The Old Schoolhouse® Product & Curriculum Reviews

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K'Nex Review by Heather Jackowitz, Diane Wheeler, and Julie Baird

K'Nex Education is an award-winning construction toy company and fast becoming a Jackowitz family favorite. K'Nex has designed a system of plastic building pieces that snap together and form sturdy models that stand up to a great deal of handling and exploration. I reviewed two Simple Machines kits from K'Nex Education: Gears and Wheels & Axles and Inclined Planes. I also reviewed the Introduction to Structures: Bridges kit. All these kits come with illustrated directions allowing non-readers to participate, although my six-year-old occasionally needs help snapping pieces together. Each set also comes in a sturdy, clear-lidded box with dividers, making cleanup easy. (I highly recommend establishing use and clean-up guidelines from the beginning to avoid finding K'Nex pieces scattered hither and yon.)

In our homeschool, volcanoes and bumblebees captured our interest far more than gears and levers until K'Nex came along. Check out virtually any scope and sequence, and you will see that simple machines (gears, levers, pulleys, wheels and axles, inclined planes, screws, and wedges) are usually part of an elementary science curriculum. K'Nex is an enjoyable way to make sure physical science is not neglected in our homeschools. Gears and Wheels & Axles and Inclined Planes are introductions to simple machines for grades three through five, although, like many graded materials, these sets' usefulness extends in either age direction. Both of these sets have multicolored pieces that invite children to explore. Directions are clear and colorful, with background information for each machine and occasional variations suggested, such as changing the gear ratio by using different sized gears. A nice addition is a photograph of each real-life machine in the corner of each page.

The Gears set includes directions for building seven machines: a crank fan, car window, blender, phonograph, eggbeater, stationary bike, and chainsaw. This variety of machines offers something for everyone; my twelve-year-old daughter chose to build the eggbeater, my ten-year-old son the chainsaw. I liked seeing how the stationary bike that sits unused in my garage actually works! Wheels & Axles and Inclined Planes includes directions for seven machines: a well, paddleboat, steering wheel, steep ramp, long ramp, splitting wedge, and hand drill. The paddleboat immediately caught our attention because we see a real paddleboat each summer at nearby Lake Tahoe.

Another fascinating K'Nex kit, Introduction to Structures: Bridges, introduces seven bridge types: beam, truss, cantilever, bascule, arch, suspension, and cable-stayed. Photographs of representative bridges are included in the directions. My uncle was the Senior Resident Engineer in charge of repairing San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge back in the 1980's, and he looked at this set and liked it very much, especially the makeup of the connections. He said, "That's something we always make a very top priority in bridge design and construction-joints and connections-actually very critical for any structure, especially with our critical earthquake exposures here in California. Looks like a very enjoyable and creative working tool."

If you live in a state that requires documentation of learning objectives, then the K'Nex teacher's guides (sold separately) are valuable resources. Each guide comes three-hole-punched and ready to place in a binder. These guides offer background information, learning objectives, review questions, supplementary activities, and science journal ideas. Each guide opens with key terms and definitions, followed by a good deal of background information for the teacher. All the guides follow the same basic format: Objectives, Procedure, Inquiry Activity, Applying the Idea, Extending the Idea, and Journal Check.

For example, in the Wheels &Axles and Inclined Planes guide, a list of four learning objectives is stated clearly at the beginning of the Well lesson so you know where you are going. Next, the Procedure section directs students to assemble the well, followed by the Inquiry Activity, which offers guided discussion questions as students use the well to raise and lower a paper cup filled with pennies. This is followed by Applying the Idea, offering discussion questions and suggestions for variations, such as changing the size of the wheel by using a longer or shorter rod and repeating the experiment. Extending the Idea appears to be advanced work for older or more motivated students; in the Well lesson, students calculate the Mechanical Advantage of the wheel and axle combinations using the provided mathematical formula. Finally, Journal Check reminds students to record their findings, recommending specific diagrams, descriptions, and tables. Answers are provided next to each question, so these guides are not independent workbooks for students. In addition to these features, the Bridges guide also includes six reproducible worksheets with answers.

You will like these teacher's guides if you want a focused, thorough study rather than just creative play and exploration. The information provided in these teacher's guides appears to stretch the usefulness of these sets well beyond fifth grade, probably through eighth or ninth grade. You might also like to visit and register to receive free lesson plans and a 10% discount with free shipping on featured sets.

I love toys that teach while children play. As my children have built and played with their creations, I have seen their knowledge and interest grow in the way things work. The Jackowitz Family givesK'Nex seven thumbs up for making learning fun and exciting!

