Do-it-yourself building blocks


Museum of Childhood
June 15, 2022

Summer is almost here, and the Young V&A team are excited to play and be creative with children and families in East London to celebrate the museum’s 150th birthday in June.

To kick off our celebratory summer, we popped-up at our local partner, Rich Mix, during May half-term and played with local families using Happy Squares, designed by Émilie Queney.

Introducing Émilie Queney

© Emilie Queney

Émilie is an architect who often works with children and young people. She thinks architecture can be explored in a fun way, and that play is important for our creativity.

We asked her about her Happy Squares and where her inspirations for this toy came from. Emilie said:

I always wanted to create a toy for children to explore architecture and space at their scale. When I discovered Octons, straightaway I thought it would be amazing to have this toy in much bigger scale.

A model made from colourful building blocks
Super Octons construction toy, produced by James Galt and Co. Ltd. Museum no. MISC.1325:1-1991
© Victoria and Albert Museum

In the V&A Collection

Building with simple shapes – such as traditional building blocks or Happy Squares – can be a great way to think about the world, and build something completely new. There are lots of examples of such toys in the V&A collection, dating back more than 100 years.

Let’s have a look at what shapes, colours and materials are found in these old building blocks.

A box of building blocks open to show the contents and instruction booklets
Lott’s Bricks construction set, 1918–1920. Museum no. B.32:1 to 5-2004 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This construction set was made about 100 years ago. You could make houses using bricks for walls and triangular pieces for a roof. The individual pieces are made from wood or artificial stone, and have natural colours similar to real houses. The pieces can be combined in many ways to create different designs.

A set of abstract block shapes
Construction kit made by TOFA (Toy Factory Arlbrechtice), about 1990. Museum no. MISC.48:1-1992 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
A boat made from abstract shapes
Bauhaus Bauspiel construction blocks designed by Alma Siedhoff-Buscher and made by Naef Spielzeug, 1980s. Museum no. MISC.529-1988 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Other toys in the collection have much brighter colours and more abstract shapes. In the picture here, a combination of triangles, rectangles, and a semi-circle creates a sailing boat. What you build with these blocks may not look as realistic as blocks that really look like bricks or stone – but combining simple shapes lets us create anything using our imagination.

What can you find at home to play with?

Let’s see if we can find things to use as building blocks, instead of toys. Can you find any interesting shapes in your recycling bin?

Recycling ready to be used to make a model
We found paper boxes, cardboard tubes and boxes, paper plates and cups
Pieces of paper, stickers and tape
Here are the materials we decided to use to decorate our recycled materials

Let’s make your own building block set by cutting and decorating what you found.

Models made from recycling materials, a car and a house.
Our example of home-made building blocks

Share what you create with us on Instagram (@young.vam) or Twitter (@young_vam).

And don’t forget to sign up to our newsletter to follow the latest news on the development of the Young V&A.

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