I'm not sure what it is, but building blocks, Legos, K'nex, Lincoln Logs and the like can occupy kids for hours.
There obviously are sets out there that have an objective of building a specific item, which is a great way for them to build an item and learn to work through directions. Actually, have you ever had something built and had it break...it can be quite a challenge to rebuild it without unbuilding it first. (Another great problem solving exercise.) Building something according to directions can be a great starting point for a child that is not as familiar with the products. Once they see what you can do with Legos, K'nex or Lincoln Logs, it gives them a great spring board from which to launch their very own creations.
For our Legos and K'nex, we have both types of sets. We have those that were designed to build something and those that are meant to build anything. I love seeing the creations that the kids come up with on their own. Each child has their own set of Legos and 2 base boards, one large and one small, on which they can build houses and more. As they build, they learn a little about stability, balance and building a sturdy base - lessons that I hope will someday make the concepts learned in advanced science classes easier for them to visualize.
After starting this post, I also added Tracks to this category. We have several tracks in our house. We have Thomas the Train plastic tracks, we have a Darden Car Track (including upside down loops), we have a Hot Wheels race track and a DaGeDar Track. At first, we build things "as expected", but with time, the kids have turned many of them into their own creations (race track aside - it only goes together one way).
Last night, by way of example, my son took a portion of the DaGeDar track and used it as a launch point to activate the Toy Story Action Links and then to topple some dominoes. The set up involved a lot of problem solving. At first, the dominoes were in front of the Action Links, but quickly my son learned that the domino falling wouldn't activate the Action Links. Then, he rearranged them placing the Action Links first. Of course, this required the DaGeDar to land more precisely and we had to adjust the angle of the track a couple of times to find just the right trajectory to kick off the chain. Again, he had a target in mind when he started and used a lot of discovery in the form of trial and error and problem solving to do what he wanted to.
When it comes to our Thomas the Train tracks, we started with a basic set or two and then have purchased additional track pieces overtime, allowing the kids to make longer and more complex tracks. The kids have used the dishes from the toy kitchen to create tracks that cross over top of one another. There were bridges that came with the set, but they weren't tall enough to allow the train to run on a track underneath. I thought this was a great creative problem solving on their part to find a way to make the track high enough to allow another track to run underneath.
Building toys and tracks allow for hours of entertainment, as well as an opportunity to be creative, solve problems and stretch their minds.
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