--Product Review by: Heather Jackowitz, The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, LLC

K'Nex Exploring Machines
K'Nex Education

There are several great reasons for owning a set of K'Nex. There are hours of fun to be had making the creations, but there is also an excellent educational component. But first, what exactly areK'Nex? They are a type of building set, but think far beyond little pieces of Lego. You can build something as relatively simple as a hammer, or as complex as a garage door or a chainsaw. These pieces fit together in such a way as to allow the parts to move and interact with each other.

The educational options can best be described by the teacher materials that are included in the set. "The K'NEX® Exploring Machines set is intended to help develop students' understanding of the scientific concepts associated with simple machines. They are designed to support middle school physical science and technology curricula. Every attempt has been made to move from standard knowledge-based questioning to investigation, experimentation, and inquiry."

The Exploring Machines set includes enough pieces for four groups of students to work on the same model, or four students to work on any combination of models simultaneously. This makes it a great project for a cooperative class, or for a family to explore different. Book One has instructions for sixteen models including a hammer, balance, nutcracker, paddlewheel boat, dump truck, crank fan and transmission. Book Two offers instructions for fourteen more models including a bottle opener, fishing rod, grand piano, crane, spiral staircase, and eggbeater. As you can see, the models get very complex, and yet the instructions provide you with all the information a middle school-aged child needs to complete the projects. Each building plan has easy-to-follow picture instructions, including a helpful diagram of the number and type of pieces that will be necessary. The teacher's manual works through the physical science principles at work in the different uses for the model. For example, the balance teaches the effect of a balanced load and an unequal load. The very specific instructions create a great opportunity for the non-scientifically minded parent to walk through a physical science experiment with students. The worksheet that follows the teacher's instruction has them document the work and draw conclusions on what was the most efficient method.

Now, all this excellent scientific teaching material is great, BUT there is also simple fun to be had here. During the time we have had the K'NEX materials in our home, the numbers of interested participants just grows. When friends come over, I need only wait for a moment to hear, "Um, Mrs. Wheeler, would it be okay for us to get that box of really neat building things out to play with?" With supervision, even the younger ones have made IMPRESSIVE models, because the instructions are in pictures, not in words. We leave the more complex models, with rubber bands and strings for pulleys, for the older set, but the 5-10 year old group has had loads of fun with me on the living room floor.

Now, you may be thinking (like I did), "Thanks, but I don't really need another set of little pieces to get lost in my house." This set comes complete with a handy organizational box that fits the whole set, and it even includes a lid. The clean-up has not been a problem at all!

This great set can be found on-line at The price is discounted, and the service is amazingly fast and efficient.

So, for a weekly physical science class, or a quiet, rainy day afternoon activity, the Wheelers highly recommend K'NEX Exploring Machines for your enjoyment.

-- Product Review by: Diane Wheeler, Senior Staff Writer, The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine


Joel Glickman was tinkering with straws at a wedding reception one day when he got the idea for the rod and connector system that would become the basis for the K'nex line of toys. Formally established in 1992, K'nex, has become one of the leading construction toys for children, winning over 200 awards!

Last year, I purchased our first large set of K'nex as a Christmas present for my 7-year-old son. He was so excited! We waited a few days before we let him open up the individually wrapped packets so that we could keep track of all those pieces. It can be quite overwhelming to see a set with this many pieces and it would be easy to have a "where do I even begin?" attitude with sets such as these. But any apprehension that we had was quickly alleviated when we saw the very complete step-by-step, color-coded instruction manuals.

Most of the sets allow for users from a wide age range. Many of the sets of directions can be followed with little assistance since they often require a minimum of reading. (Even if your child is not interested in building the items in the directions, these rod and connector sets are quite fun to experiment with just using your own imagination while building one of your own creations.)

Not only are the directions sets complete but also they are valuable learning tools. The Real Bridge Building set from the K'nex education line is the set that I most recently had the pleasure of viewing. With assistance, this set could be used with an engineering-minded 7-8 year old, but to get the maximum educational value from it, I would probably use it with a middle school aged or even high school aged student.

While investigating real bridges from around the world, you will design, construct, investigate and experiment with bridges to meet cost constraints. This set includes design activities that encourage students to do research on historical bridges, bridge building projects and bridge disasters. This is a very engineering-oriented set that includes 2282 K'nex pieces, teacher's guide, building booklets, plus a CD-ROM to print off additional instructions as needed.

