Architectural toy image from Rokenbok - ROK Cathedral

What kind of a toy teaches architecture to young children?

Can you teach a five-year-old why an arch can support 100 times its own weight?  Or explain why an skyscraper in Los Angeles has to be designed to withstand the forces of gravity, wind, and tectonic movements?  Let’s face it; a kindergartner is not ready to learn the concepts of tension and compression or to build an architectural model Takenaka space truss.

Architectural toys should give young children an intuitive feel for what it means to build and create.   Playing with certain architectural types of toys can help prepare children to understand technology and design.  Even stacking the simplest wooden blocks demonstrate the effects of gravity on the alignment of materials; an evenly stacked column can grow taller.  But, can a toy be designed specifically to teach architecture and engineering?  Yes it can!

Rokenbok was engineered to teach creative architectural design. Two principals are at the heart of our play system:

  • A Low Floor and a High Ceiling: Rokenbok is easy and fun, but builds strong, functional, working architectural buildings.
  • Try It! It Will Probably Work: creative experimentation with Rokenbok pays big rewards as children’s ideas usually work out.

Architectural Toys: A Low Floor and a High Ceiling

The concept of a low floor and a high ceiling comes from Seymour Papert, a renowned MIT professor and a seminal figure in the field of technology and education.  He set out on a mission years ago to determine a child’s optimum creative environment.  He concluded that an architectrual toy presents the ideal creative environment when it offers a “low floor” and a “high ceiling.”  

A low floor allows a child to play without needing a lot of advance experience or knowledge.  Rokenbok’s ROK Blocks provide a wonderful example. Even toddlers with pudgy fingers can stack ROK Blocks into simple, architectural structures. What makes Rokenbok architectural toys ideal is that they also possess a “high ceiling.”  The same materials that built simple block structures become working rail and roadways, elevators and bridges, construction headquarters and Cathedrals.  A child’s first ROK block can be incorporated into a complete interactive cityscape.


Try It! It Will Probably Work

The focus of Rokenbok architectural toy design is on intrinsic functionality; how does it work?  By making functionality (vs. popular culture) our first priority, it left us free to look at how children would manipulate our materials and what types of experiments they would try.  We designed Rokenbok to make children’s architectural ideas work.  What if I try to make the bridge longer?  Can I create a more attractive structure with new material combinations?  Is my structure strong and stable enough to support a cantilevered railway?   Children don’t actually say these words; they articulate their ideas directly through architectural designs.    

We’ve discovered that a creative architectural building system for children has to be both highly flexible and constrained at the same time.  The highly flexible is visible everywhere in the system: building beams become monorail tracks; roadways become the roof of a church; a bridge truss becomes a rail station balcony.  However, create too many special purpose parts, odd angles, or varied connectors, and creative experimentation becomes frustrating.  The trick was to balance flexibility with simplicity and functionality.  We worked harder on the design of every Rokenbok component to allow more architectural interactions with less complexity and fewer parts.  The result is an architectural toy that makes creativity easy for both children and adults!

Rokenbok machines inspire even more architectural creativity

It’s just more fun to build a bridge that you can actually drive over; a real working warehouse where a Fork Lift can do its job; an architectural rail system that loads, transports, and delivers material.  We like to say that when the buildings done, the fun has just begun, as children control Rokenbok machines to interact with their architectural wonders.  Maybe more importantly, the vehicle interaction inspires their next idea and experiment, and the creative process begins all over again.

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