When it comes to construction-based toys, nothing springs to the mind faster than LEGO. And, that’s well deserved, LEGO is the gold standard—but there are other options out there. Many other brands use completely different building systems compared to LEGO, and can offer features and experiences LEGO never could.
So, if you (or your kids) have a passion for creation, or just want to try something new, these are the brands you should look into.
Nanoblocks, simply put, are just smaller LEGOs. While that may not sound that interesting, it does actually come with a couple of key advantages. Because Nanoblocks are so small, the builds are also small. This is great for people who love to display their finished projects but don’t have the space necessary for the larger builds LEGO creates. And, as a general rule of thumb, Nanoblocks are cheaper than LEGO.
The smaller scale doesn’t stop Nanoblocks from having intricate builds either. There are some truly impressive kits including twisting Chinese dragons, the London skyline, and even a Kraken ripping apart a boat. Even the smaller sets are still highly detailed, such as the crumbling coliseum or the grand piano with its tiny foot pedals.
It should be noted, however, the smallest Nanoblocks can be quite difficult to click together and pull apart. In addition, Nanoblocks can be significantly harder, and potentially dangerous, for young kids to play with.
K’NEX uses rods and connectors to create unique and complicated builds. Looking at its kit selection, it’ll be easy to see that K’NEX embraces the same creative building spirit as LEGO. They even sell multiple “Imagine” kits that boast just how many different builds you can create with them ranging from 35, 50, even up to 70. There are also some more intricate sets for large-scale builds, like the Thrill Rides set.
Some of the kits even use simple mechanisms (like pulleys) for more in-depth play, which is always fun to mess around with.
Robots are awesome, and VEX Robotics is one of the simplest ways to create them. Each kit comes with all the necessary internal mechanisms, and your job is to build to the shell that goes around them. The kits themselves don’t leave a ton of room for creativity, but that is a necessity due to the robotics.
Some kits are more complicated than others, with some just being models with a few moving parts, while others are fully controllable via smartphone. They also have kits based around simple mechanisms and engineering, which can be both fun and educational for younger builders.
Magna-Tiles are great for younger kids. The large colorful pieces of plastic can be connected together to create geometric shapes, which can then be used to create simple structures. The limited building system might get old pretty quick for more experienced builders, but as far as introducing children to this form of toy, Magna-Tiles are a great option.
There are no pre-determined builds in the kits, rather, you buy boxes of the tiles to build with. The various sets can have 32, 48, even up to 100 pieces, and also have some expansion sets such as the Polygons set. However, if you are looking for inspiration, Magna-Tiles has a wonderful gallery of builds created by other customers.
If you would prefer something with an included book of suggestions, Magformers are similar to Magna-Tiles and do just that.
If you’re looking for a building system that’s more complicated, Meccano is something you should check out. Unlike most other building-based toylines, Meccano pieces don’t just snap together or connect, but they require the builder to manually connect the pieces with screws and other tools. The necessary tools are included in each kit, but they are rather cheap. So, if you have better tools around the house already, it might be better to use those.
Meccano builds are made completely out of metal, and a few even have simple motors and other mechanisms included, such as the impressive off-roader. Due to this and the more complicated nature of the building system, it’s clearly aimed at older kids, teenagers, and adults. While they do sell kits for specific builds, such as the crane and “intro to robotics” sets pictured above, the pieces do actually allow for a good amount of creativity, and you can create a lot of different builds with them.
Engino is actually quite comparable to LEGO’s Technic line, but with a larger focus on education. Every kit includes papers on the science that’s used to construct the real-life equivalents of the kit. The kits range in complexity from simple cranks and bridges, to the Effiel Tower.
Arckit is unique. It’s a building system based around constructing accurate architectural models. But the kits aren’t intended for people studying architecture and are rather aimed at kids and teenagers.
While the sets could be seen as restrictive as they focus on real-life architecture so heavily, especially for those who prefer fictional-build themes, it is also part of the charm. Building your own tiny version of a house can be a fun and possibly even educational experience. The sets cover various housing styles from colorful houses for younger builders, a two-story modern house, a brick dormer, and an elaborate (and expensive) mansion set. The pieces across all the sets can snap together, which allows for a good amount of creativity.
It should be noted, the pieces can be rather difficult to snap together for young kids, so keep that in mind.