These projects would also be excellent material for science fair projects. This can be a thorough science curriculum or just an educational toy depending on how far you delve into the teacher's guide. This particular set also came complete with a tub with dividers. Our first set of K'nex came with a big tub without dividers. This didn't work well for us as we found that rummaging through the tub was tiresome. K'nex does sell storage trays with dividers but we opted instead to outfit a large drawer in our entertainment center with the bottoms of Velveeta cartons to keep the pieces separated. My family no longer has to hunt through piles of rods and connectors to find the pieces that we are looking for. Yes, I did say "family". Although I purchased our first set for my son, we've found that we all enjoy this highly educational toy. I find that occasionally the connector pieces do break, but extra pieces can be ordered individually on the company's website for a very reasonable price (which also makes buying a second-hand set less risky). The website is also chock-full of additional bonus builds, hints and tips for using K'nex, construction activities, photos and even K'nexcontest information.

If I have discovered a down side to K'nex it would be that none of us like to take our creations apart after we have made them... and some of them take up quite a bit of room! The pieces can sometimes be tough for little hands to take apart; but, by the same note, the creations do not easily fall apart, either. These are great "toys" with a very high educational value. They are well worth the price and will be used for many years in our household for a wide range of activities by a wide range of ages...including Mom and Dad!

--Product Review by: Julie Baird, The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine

K'Nex Solar Energy Kit
K'Nex Education

K'Nex is a system of building rods, wheels, and gears that you click into place to make sturdy, working models. This exciting new solar energy kit comes with lots of standard K'Nex pieces and some amazing solar components: two solar panels, four motors, two capacitors, and four power cords. Build seven interesting models with the supplies in this kit: a mini shuttle ride, a spinner, a slider, a solar car, a cam operated pump, a crank man, and a double pump. You can build any four models at once; each solar panel has two outputs, or you can power two with the solar panels and two using the capacitors. A capacitor is a device that stores energy; the capacitors in this set provide approximately one minute of power when fully charged. Every project requires a source of energy (solar panel or capacitor) and a motor. The solar panels operate with light, not heat. You can use sunlight (direct or through a window) or the light from a standard 100-watt light bulb. It will not operate with fluorescent lights, halogen lights, or flashlights.

Directions are in full color with steps clearly labeled. My six-year-old can build the sets, but occasionally he needs a little help because the directions sometimes have multiple steps shown in one diagram. He also occasionally needs help connecting or disconnecting pieces because they click together tightly. My eight-year-old can follow directions, connect, and disconnect better than I can. An accompanying CD-ROM includes full-color instructions for each of the sets in case you lose yours or need multiple copies for several children working at once.

The convenient storage box is divided into sections, and the direction book shows how to sort the pieces. I highly encourage you to establish use and cleanup guidelines from the get go. Even my four-year-old knows how to put away the pieces. I refuse to allow K'Nex pieces to overrun my house!

The first project we built was the solar car. Once the car was built, we took it outside and set it in the sun. My children all squealed with delight as the car started to move! It was like magic to them. Then the car drove into the shadow of a wooden beam and stopped moving. Suddenly they wanted to know how it worked, what solar energy is, and why not everything is powered that way. I cannot commend K'Nex enough for sparking my children's inquisitive minds.

Without a doubt, my children's favorite project was the crank man. A little man (who looks like a Star Wars battle droid, according to my daughter) cranks a set of gears. The man/droid bends up and down with each turn and had my children in fits of hysteria.

A supplemental teacher's guide is available separately from K?Nex Education. This 62-page guide is three-hole punched and ready to place in a binder. A chart shows how K'Nex meets the National Science Education standards and International Technology Education Association standards for grades six through eight. This guide offers seven comprehensive lessons using the models: Investigating Solar Energy, How Well Do Solar Cells Work?, Storing Electricity- Using the K'Nex Capacitor, Energy to Get Moving, Making Energy Work for Us, Solar Powered Mechanisms, and Generating Electricity. These lessons contain learning objectives, hands-on activities, discussion questions, and journal ideas. The guide would not work for independent study as answers are provided under each question.

The teacher's guide might be useful for someone teaching a class to a group of middle school students or for those who need to keep meticulous records of learning objectives. I found the guide much too "schoolish" for my liking and prefer to use "real" books, such as Usborne or Dorling-Kindersley science books.

What a great way to introduce children to the world of science! I would not be surprised if some of my children ended up pursuing science or engineering careers after all the fun they have had learning with these kits. Bravo, K'Nex!

-- Product Review by Heather Jackowitz, The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, LLC