The World As It Might Be: Where Toys and Engineering Meet

P76 - header.jpg

Two on a match?

Toys are supposed to be fun, instruments of play engaged in for its own sake. Play is its own reason for being; it doesn’t help us accomplish anything or serve any purpose other than reaching its own, self-constructed pleasures.

Engineering, on the other hand, is defined by its usefulness. It is a problem-solving enterprise. It makes a claim on our minds, time, and tax dollars because it makes our lives better across multiple, varied realms, in reliable, enduring ways. Good engineering yields bridges that last decades or more, an electrical grid that holds up to heavy weather, airplanes that stay in the air, and ever-faster, more powerful computers infiltrating ever-more areas of our lives. (Hmm, is that actually good?)

Given these cross-purposes, are toys and engineering really a good fit?

The use of play, the fun of engineering

Well, for engineers to solve our problems, they have to imagine solutions that do not already exist. They have to be able see what is not already there.

Play, too, invites us to imagine a world other than the one we live in. Peter Gray, author of the book, Free to Learn, says, “play leads us to think of things as they might be rather than just as they currently are.”

P76 - play & learning.png

Play, Gray argues, activates a different mode of reasoning, informed by imagination. And this play-inspired, imaginative reasoning can endow people with new cognitive skills. In Gray’s words, “Opportunities for real play … are opportunities to exercise and develop capacities to invent, create, and plan.”

Many rooms in the house of play

Inventing, creating, and planning are, of course, hallmarks of the engineering design process. Indeed, play-inspired reasoning emerges from activities that share many traits with the engineering design process: open-ended with multiple “solutions,” collaborative and cooperative, mutually agreed-upon terms for participation and success, and continuous testing and revising and remaking.

So let’s call engineering and toys a great fit. We’ve made this case in past years of our toy list, and people seem to buy it. The toy lists (2014, 2015, and 2016 versions) continue to be some of the most-visited items from the blog.

What to expect

In keeping, though, with the spirit of play for its own sake, we make no claims about kids choosing to major in engineering as a result of time spent with toys on this year’s list. But don’t be surprised if the fun play that results sucks you in, too, and you and your kids start to see things in the world not as they are but as they might be.

On to the toy list

Toys are listed by age level, from youngest to oldest. And as always, we try to choose toys with costs that fit as many budgets as possible.

Start-Up Circuits (18 months and up); $19.95

This toy helps kids learn how the whole can be more than the sum of the parts. Three switch blocks can be combined with three different attachments, a fan, light, and siren. If kids match up the red lines, they complete the circuit and create a toy that whirs, lights up, or beeps.

Blockables (3 and up); $29.95

Four different shapes of foam blocks can be combined in any and all ways to make animals, buildings, toys, or whatever else kids can dream up. Easy to manipulate and in fun colors, these blocks promote motor skills, introduce designing and building fun, and won’t break anything when the inevitable throwing starts.

P76 - Kablocks.jpg

Kablocks (4 and up); $39.95

Combine soft, interlocking foam building blocks with a platform connected to a stomp pad to make building and destroying fun all part of the same toy. The higher, bigger, and more elaborate kids’ structures are, the better the blowing up rewards turn out to be.

Morphun Junior Levers (4 and up); $59

Side-joining squares and triangles along with connectors of various kinds enable kids to build structures from simple to complex in two or three dimensions. Work cards lay out design challenges involving balance, weight, force, and motion. And they are aligned with United Kingdom primary learning standards.

City/Tree House/Skate Park Engineering & Design Building Sets (5 and up); $16.99 - $24.99

P76 - city engineering cards.jpg

Ramps, struts, platforms, rods, wheels, and specialized parts go into kits for kids to build various structures within three different scenarios. The engineering design process is an explicit part of play. Challenge cards and planning sheets start kids off with a structure. As they get more familiar with design concepts and methods, they can branch out into their own, self-directed building projects.

Engino Inventor 12 in 1 (6 and up); $22.49

A mechanical engineering-trained teacher started Engino, a quickly growing toy company. The company’s Inventor series is based on snap-fit components – ranging from beams, bricks, and knobs to gears, pulleys, and motors – that can connect in three directions at once. Instructions in 3D, supplemented extensively online, show how to build static or motorized objects. The 12-in-1 set is the smallest and easiest, with more complexity and scale available at larger sizes.

The Offbits (6 and up); $20

The Offbits are quirky characters and contraptions, made out of “upcycled” spare parts kits. Expansion is possible using leftovers from broken-down or repurposed household goods, electronics, etc. Appealing, bright colors and whimsical design suggestions make for immediate appeal. The Start Engineering kids have fallen hard for these things.

P76 - offbits.png

Keva Maker Bot Maze (7 and up); $35.95

KEVA planks and connectors are ingredients for mazes that kids design for customizable motorized bots to navigate. Kids create a maze and test it to see if a bot can make it through. Then they can adjust and revise, either to set the bot free or trap it forever. Hexbugs work with these mazes, too.

Electric Motors Catalyst (8 and up); $59

Artfully designed parts go into this kit to design and build motorized devices to carry out challenges involving toys or household items. Kids might be asked to transport a toy, beat an egg, or draw curvy lines with a crayon, among two dozen challenges provided to get started working up design projects.

LEGO Make Your Own Movie (8 and up); $24.99

The most STEAM-y item on our list teaches kids how to design and tell a story in stop-action with LEGO figures. It features getting-started storybooks and instructions for making their own movies, from storyboarding to lighting to set design to sound effects. Movies require kids to use their own smartphones or tablets.

P76 - LEGO movie instructions.jpg

Inventive Creativity Kits (8 and up); $14.99-$19.99

The “invention process" for this series invokes design thinking – “Think It! Explore It! Sketch It! Create It! Try It! Tweak It! Sell It!” Ten kits are available, ranging from bridges to art tools to flying machines. Design prompts, or “idea starters,” lay out a goal, with various paths sketched out to meet it; kids can also invent their own.

Your turn

What would you add to the list? More toys every year catch our eye as good candidates for our space-constrained list. We’d love to hear about any of your own discoveries. And please pass along to any interested friends, colleagues, or other playful people you might know.


Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEnginNow.

New for 2017! The updated version of our Start Engineering Career Guide is an all-in-one resource for getting middle and high school kids excited about engineering.

We’ve also got great new posters.

And remember, our books cover the entire PreK-12 range. Get the one that’s right for you at our online shop.