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From Classic Toys To New Twists, Kids Go Back To Blocks

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I visited Toy Fair in New York City hunting for ideas for our summer series about kids' culture. One of the big takeaways was the increasing popularity of construction games such as Legos. Sales shot up nearly 20 percent last year. Now, it seems, every major toy manufacturer is scrambling to add new games geared toward kids building things.

Concurrently, I happened to visit the National Building Museum, where an impressive exhibition, PLAY WORK BUILD, showcases the museum's vast collection of block sets and building toys. It also takes blocks into the future – with the David Rockwell-designed Imagination Playground, an azure-blue block fantasy for the under-5 crowd.

That prompted this story on blocks, which starts with a small business selling wooden blocks made in the U.S. (specifically the Unblock, designed and created by the Azmani family in Wisconsin) to the gigantic Legos, Hasbros and Mattels of the world, selling high-concept blocks that often seem like nothing so much as vehicles for cross-promotional licensing.

That prompts the question — what makes a block a block? I asked Karen Hewitt, a toy designer who's written about the history of blocks.

"That it's three dimensional," she offered. "That it's nonrepresentational, it doesn't have anything until a child gives it a name or function. And usually, blocks are modular. They relate to each other in some forms in ratio of size, or shape. They're predictable, so they keep their shape, no matter the material. And blocks basically rely on balance for building."

What would Maria Montessori or Friedrich Froebel think of Minecraft? They were pioneers of early education who made block play central to their philosophies. Minecraft is the hugely popular virtual game that invites its 10 million players to manipulate a world made of blocks.

"Montessori was quite a brilliant woman. I think she'd be very interested in what's going on today," Hewitt observes dryly. She was polite about Minecraft ("It just doesn't have that sensory feeling for me") but copped to a real fascination with new games that synthesize real blocks and with ones on screens. For example, the inevitable Lego-Minecraft tie-in, or a math-based game, Building Blocks, that uses actual and virtual blocks.

But Hewitt believes the lesson of blocks is even more fundamental and powerful than exploring ideas of geometry, spatial relations, patterning and numbers. When kids play with blocks, they're beginning to build.

"The ability to construct has to do with our whole culture — where do we live, how do we make our homes," she says. "It's really the beginning of thinking about survival.

Kids have loved blocks for so long and so loyally, it's a bit of a surprise Hollywood has not attempted to cash in. Blocks: The Movie. Sounds like a blockbuster.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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