At first glance, Tegu blocks just look like slightly-fancy wooden blocks: unpainted, smooth with rounded edges, and each adorned with a little logo branded on a corner. There are four different shapes: a cube, a rectangle, and short and long flattened planks. It doesn’t look like you’d be able to build a whole lot with them—after all, the planks don’t even stand up on their edges.
But as soon as you pick up a couple of blocks you notice what makes them different: magnets embedded inside. They’re pretty strong neodymium magnets, several in each block on the faces of the cubes or near the ends of the planks, and they open up a whole new range of possibilities for play. Even after playing with them for over a month, I discovered another way to connect some of the blocks today that I’d missed before.
My kids loved them right from the start, and quickly started coming up with their own creations or simply enjoying the push and pull of the magnets and the satisfying snap of two blocks clapping into place. They found that they could build things to stick to the fridge, and tested the limits of the strength of the magnets. When you put the blocks together in certain ways, you can even make a sort of axle that spins.
It’s a very satisfying toy to play with, and because there are no included instructions or photos of things to build, it really encourages open-ended play. The blocks look like other high-end wooden toys: natural colors, smooth finish, and very simple design. The seams aren’t totally invisible but it does take closer inspection to see them; at a casual glance they really just look like solid wooden blocks. I did discover that after extended play (especially spinning the blocks where they join) can wear a small spot where the magnet is embedded. It’s a very tiny spot so it’s not clear to me if that’s the entire size of the magnet or just a discoloration where the spinning takes place. I suppose it’s possible to break the wood to get the magnet out, but I think it would take a lot of serious abuse.
The blocks are fairly expensive—$50 for the Starter Set of 26 assorted blocks—but they are also a unique and very geeky toy, and they stand out from all the cheap plastic battery-operated stuff that is so ubiquitous and short-lived. Part of the reason for the expense, though, is the idea behind the company.
It’s not just the toy itself that is cool—Tegu, the company, is built on some very cool ideas. Itwas started up by two brothers who really wanted to benefit Honduras. I spoke to “Chief Blockhead” Will Haughey, who explained a little more about the ideas behind the company and the product, and also why they’re starting off selling the product direct to the consumer and not in retail toy stores. I encourage you to listen to the full interview, but here are a couple quick highlights:
The wood is sustainably harvested in Honduras and the toys are actually manufactured there, so that the added value goes to Honduras, rather than taking the raw materials and having some other country earn the profits. For each tree they cut down, they plant well over a hundred to replace it; and if you want to buy more tree-plantings you can add that to your cart as you shop for the toys. (The wood is also FSC certified.) Much of the money they make goes to buy school for children in Tegucigalpa and, again, you can purchase days of school directly as well.
One of the reasons they wanted to sell direct-to-consumer was to avoid the pressures of retailers, but also because they felt like the “mom blogger” and “dad blogger” space was a great way to spread the word. Even through just word-of-mouth, they’ve had tremendous demand for the blocks, and there has been a long waiting list to purchase the blocks. The wait is finally over—the blocks became available for sale yesterday (Tuesday, April, 6), but if you want a set you should probably act quickly. I wouldn’t be surprised if this first batch sells out quickly.
Listen to the interview in the embedded player below, or download the MP3. It’s just under half an hour.
For more information about Tegu—both the company and the toys—or to sign up for the waiting list (and eventually purchase the blocks directly), visit the Tegu website.
Wired: Magnets are always cool, but magnets hidden in innocent-looking wooden blocks? Way cool. Also, buying the blocks supports a struggling economy and kids living in a dump rather than some massive toy manufacturer.
Tired: Fairly pricey; extended play looks like it may eventually expose the magnets at least to some degree.
All photos by Jonathan Liu. Disclosure: Tegu provided a starter set for review purposes.