The Value of Play


I just finished teaching a toy design course at Ithaca Youth Bureau. The class was small, just three boys, so I decided to teach it as an open studio. We started off with a discussion on “What is Good Design?” From there I gave the boys materials and they started making stuff. Several times throughout the course I would ask them, “What are you working on?” And more often than not their response was, “I don’t know.” I love this response. They were so willing to just play and see where that took them. I begged them, “Please don’t forget how to work this way. School will try to beat it out of you but don’t let that happen.” They looked at me like I was a little looney, then went right back to work.

At times they would get stuck with something they were working on and I was there to help them trouble shoot. For example, they were making axels for cars with BBQ skewers, paper straws, and plastic milk bottle caps for wheels. One day one of the students was working with honey bottle caps instead of milk caps and the honey caps had large holes in the centers. The student said, “I don’t know what to do. The holes are too large for the skewers.” But just the day before this student had been experimenting with making bundles of skewers. I pointed to his experiment and asked, “Would something like this work?” He said, ” I think they will.” Then a minute later he said, “The bundled skewers are too big for the straws.”  I pointed to some card stock and tape and said, “Could you make a wide straw with these materials?” I showed him how to work with the grain of the paper and a few minutes later he had a working axel for the honey caps.

On the last day of the class this same student said, “I think next time we could make all of these toys in one  week instead of two.” I smiled and told him that that was a good idea. But I wonder if he’s right or if it’s just that he now has the confidence to make a lot of toys in a short amount of time. Either way, I’m glad he wants to make more toys!

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