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GOT TOY STRESS? Try this antidote:
The former Bellevue elementary-school teacher invents toys and leads educational toy-making workshops for children around Seattle and across the nation. He tosses lessons about math, art, history, patents and inventing amongst flying red puffballs. In seven years, the toymaker figures he's taught some 20,000 children how to make their own bull roarers and other folk toys. This summer, he taught a workshop at the National Museum of American History, as part of a Smithsonian symposium on "The Playful Mind."
The toymaker's workshop is filled with button gyroscopes, "pet" Pringles cans (rigged to roll with rubber bands and weights), zigzagging clowns, marble mazes and enough spare parts for hundreds of school children to make toys with. But Hartman looks nothing like Geppetto, the elderly toymaker of "Pinocchio." In fact, with his lanky limbs, boyish grin and quick step, Hartman more closely resembles one of Geppetto's loose-limbed puppets.
Toy-making these days has gone far beyond Geppetto's lantern-lit workbench. Americans buy more than $20 billion worth of toys a year. Most sales go to huge toy manufacturers such as Hasbro and Mattel, where design teams take a corporate approach to toy making, slapping a "Baywatch" theme on Barbie, for example, because the television show sells.
Still, more than a sleighful of toys start off as light-bulb ideas in unheated garage workshops.
Hartman's own patented toys include a mini thumb-wrestler complete with stretchy ropes encircling its pro-wrestling-style ring; a one-handed gyroscope; a hoop-to-hoop ball-and-cup toy, a gadget that weaves friendship-bracelets, and, most recently, a motorized ice-cream cone (U.S. Patent No. 5,971,829) which uses a battery to slowly spin scoops so you don't have turn the cone as you lick.
You may have seen "Turbo Twist" featured on the Aug. 2 "Tonight Show with Jay Leno."
Leno: Now wait. Now wait. Back up. Now why motorized? For what reason?
HARTMAN CAN'T REMEMBER a time in his four decades when he hasn't been enamored with toys, whatever form they took.
"People have been playing with toys for as far back as recorded history," Hartman says. "The roots of that, I'm not sure. Play is a way of exploring the world and finding out about how things work in a very easygoing way. Maybe survival of the fittest. He who plays survives."
Ancient Sumerians made animal-shaped rattles as early as 2,600 years ago. Archaeologists at Thebes have unearthed model tigers and horses carved from wood. Pottery from the Sung Dynasty depicts little boys riding hobby horses. Even Tutankhamen's tomb contained a simple cascading Jacob's Ladder tucked among the jewels, gold masks and elaborate chariots for the 18-year-old boy king.
Given the toy overflow in many households, it seems toys have always been part of American culture. But toys were largely absent from the lives of early settlers. The Puritans didn't believe in toys, play or, for that matter, childhood. Dolls were suspect as fetishes of witches. Games were considered a distraction from work and church. Children weren't encouraged to explore and discover at their own pace, but rather, punished if they didn't behave as adults.
This repressive vision of childhood was swept away by the Enlightenment. John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau promoted the idea that children will naturally develop motor skills and smarts if given safe and intriguing objects to stimulate their curiosity.
Rich American families purchased porcelain dolls from France, tiny tea sets from England and Switzerland and tin soldiers from German toy factories.
Most everyone else made their own toys. Farming families used scrap wood and fabric to fashion rocking horses, marble rollers and tops. Parents copied Native-American and African-American designs in dolls made of rags and corn husks and games from balls and baskets.
By the 1920s, kids played with marbles, jump ropes, wooden yo-yos, string games, miniaturized trains and other models.
The post-war baby boom, of course, sparked a major American toy boom. Some 76 million babies were born to parents who had struggled through the Depression and World War II. If these children weren't the most indulged in the planet's history, it wasn't for their parents' lack of trying.
One hundred million Hula Hoops. Troll dolls. Mr. Potato Head. Wham-O Super Balls. Plastic Frisbees. Slinkys. Silly Putty. Barbie. Erector sets. A Lego explosion. Tonka trucks. Etch-A-Sketch. Howdy Doody. Space toys. Flintstone figures.
Nerf bounced onto the scene in the 1960s. The feminist 1970s brought educational, craftsy, nongender modeling clay and bendable sculpture sticks. By the mid-'80s, mass-marketing and television had created one-season, gotta-have-it-wonders. Cabbage Patch kids. Furby. Tickle Me Elmo.
