From a bunch of screws on a shop desk in Liverpool, to a mechanical toy marvel that took Britain by storm. Meccano has imbued generations of kids with engineering know-how, and according to urban legend, even used intentionally incorrect instructions to teach ingenuity and nous. But alongside Meccano sit dozens of toys that have next to no educational merit. But what if every toy could teach?
In Japan, it’s a familiar concept. While British children enjoy babbling CBeebies Japanese kids sit down to educational characters teaching good manners and even toilet training.
What’s more, just as Japanese salarymen begin each day with workplace exercise routines, Japanese children’s TV starts the day with exercise programmes for younger viewers. They’re even timed to occur at the same time as those of their parents. From an early age, Japanese youngsters are educated in workplace routine.
Mike Browne, Editor of ActiveDad recalls how instructional Meccano was during his childhood, and the influence it had on his developing mind.
“My first experience of Meccano was in my father’s workshop, he was a draughtsman, and had a huge selection of Meccano dating back to the 1950s. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen, the possibilities seemed endless.
“Meccano taps directly into the developing mind. It’s all about solving problems logically and mathematically. You’re presented with a project, and a rigid set of rules, and you have to analyse the parts and work out which is the best fit.”
Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Reader in Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London explains that rules, and learning, are an important part of playtime.
“Play is essential,” he says. “It fosters kids’ creativity and it also enables them to understand the rules (of the game, of society, of life). In addition, play lets children experience strong emotions; it is a naive or innocent replication of life and prepares kids for adult life.
“Playground experiences have a strong impact on adulthood: if you dominate or are dominated determines whether you are more likely to be a leader or a follower when you grow up. Play is everything for kids, and even for adults… except adults pretend that its serious.”
It’s a concept well understood by Inventor Frank Hornby, the inventor of Meccano as well as his more famous legacy: Toy trains.
Hornby was keen to impress his children, so he began making toys for them using screws, nuts and bolts, and pieces he had cut from sheet metal.
The flash of inspiration came when Hornby discovered he could piece together interchangeable kits to create new models.
Originally branded under the “Mechanics Made Easy” slogan in 1901, Meccano has been fueling the imagination and engineering skills of kids for generations, using gears, axels, bolts and girders – winning praise along the way from those who’ve grown up with the construction marvel.
Sir Harold Kroto, a British chemist, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in Chemistry for mapping the C60 cage molecule, is one of many who grew up fascinated with Meccano’s problem-solving qualities. He credits it, among other things, for helping him develop the scientific skills that provided a background to his Nobel Peace Prize-winning work.
“Meccano gave one an idea that there was an engineering explanation that could make the molecule so strong. You imagine building molecules as if they were bits of Meccano” he once told the Telegraph.
During an episode of BBC documentary James May’s Top Toys, the presenter, himself a Meccano enthusiast, claimed that there were frequent errors in the toy’s instruction manuals, thought to have been placed deliberately, to encourage children to work out where certain parts fit for themselves. Education doesn’t get tougher, or more devious than that.
But, as timeless as Meccano is, all parents know the clamour of kids for the latest and greatest plaything.
In the UK, Knex is vying for Meccano’s constructivist crown. Launched in 1993, it is composed of rods and connectors that can be slotted together to form structures and objects. It was invented by Joel Glickman who, like Hornby, was struck by inspiration while showing off.
However, instead of impressing children, Glickman was entertaining wedding guests by combining drinking straws into structures.
But for some, Meccano is still the original construction toy. Toyology.co.uk Editor Peter Jenkinson claims old Meccano is almost better than a new toy. “Meccano was a staple in our house, it had been my dad’s favourite toy and so, I was, upon reaching ten given my dad’s slightly rusting, but extensive set.
“Cleaned up with a bit of WD40 it was good as new-ish and gave you that civil engineering feeling, until you realised you couldn’t afford all the bits you wanted to re-create a 1:16 scale Blackpool Tower.”
Ultimately though, no matter what the age of the toy, or the child, education should be part of every playtime, says Mike Browne.
“An inquisitive mind will seek out games and toys that stimulate that imagination. That’s why it’s key to a child’s early development that toys should do more than pacify, they should appeal to the mind too, which is something Meccano does!”
Gemma Edwards, toys buyer at I Want One of Those says there are plenty of toys that enhance children’s productivity, and that playing as a form of learning should be encouraged. “Children Learn some of the basic and easy things from the many educational toys. How to count, read, colour recognition and most importantly how to interact with other children.
“Playing with Toys has a great effect on us all in terms of us building on our Imagination and using our own individual creativity. Children day dreaming and them being able to do this with their toys is something which should be encouraged and will give them the skills to deal with their ever changing day to day life in the future.”
Above all, if children are to benefit from such toys, they must be allowed to play, says psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic of Goldsmiths, University of London. “If you want your kids to be curious and creative you have to let them play – do not repress or punish their playful instincts.”
It’s a mantra worth repeating next time you choose a toy. Wouldn’t you rather they were learning the building blocks of a Nobel winning intellect?