to read. Designed by Leap Frog, and one of TIME Magazine’s 13 most influential toys of all time, it neatly encapsulates a particular kind of educational toy that became popular in the 1990s. Colourful and plastic, its makers wanted to use tech as a way to help children learn, rather than necessarily learning about tech principles.

5) Today’s Coding Toys

As an educational toy company that makes toys that help kids learn the basics computational thinking, it would be a bit strange if we didn’t rep our own corner just a little.

Today, there is an ever growing number of toys designed to help get kids coding – ready for a world of ones and zeros, of A.I. and robots.

For our part, we believe resolutely in helping children to start learning about coding through hands on, screen-less play. With Cubetto, we’ve handpicked some of the best bits of educational toys and educational play theory; from Montessori’s sensorial wooden blocks with ingeniously built-in ‘control of error’; to Piaget’s constructivism and Papert’s ground-breaking turtle.

Because our understanding of pedagogy has evolved over time, so have the toys. As our conception of childhood has changed over the centuries, as have the toys. We don’t see them as objects of entertainment, but actual real educational tools that shape us as adults.

We hope that in 20 or 200 years time, our own wooden robot will be mentioned in the same hallowed breath as Locke, Froebel’s and all those other learning toy innovators.

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