As a mother of three children, and a Waldorf home school educator, I have often wondered what the primary role of toys should be. In a world so inundated with flashing, screaming, buzzing plastic goods available in every aisle, I often feel that toys are losing their primary purpose, and are moving into a very overstimulating and dangerous realm.
In recent months I have had the pleasure to get to know two people who can call themselves toy makers. Heidi and Chris Clemmer are the creators of Begin Again toys, and two people who have made it their life’s work to create innovative and creative toys for young children. I sat down and talked with Chris about his view on the role of toys in the lives of today’s children, and what they are doing to change the way we look at toys on the shelves.
How did you come to design toys?
I grew up drawing, building, and playing toys and games all the time. Legos were always an inspirational favorite for me. In high school and college I studied architecture and Industrial Design (product design) and upon graduating from Ohio State in 1997, I took my first full time design job with a toy company out of Dallas Texas. Although it was not an eco friendly toy venture, this company was known for it’s innovative games and toy experiences. It was at this job that I not only found my wife, but I found the fever to create toys that kids love to play with. The majority of my early toy design experience was creating electronic games and learning toys. This allowed me to really focus on how kids play and learn, how they see the world, and how the role of a toy designer. I didn’t have kids when I started designing toys and my perspective changed as i graduated from college graduate to full time Dad.
It was these early years of creating passive watch me toys that I felt an urge to create toys that were not powered by batteries but by imagination. Along this journey, i met a few great friends and fellow inventors and we always discussed the idea of working together. Over the next 5 years or so we went our separate ways each designing toys for the major toy companies around the US. We always kept in touch and when the timing was right we ventured together in Fort Collins Colorado to launch our first brand of toys with the mission to change the way electronic toys are made. From there i have always been inspired by the small companies out there on the bleeding edge, whether it is tinkering with new plant based materials or with unique ways to tell stories for kids.
What does the process look like for you as you begin to work on a new toy?
First, most of our toy ideas come simply from playing with our kids. I think that is the single most important part of our process. Seeing a child play with your toy is great, but playing WITH the child is even more important to the process. In today’s world there are a lot of parents who have lost that ability to play and our toys are designed to connect parents back to a time when they used to play with toys (a chance to BeginAgain).
After we have an idea for a toy, we work on prototyping and sampling this toy for play. we do a lot sketching, model building, and prototyping. Our kids have become our first round of toy testers and have become pretty savvy inventors too, but we know their feedback is rose colored and we always look for parents, preschools, and other facilities to test drive our toys for evaluation.
After the prototype stage we work on production engineering. This is the phase we selecting materials that not only serve the play value of the toy, but also serve the planet value. We are constantly evaluating new eco friendly materials that move away from oil based plastics. Toys shouldn’t last for 800 years in our landfills.
As the prototyping starts moving closer to production we begin creating packaging and always have fun naming the toys.
You originally designed toys for a large scale toy company. What made you decide to create a small company of your own , and how did your thought process about toy making change when you did?
A lot of the toys I have designed early in my career were driven by both batteries and television shows. This type of passive play was driven by theme songs at the expense of fun. I often found myself inventing toys and play patterns and by the time that toy made it to production they were stripped down versions offering theme songs over true play value. These toys increasingly kept kids on the couch, kept them quiet, and consumed batteries at a frenetic pace. It was time for to change the way I made toys.
With something like 14 billion batteries thrown out every year, I made a conscious decision to never design a toy that needs batteries. Kids are the true noisemakers, no batteries no electronics became a mantra.
You have recently created a line of eco-friendly toys. Describe the toys for us, and what you are most proud of in the line.
Our new company is based on the ideas and principles of Benjamin Barlowe, an early 20th century inventor from Fort Collins, CO. His personal archive and inventor’s workshop was filled with tinkered toys, playful mechanisms, and generations of observations about the way kids play. We were introduced to the world of Benjamin Barlowe by his grandchildren, Zadie and Fuller and we offer a world of toys that bring old fashioned storytelling and modern eco science together.
We created this world of invention and whimsy to appeal to the imagination of kids and parents alike. We are proud of the materials our toys are made out of, and we pride ourselves in creating toys that offer “Seeds” of play rather than hard fast rules. Watching a child play with your invention in a way you never intended is a bonus reward and we are proud of the open ending play we provide.
We believe a child’s primary job is to play, and it is our responsibility to offer the tools for their work. Benjamin Barlowe once wrote that ” a child’s toy box is their first tool box.” We truly believe that.
What is the goal for your company long term?
Our goal is to continuing make great products with greater purpose. We are implementing a variety of collaborative projects for 2012 and believe that collaboration is a key building block for our company. We recently acquired imagiplay toys from Boulder, Colorado after kickstarting a collaborative project. Rather than work on our own wood toys, we went to Imagiplay as they paved the way for companies like ours. This collaboration led to an eventual acquisition as our brands fit very well together and collectively we now have a larger voice.
Our goal is to become the complete resource for moms and dads looking for fun active play and great products for living. Our internal company mission is to become a beacon for eco-innovative product design.
What do you believe children really need for creative play?
If a toy tells a story, let the child finish it. We plant seeds of play rather than complete stories. We believe too many toys today finish the story for the child. A majority of today’s toys encourage kids to mimic a story they already saw on TV or in the movies. We believe open ended play is the best way to inspire creativity.
At BeginAgain we are focused on developing the whole child. During the course of the day we see our living rooms littered with crayons, action figures, serving sets, dolls, puzzles, and games. At any time a child can switch from being the creative artist to being the soccer player. We celebrate these fast varied shifts in play styles.
Benjamin Barlowe wrote in his journal a story called “A WISH” for well balanced play. The “A WISH” represents five categories of play a child switches to everyday. A WISH stands for Artist, Writer, Inventor, Sportster, and Hero.
When a child becomes the Artist, they are drawing and creating.
When a child transforms in the Writer, they are role playing, creating their own stories.
When a child becomes the Inventor, they are learning, building, and exploring the world around them.
When a child jumps into the Sportster, they are playing games, going outside, burning energy.
When a child is the Hero, they are telling stories through character play.
Developing toys for each one of these personalities results in a well balanced diet of fun.
This is our wish for well balanced play.
How can toys help a child’s sense of wonder and creative play?
Benjamin Barlowe said it best:
“Kids already have the best job in the world, to play. It’s full time work and the way they play shapes the way they grow. The toy box is the child’s first tool box. Toys are meant to inspire kids to draw, build, explore, tell stories, play games, and ultimately save the day.” – Benjamin Barlowe, Inventor and Science Digest, 1959.
Toys shape our perception of the world, they create social awareness, friendship, and ultimately have a hand in cultivating the adult life of a child. we forget about the value of our toys when we become adults, but the way we interact with people, the way we strive to learn, the way we play games are directly tied to the toys and our play experiences.
Thank you to Chris for sharing his view on the role of toys in a child’s creative world. To learn more about Chris and Begin Again toys, you can visit them at their online store.