Toy Review: K'NEX Builds on the Imagination and Curiosity of Kids

‘America's Building Toy' is more than just a LEGO clone

By , Columnist
If the only K'NEX products you've noticed are its Mario Kart sets and Plants vs. Zombies Mystery Figure Bags, you could be forgiven for thinking that its one of an increasing number of toy makers cashing in on the popularity of LEGO. Yet, most of the construction sets made by this American company are designed around a different approach to junior engineering.

Rather than bricks, K'NEX products are comprised largely of rods, connectors and spacers. These come in a range of sizes and colors that are consistent between sets that share the same theme. This makes it easy to combine pieces from different sets to make original creations.

K'NEX proudly markets its product as 'America's Building Toy' and puts a strong emphasis on educational values. Sets come in various themed series and are pitched at a range of age groups. The Morton Report received representative products from several of these series for review and we took into consideration what they could teach children as well as the ease of construction and the appeal of the finished product.

Beasts Alive

KNEX_1.jpgThe Beasts Alive series is targeted at kids who love fantastic creatures. It includes several mechanical beasties based on mythical monsters, dinosaurs and creepy crawlies. Each set has instructions for one creature and two alternative designs that can be built with instructions downloadable from K' The instructions are printed on large pages and are broken down into modest steps.

Each step shows an inventory of parts that can be isolated before progressing. Based on the 'Stompz' and 'X-Flame' sets received for this review, the directions for where to connect parts are generally clear. However, some steps might be tricky for kids at the lower end of the 7+ target age group or that don't have an eye for details.

'Beasts Alive' models come with a battery-powered wired remote control that can make the animals walk backwards and forwards (batteries are not included). This should fire the imaginations of any child with a fascination for myths, legends and prehistoric animals. The clever interaction of the moving parts, meanwhile, can provide a neat introduction to mechanics.

K-NEX Thrill Rides

Most of the sets in this series represent fairground attractions, including an extraordinary six-foot Ferris Wheel. KNEX provided the 'Sky Sprinter Roller Coaster Building Set' for this review, which stands at around nine feet tall once completed.

Like the Beasts Alive sets, the toys in this series can be built to more than one design. The 'Sky Sprinter Roller Coaster' was based around a framework that could give a child insight into construction principles. Compared with the Beasts Alive models, the design is relatively simplistic but it still took several hours to complete. Hence, it is best suited to a child with plenty of patience (K'NEX wisely recommends this set for children aged 9 or older). Judging by the complexity of the some of the other models in this series, the same is probably true for the entire range.

One of the biggest attractions of the 'Sky Sprinter' and similar Thrill Rides sets is the fact that the roller coaster car is propelled around the track by a battery-powered motor. The motor gives the car a rapid push, which is enough to get it all the way around the track and back to the motor for another push.

One problem we found with the 'Sky Sprinter', however, is that the batteries drained quickly  through repeated use. It didn't take many turns before the standard Duracell batteries that were used for this review were drained to the extent that the motor couldn't push the car far enough for it to get back to the motor for another push. Moreover, because the motor requires three C batteries rather than AAs or AAAs, spent batteries cannot be readily recharged. Without batteries to drive the car, the finished set has limited appeal.

K-FORCE Build and Blast

This range features several foam projectile-firing weapons that are like build-it-yourself NERF guns. The 'Dual Cross Building Set' we reviewed consists of two trigger-controlled guns supported by a framework of rods and connectors. It took about two-and-a-half hours to build and join the two sides of the frame, which are essentially a mirror image of each other.

KForceBlaster.jpgConstruction was tricky in a couple of places because the subtle differences between the two sides aren't always explained in the instructions. Also, the inventories that show which parts are required for each step are hard to read because they are very small. The end result does not disappoint, though. Although it is mechanically simplistic, it looks impressive and can shoot projectiles over a distance of around 20 meters.

Given the construction materials, the sets in this series will not have the durability of their NERF counterparts. Moreover, parts could get lost if they are played with outside. For indoor room-to-room guerilla fighting, however, the finished toys should keep kids entertained. The supplied foam bullets tend to lose their plastic tips easily but still work and more rugged compatible replacements are easy to find in stores.

Mighty Makers

The building sets in this brightly-colored range are explicitly marketed as for girls and the intention seems to be to get young women interested in topics such as engineering and physics. With the possible exception of the 'Home Designer Building Set' that was sent for this review, the subjects in this range could be just as appealing to boys.

Home-Designer (Custom).jpgEach set includes a card that draws attention to the real-world principles illustrated by the toy (the card with the 'Home Designer Building Set' explains how frames used in buildings are designed to be strong). These cards don't carry a lot of information but they might encourage a child that has built a set to see beyond the prettily colored pieces.

The Mighty Makers sets are based on the same rods and connectors as the sets reviewed above but in colors that are presumably considered more appealing to girls. The 'Home Designer Building Set' took a couple of hours to build and only had a couple of slightly tricky steps. The doors and windows are loose and easily come off, however. Also, it would have been nice if the set came with more furniture so players could dabble with interior design. Even so, the sets in this series are well suited to children in the 7+ target age group


It is amazing that this toy celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2013. K'NEX recently rebooted it and has made TINKERTOY the company's equivalent of LEGO DUPLO. The series' various spools. rods, flags, washers, end caps and other parts are designed for children as young as three. Hence, they are larger and made of softer plastic than the parts in other K'NEX building sets. The pieces also fit together with just a slight push, which makes it easier for little hands to get creative.

Tinkertoy (Custom).jpgThe toys that can be made with TINKERTOY are inevitably less sophisticated than the end results of other K'NEX sets. Moreover, making the parts simple to put together means they also come apart more easily. Nonetheless, they offer a safe, durable and colorful introduction to construction for budding junior builders.

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Michael Simpson is a freelance writer, editor, presenter, researcher, instructor, gadget freak and sci-tech consultant based in British Columbia’s beautiful Okanagan Valley. Formerly from the UK, he’s converted from tea to coffee and written and presented on film, TV, science, nature, technology,…

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