Blocks, a Tiny Racecar, and a Flying Shark
Five of the most innovative toys of 2011.
I wish I could say that I got interested in the toy business when I had a kid, but the truth is that I’ve always been a huge sucker for toys. I try to keep an eye on the latest inventions in the world of playthings, and when I spot something interesting I contact the company to see if they’ll let me try it out. I’ve tested out a bunch of toys in the past year, and I’ve had a great time doing it. In this column, I’m going to focus on the year’s five most innovative items—the toys I thought offered new twists on old forms of play. If you’re shopping for kids this year, you won’t go wrong with any of these.
Tegu magnetic blocks. Starter sets sell for about $50. Recommended age: 3 and up, but best for kids between 4 and 10 years old.
Wooden blocks are all the rage among educators these days. Studies show that playing with blocks improves kids’ math and language skills. Blocks are also thought to spur their creativity. Kids use blocks to tell stories while playing—they build houses, offices, cars, shops, and entire worlds where all their other toys can live.
I tried out several new block kits recently, and Tegu was one of my favorites. Tegus are magnetic—bring two blocks together and they connect with a satisfying click. This lets you build gravity-defying structures that you can’t achieve with other blocks. A few minutes after opening the set, I’d created a dinosaur, a skyscraper, and a windmill. And because the magnets allow the blocks to articulate around an axis even as they’re hooked together, my windmill could actually spin.
Tegus may sound like the wooden version of Lego, but there are some crucial differences. Will Haughey, one of the company’s founders, told me it’s impossible to manufacture wooden blocks with the same “resolution” as plastic. That means Tegu blocks have to be bigger that Legos, and they can’t have “expressive” elements like faces or trees or doors. (There are wonderful Tegu wheels, though.) Magnets also impose subtle rules for play: Because of polar orientation, you sometimes have to rearrange your structure to get two blocks to connect. These limitations make Tegus feel like more like a puzzle than a mere building toy.
My only problem with Tegus is that they’re expensive. The Discovery starter kit has only 26 blocks, which felt like too few when I really got into building something. The high price stems from the company’s mission—it uses only sustainable wood from Honduras and is committed to providing jobs for local craftsmen—and its manufacturing process, which requires splitting each block to insert the magnets, and then reattaching the wood in a way that looks seamless. But if you can afford them, you’ll have a great time.
These blocks are much more straightforward than Tegus—in fact, CitiBlocs may be the least complicated toy on the market. They’re small, precision-cut planks of New Zealand pine. That’s it: There are no magnets, snaps, connector pieces, or anything else other than gravity to keep your structure upright.
But CitiBlocs are just the right size, shape, and weight to make extraordinary things. You can stack the pieces vertically and horizontally, though vertically is the most fun. Because the blocks are so cheap, you can get enough of them to really go to town; your kid will easily be able to create structures that tower over adults. And then you get to knock the whole thing down.
Air Hogs Hyperactives Pro Aero radio-controlled racer. About $60. Available in several colors. Recommended age: between 12 and 15.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter.