- The Washington Times - Monday, October 28, 2002

A little imagination and everyday materials are all a person needs to create original toys at home. That's a truism often lost in today's world, where expensive, high-tech playthings can seem as complicated as a grown-up's fancy electronic gadget.
The recent Teamsters strike that delayed delivery of imported factory-made toys intended for pre-Christmas sales didn't bother families like the Bradys of Arlington, who are accustomed to inventing their own fun. MaryAnn and Rob Brady, parents of 8-year-old Alex and 3-year-old Chris, are no strangers to creative play.
Mrs. Brady once brought a box of tongue depressors and glue sticks to a boy's birthday party and passed them around to use as building materials. "It helped quiet them down," Mrs. Brady says. Another time, she turned an extra-large cardboard box she had found outside a neighbor's door into an instant castle, fort and all-purpose playroom.
"You go to the Dollar Store and find all kinds of things," she says.
Earlier this month, the family went to Toy Invention Festival Day at the National Museum of American History, part of an ongoing exhibit, "Invention at Play," sponsored by the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.
It wasn't long before Alex was busy building a miniature all-terrain vehicle out of glue, sticks, foam-rubber balls, a clothespin and construction paper. Prompted by Paul Calabro, a faculty member in the toy design department of New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, Alex named his new toy "Speedy," although, of course, it couldn't move without help and was considerably more fragile than the real machine. Neither fact mattered when he proudly showed off his accomplishment.
Other families were similarly engaged, and dozens waited in line to get into the roped-off area where tables were stacked high with arts-and-crafts materials of every description. Among those who spent time at the tables was the District's Justin Swaltney, 4, who made an airplane out of silver paper, duct tape and glue under the watchful eye of his mother, Sherry.
Erica Morse, 13, of Garrett Park, made a hat her mother wore home out of green plastic and a clay substance called Model Magic.
Participants sitting at the five tables had 45 minutes to improvise in this incubator of fun.
"This is nursery school, basically," Mr. Calabro observed with a smile. "The fun is the excitement and the anticipation."
The museum must have filled a need, because attendance figures for the day were up well beyond the average for a Saturday. It helped, too, that other hands-on activities were part of the day's program.
In one room, labeled "Play a New Way With the Everyday," the project's historian, Monica Smith, spoke about the "playful side" of famous scientists and inventors while children at the far side of the room played with a life-size pinball machine made out of pingpong balls and household objects magnetized on a tilted board.
Ms. Smith volunteered the idea for a toy-making game called Grab Bag, good for all ages.
"Take a brown paper lunch bag, fill it with stuff left over from around the house balloons, feathers, paper clips, paper cups, whatever and have the same number of things in each bag," she said. "Give each kid their own and challenge them to make a toy in a certain amount of time.
"Go through steps like an inventor would do and try to draw or write it down, because drawing helps you think about it," she said, adding that David Kelley, the chief executive of Ideo, a company that teaches design and innovation processes to other companies, talks about the need for "crummy prototypes," something to pass around and look at in 3-D as a way of stimulating ideas.
For that reason, participants entering the museum's play area for the festival day were asked to draw a design with pencil and paper before they started construction.
Judy Ellis, head of the Fashion Institute of Technology's toy design department, emphasizes "brainstorming" this way. "When working on a project with others, communication is key. Sharing ideas is also a great way for families to connect," she said in a telephone interview. She recommends tying the effort to a theme.
"Create a toy based on an environmental theme," she says. "Or transportation. Since human beings first developed thumbs and were able to grip a steering wheel, some of the most imaginative inventions have been used on transportation. Design a toy that enables you to move forward in an interesting way or create an exciting vehicle."
She also suggests finding new uses for existing toys and games "the modified product gives the child a whole new toy to discover."
"So much that is out there now is not really creative for a child," notes professional toy designer Phil Frei, who works at Ideo in Palo Alto, Calif. "The thing that sells toys is a character, and maybe some functionality. The child sees a character and associates it with TV, and that is how they play. The kid often can't see beyond the character's actions.
"It's tough to have kids. Even if parents create stuff at home, they need a very compelling story and to keep driving the story because the kids are too used to being in front of the TV, where something is constantly moving. If parents are involved, it can work."
Ms. Ellis elaborates on this, saying that if a child has a favorite TV character, a parent can challenge him to "create an environment in 3-D that the character would like to visit. You don't want to encourage copying. Add on, as opposed to copying."
Everyday materials of value cited by Ms. Ellis include such things as cans in the cupboard, dead blossoms, leaves, twigs and flowers. "The latter can be pressed and turned into wallpaper in the doll house," she says.
"Think of getting an instant camera and have the child take pictures, then turn them into something a house or a book," she suggests. "[The activity] is really about discovery. Forget money. The recycling mission can be part of it, but there is no more important thing in the world [than] that sense of 'aha.' Doing your own project is enriching in so many ways. It's just a wonderful way to get to know yourself."
For guidance, she recommends two easily available books: "Make Your Own Toys," by Petra Boase, a 1996 hardcover craft-oriented volume ($12.95, Southwater publishers) and "Books for Kids to Make," by Gwen Diehn ($19.95, Lark Books).
When parents buy sets of Legos for children, she urges that they not get pre-packaged designs. "Buy a bucket of Legos and have them create their own figures or buildings," she says.
Sculptor Kris Swanson works with the simplest possible materials when conducting workshops for children from the Potomac Gardens housing project near her studio home at 901 South Carolina Ave. SE. (The results will be offered for sale at an arts and crafts show called Santa's Workshop Dec. 14 and 15.) The children create original sculpted animals and masks out of papier-mache made of Elmer's glue and water.
She buys plaster-infused gauze fabric from a local pharmacy and uses that along with old newspapers and colored construction paper to build shapes. "The color construction paper puts down color when sculpting the form," she says. Working slowly, her students make toy soldiers, animals and sea serpents that then can be use to create story lines and character development in the plays they write.
"I tell them to think up a character they never heard of before to get them away from movies. They can't do Harry Potter, for instance," she states firmly.

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