This season continued the summer's retro flash on chrome scooters and street-flying roller shoes. Older kids coveted Sony PlayStation 2; younger children wanted interactive Poo-chi and Tekno dogs that walk, dance and wag their tails on command.
Why the bottomless appetite for toys?
"My guess is that we need diversion," says Mark Hebenstreit, founder of HogWild Toys, a small company in Portland. Hebenstreit joined the toy world after a 14-year career as an investment broker. "We need diversion from everything. People revert to drugs and alcohol, movies. Kids, even though you don't see the stress and pressure of sixth grade, need diversion from the day-to-day, too."
Under Hartman's direction, these Discovery Elementary School students have constructed their own simple hammers and saws and are now using the tools to make bull roarers, ice-cream-spoon puppets and film-canister catapults.
Because they are at the age of enthusiasm, 8 to 11 years old, the kids are completely engaged. Bull roarers whirl and hum. Dillon saws a yardstick for the catapult as if he were logging. Leslie Jo decorates her puppet's body with rainbow stripes to match her own rainbow sweater. Scarlet puff balls zoom through the air.
Here on the Issaquah plateau, where children hold birthday parties at riding stables and keep up with premium hand-held video games, it's astonishing they have so much fun with the same humble toys loved by children in slums and refugee camps all over the world.
Hartman: "It cuts across age barriers, cultural barriers, language barriers, gender, socio-economic levels. It's not just the kids, it's the parents and the teachers. Invariably they ask, rather sheepishly, if they can have an extra set of materials to make their own toy."
While decorating the age-old playthings, the kids chatter. About guess what?
Jess: I just got Pokemon Gold.
Alex: I got the silver version yesterday.
Jess: You, LUCKY!
CLEARLY AN EXPERT in the field, Jess Little gives me a tour of his extensive toy collection one day after school. (He's the only grandchild on both sides and that's reflected in the size and scope of his treasures.)
Legos, radio-controlled Legos, Lincoln Logs and Duplos (jumbo Legos). An old stomp rocket, play swords, a light saber. A musical fish, a Jar-Jar Binks watch, a Nerf hypersight gun and an Earth Day balloon. Shelves of Harry Potter, Shel Silverstein poetry and Dinotopia. A spy kit with telescope, microscope, penlight, hearing device and spy notebook. ("It's got everything you need," Jess says. "You can pop it all in your handy-dandy suitcase and put on your Rollerblades.")
He emerges from under his bed clutching a sheaf of Pokemon stickers. Jess also has Pokemon magazines, hundreds of Pokemon cards, electronic versions of trading card-games, jungle booster packs. The array is more complex than the human genome.
Crazy Bones are what's really cool now.
He spills a pouch of small colorful plastic figurines on the carpet: dragons, aliens, mutant penguins wearing tuxedos. Kids play with them the way grandparents used to play with marbles. "Aliens are good, they're so technical. I flicked my best friend Troy Silverman's Java. It flew off a jump, hit a side wall and knocked down his mutant fly. We aren't allowed to play for keeps."
Why do people like to play?
"It's sort of obvious," Jess says. "It makes time fly. It's just really fun and, I mean, what else would we do if we didn't play?"
Jess strokes the stuffed orca that holds place of honor on his pillow. "Orca was my first first thing," he says. "My parents got him for me as a present as soon as I was born."
What makes a good toy?
Different toys give you different feelings inside, Jess says. Reading Harry Potter makes you feel mysterious and playing Zelda, you feel medieval, which is light years from Mario and Pokemon, which make you feel cold. "With Orca, I snuggle and feel warm and happy. I'm glad he's still around here."
I ask Jess what kids want for Christmas and Hanukkah, since he celebrates both. Surprisingly, he doesn't mention any of the toys pushed by high-pressure multi-million-dollar ad campaigns. "Books are always good," he says, "and music."
By this point, Jess is looking restless, so I ask if he's bored. "Sort of," he says. "But playing cards always perks me up . . .
Hey! Look at this tiny deck of cards. They're all here. So, we can, like, play a card game or something.
"Do you wanna play?"
|Cover Story||Planet Northwest||Plant Life||Northwest Living||Taste|