Design Stories

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Some reflections on becoming a toy designer
How did I end up as a toy designer after studying studio art and art history at Oberlin College and getting a master’s degree in early childhood education at Bank Street College of Education? After a long day of teaching four year olds at P.S. 11 in NYC, I went to the library to check out some books. Wandering through the stacks, I had an “aha” moment. I came across an exhibition catalog entitled “Play Orbit” (1969) curated by Jasia Reichardt. The exhibit at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London explored the relationship between art and play. At that moment I realized there was a way to combine my art-making and my work with young children. I began to design building toys, “loose parts”—modular wood pieces children could use to make their own constructions. In this way, I passed on the possibility and provocation to the child to become the designer and creator. The child’s constructions are limited only by the size, shape, color and type of the material, and their imagination.

Where does one get ideas for new toy designs? Is there such a thing as a “new” block set?
Every idea builds on or is derived from a previous one. Although there have been innovations in materials and technology over the centuries, we believe that the early developmental sequence and strategies in which children build and construct has remained relatively constant. But is this true today? Or has the early stacking / enclosing / bridging / patterning sequence and complexity that children use changed recently? Will the computer ever substitute for tactile manipulation of forms?

The ideas for my toy designs come from many sources: the variety of block sets designed and manufactured from the late 18th century up to the present; my own childhood memories of building with blocks and natural materials; observations of young children’s play; and my passion for viewing art and architecture. Most toy designers come from an industrial design background with a thorough grounding in product design, packaging, and marketing strategies. My background as an artist and early childhood educator gave me a different perspective and, therefore, a different entry into the design process.

A local Vermont woodworker had designed a series of display stands to exhibit sculptures and decorative objects. The stands were cut out on a band saw in concentric curved surfaces. He gave some of the scraps to a friend of his who was a Montessori teacher who used them in her classroom. He showed me the pieces and wondered if I had some ideas of what could be done with them. I changed the dimension, making the curves slightly thicker, and placed the last two rings to form the edge of a tray and a round wood circle to form the bottom. I added color in the sequence of the rainbow (Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet) and named it “Arcobaleno” after my favorite trattoria in Cisternino, the town in southern Italy where I had lived with my family for seven months. (Thus began my love affair with the Italian language and hence many of my toys have Italian names.)

The inspiration for Carosello came from two main sources—one from my childhood and the other from observations of the teachers at the Campus Children’s School at the University of Vermont.

Childhood memories: My parents had an old hand-cranked Victrola, which I remember playing with when I was about 5 or 6. I would put some of my favorite tiny ceramic animals on the turntable and start turning the crank. As the turntable speeded up, the animals would go flying off onto the carpet and I would begin again. This visceral memory of careening cats, dogs, and pigs, and my delight in controlling the speed and ensuing chaotic results, came back to me as an idea for a moving, building toy.

Observation of children: The teachers at UVM Campus Children’s School observed that the children were fascinated by the movement of the potter’s wheel at the ceramic studio. The children had opportunities to use the potter’s wheel with clay, but it seemed as though the movement of the wheel was an important part of their interest. I was curious to see how the children would respond to and play with a smaller version of the potter’s wheel that substituted dowels and bobbins for clay.

I had been observing children playing with plastic tubing and saw the potential of exploring contrasting material in a single block set—hard, stable wood forms and flexible, circular forms that could be twisted and connected. At first, I thought we could use the ½” wood dowels that were part of other sets as connectors. However, after trying them out with children, we found that the dowels got stuck in the tubes and were almost impossible to pull out. After some experimentation, we found that if the ends of the dowel were smaller than the middle section, they would fit into the tubes and the middle section would act as a stopper. (image of connector).

The original concept for Framebuilder was based on the combination of four different types of wood as a way of differentiating the wood pieces. Birch, maple, oak, and cherry had definite contrasting colors. The forms were attached together in squares and you could stack them or put them together by matching the woods or mixing up the woods to form a different pattern. Framebuilder changed in two ways over time: Each of the four pieces that formed the squares became loose parts, which increased the building potential; and color was added instead of using the natural wood for contrast, matching, and patterning possibilities. (image of toy).

In the early 1970s, I formed the original Learning Materials Workshop at a childcare program that was part of the University of Vermont. We occupied a room in the top floor of the building, which we equipped with small power tools. My staff consisted of two parents and two high school students. After observing the children and meeting with the teachers, we designed and constructed toys for children at the center or for particular projects. We scoured the area for factory discards (recycled material) and found some wonderful spools and bobbins from a local factory. We then used these pieces and other discarded wood scraps to create toys. In 1975, to highlight the importance of quality programs for young children, we decided to design, manufacture, and sell a toy at the National Day Care Conference, and use the profits for the center. Thus the Thingamabobbin was born—four wood bobbins, dowels, and base. Because it was also the year of the bicentennial, the Thingamaobbin was painted red, white, and blue, and some natural wood was left to represent Vermont. More than 100 Thingamabobbins were produced at the Center. The toy won a PACT (Parent’s Action Coalition on Toys) award. Over the years, the colors of the original toy have changed, but the original open-ended design has remained the same.