Legos have been hailed as STEM toys—but let's not overlook the power of Play-Doh.

Last month, for the first time in its 82-year history, the Lego Group stacked up as the world's number one toymaker, surpassing Mattel and Hasbro in profits.

The ranking points to the cultural status Lego has achieved in recent years. Much more than a toy, the interlocking blocks have become an icon of open-ended play, great design, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) learning benefits, touted as much in the world of architecture as by children. It's gotten there through consistent innovation (and licensing deals) on what remains basically a single product: The hard, plastic brick.

But there is another, softer toy that deserves a share of the design world's attention—a toy that encourages creative building like Lego, but does it even better.

Flickr/Michael Pollak

Play-Doh, friends. Play-Doh. The Hasbro product that started as a soapmaker's science experiment is primed for a re-entry into the highbrow educational-toy market.

A note on that market: Lately STEM is expanding to STEAM, the result of heightened national conversation on bringing art into the cabinet of learning topics that bolster critical thought. Look at last year's toy-industry sales data and you'll see arts-and-crafts growing at a much faster clip than building sets. "STEAM" is cited as a major 2014 trend by the Toy Industry Association, Inc, as is "Retro/Back to Basics"—toys "to bond over and foster intergenerational play." And with key patents expiring, the field of construction toys is ripe for disruption.

It's not that Play-Doh profits are flagging. Popular with both teachers and parents of young children, the inexpensive toy ($3.29 for a four-pack) has been a mainstay on shelves since its 1956 debut. Although Hasbro (Play-Doh's manufacturer since 1991) declined to give sales figures, a PR rep told me they've shipped one billion cans in the past five years.

No, it's more that Play-Doh is elegant and expansive like Lego is, but it hasn't gotten quite that recognition from anyone besides three-year-olds. It could—and should—make a big crossover from the preschool aisle into the designer-approved canon.

Invented out of a wallpaper cleaning product, Play-Doh is the original no-grease modeling compound. With the basic set of colors, you can lump and create to your heart's content—unconstrained, I might add, by interlocking joints and un-mixable hues (though I'd be careful about blending someone else's Play-Doh colors).

Educators praise Play-Doh's invitation to open-ended, tactile play, citing the ways it encourages users of any age to build, tell stories, think about shapes and form, or simply explore the material for its physical properties. (One early childhood specialist told me she thought stuffing Play-Doh back into the can was a great way to learn about conservation of mass). It is "soft Lego."

What's more, Play-Doh may actually have the upper can on the brick-meister in a burgeoning market: 3-D printing. The Fun Factory, introduced in 1960, was the original recreational 3-D printer, no screens attached.

Did you have one of these as a kid? You could squirt out great long snakes of Play-Doh in a different shapes: A star, a tube, a flower, a circular tube—it's like learning to engineer lead pipe.

Hasbro has devised many versions of the Fun Factory, some hand-held, some battery-powered (this gargantua seems to be the latest model). The company made a splash at 2014 toy fairs with DohVinci, a Bedazzler-esque hand-held extruder that, as many noted, seems like a big step towards a fully fledged electronic 3-D dough printer. Hasbro seems so close to that product, in fact, that Think Geek passed one off as an April Fool's gag last year.

A toy that allows experimentation in 3-D modeling and printing—the 'future of construction'—has a place in the arts and crafts aisle and a place among building sets. That classic Play-Doh has managed to stay firmly gender-neutral in its marketing (unlike Lego) would be another boon for a product crossing into STEAM territory.

Am I merely joining the chorus of 3-Doh printer excitement? Yes, but I would also add another prediction, just for fun: Play-Doh re-brands as a sleek, design world-friendly tool. Check out this imagining, courtesy of our own Mark Byrnes:

A little Futura never hurt anyone. (Pretty sure Play-Doh never did, either.)

Thanks to toy historians Todd Coopee and Tim Walsh for their insight on this story.

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