by sarah leavitt, curator

The National Building Museum’s most popular exhibition in FY13 was PLAY WORK BUILD, with 85,074 visitors. This interactive gallery featuring play spaces filled with innovative architectural block toys proved popular with both adults and children.

PLAY WORK BUILD opened early in the year with a party featuring blue foods and drinks to mimic the bright blue color of the foam blocks. Delighted families created fantastic new shapes and frolicked in front of the gallery’s “virtual block building” interactive screen.

The four-part exhibition begins with a dramatic wall-sized image illustrating the vast nature of the Museum’s one-of-a-kind Architectural Toy Collection. Shelving units filled with boxes represent the history of the building toy industry dating back to the 19th century. Within the gallery itself, selections from that collection are showcased—Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, Ringa-Majigs ring-shaped connectors, urban planning cityscape boards, Erector and Meccano electronics building kits, building blocks of all types and sorts; and even futuristic toys like a LEGO Mindstorm robot.

The heart of the exhibition—and the favorite among our visitors—are the unique blue blocks in three different size varieties. Produced in cooperation with Imagination Playground and The Rockwell Group, some of the blocks are brand new and unique to this installation. Working on a giant light board, visitors play with shapes, buildings, and their imaginations. Moving on to the large-scale blue blocks, opportunities abound to create arches, chairs, swords, forts, and elaborate bridges.

Every day there are new creations in the gallery, as adults and children join together to build their own environment. In the final gallery, the virtual screen piles up blocks and knocks them down in reaction to visitors’ body movements with a special scanning system. Block towers rise and fall throughout the day as people experiment with body shapes, build ceiling-high towers, and then wave their arms to crash the virtual blocks to the floor. Throughout PLAY WORK BUILD, visitors realize that playing with building blocks is one of the best ways to learn about structure, design, and the world around them.



“Parents and children may want to consider putting down the video games and picking up the building blocks. A new exhibit on playing with blocks has opened in Washington, D.C.”




Learn more about the “nation’s biggest architectural toy collection” from the Atlantic Cities.
Number of toys on view




Estimated number of individual toy parts




Number of Architectural Toys in the Museum’s Collection

Images: Photos by Kevin Allen.