Join Date: Aug 2002
Location: Land of well-adjusted weird people
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I also recommend snap circuits. It's what like you described (making a fan spin, making a radio), but it's easier to create the circuits. My dh still likes playing with them (cough, helping! He's not playing, he's helping!).
We also have regular K'Nex and have had great experiences with it. I will say that some of the pieces are hard to snap together. A lot is going to depend on your child's fine motor muscle strength. But the instructions are colorful and do not require reading. Also, the tubs have plans for things that go from Level 1 (one-dimensional) up to 3 or so. So it allows for diversity in ability. We have a big tub of them. And, of course, the child can invent his/her own things with it.
We also have Meccano, but like you, it wasn't the best toy for my son. The instructions were so complicated that my highly technical BIL was unable to make the fire truck for my son. On the bright side, the components can still be used in a freestyle way. My son often uses it to make "tools". He enjoys bolting the pieces together, but the instructions are out of his ability for now.
I'm trying to think of what else we have. I think those are the main things. My son saw a "Robot Day" at the Science Center with exhibitions by local schools. Since then, he's been desperate to make a robot. I cannot wait for the day when he's old enough to use Lego Mindstorms and join a league. He's going to love that! In the meantime, Snap Circuits, K'Nex, Mecanno, and Lego are his regulars.