Slam #1 Children's Toy

As a design student, I think this is an excellent forum topic–it’s a great exercise in thinking about durability and consumer choice. I love thinking about how the design of a product codifies and influences consumer behavior.

I like Apollo’s “What’s in your trash?” post. Cruising around my neighborhood I’ve been seeing a lot of children’s toys put out by the side of the street for the trash collectors. If other people are looking for inspiration, I’ve been seeing a lot of that cheap particleboard furniture, takeout food boxes, and construction debris too, but I want to focus on trying to create a children’s toy that’s durable enough to be passed down not only from kid to kid, but from family to family.

The most notorious disposable toys are the kind of thing that was keyed into the marketing of a movie or TV show, but self-destructed before the memory of the fad even fully faded. By way of inspiration I’m thinking of wooden pull toys, blocks, or legos–toys that are durable and long lasting, and somehow timeless enough that they can be passed around.

I don’t have kids just yet, so I’m going to need a lot of help with thinking this one out–here’s a few questions for all you parents out there:

Are there products that you’re particularly frustrated with? What kinds of toys do you find your child going through? Have you ever bought a toy that you had to throw away and subsequently replace, either because your child wanted another one or their younger sibling needed one?

It would also be really helpful just to know what kinds of toys kids are jonesing after, which ones they treasure most of all, and why.

Though this might change, I think I might like to tackle redesigning the big wheel, if only because I remember from my own childhood being really excited about getting my first big wheel, and really disappointed when it broke not so long afterward.

I’m thinking about toys, too.
I don’t have time to write right now, but most of my thought process is concentrated around the growth of the kid and its relationship with the disposability of the toy. Most of the “big” toys not the happy meal ones can last for quite a while, I thought about some kind of renting program…or…gotta go.

Out of all the toys that I liked the most I remember…

All of them! When I got tired of a certain toy I would simply open it apart and make another one. Playing (as we all know is part of the learning process) to me was opening up my toys after they had done their primal job and then see how they worked, then I would spend time figuring out how I could get things to work together.

Usualy I played around with the little 3V lamps and stick’m up some weird looking action figure, with a two battery AA sized backpack! And that was awsome!

Maybe this would bring some safety problems for some ages, but that’s the point, maybe you can develope a kit for these kind of situations. What kind of broken apart toys can be put back together, and how?

I think I missed the point here a bit. But somewhere around here you’ll find the NON-CONSUMABLE FOR THE CONSUMER.

I like that notion of taking apart and re-assembling toys when a kid grows out of them.

I wonder if you could somehow make a tool kit or device for reassembling toy peices into something else, or encode that kind of information in the original design concept–so that a toy can be reincarnated into a variety of playthings over time.

It definitely seems to address a real situation: I’ve seen toyboxes full of peices of disassembled toys. Certain kids seem to enjoy playing with the peices as much as the original toys.

I think that constructive (connectix, Lego … etc) forms of toys will be the area to focus your efforts. The are still usable if some peices are lost, they are very durable and can be taken apart, changed and rebuilt to suit the buyers desire.

Although timeless designs are possible I think that how children live socially evolves so rapidly it will be a challenge to come up with an innovative toy that can still be applied to another generation of children when the time to pass it down comes.

A year or so ago Fast Company ran a profile on Lego. Because of changing trends in play, they’ve been forced to move away from purely creative product lines–their bread and butter. According the them, kids today will buy a lego set, build it to spec and never touch it again. As such, most lego kits today are themes and their new Bionicle line is about collecting (think Pokemon) more than creation.

…That said, it’s probably naive to think that constructive toys would offer a reasonable solution to the challenge (after all, we already have them, and yes, they have endured.) Now it’s time for the sequel!

one of my main issues with current toys is this:

look how happy they are playing inside of a big plastic box that their parents just bought for 100 bucks and that will be down at the curb in less than 2 years. It’s a pirate ship! Yaaaar!

How cool is this lil’ dude, though?

I love this concept by Yoav Ziv: a small, reuseable accesory kit that doesn’t tell a child how to play, but encourages an imaginative and educational play.

A cardboard box does everything ( and more in my opinion) that a playset by Little Tikes does, but boxes aren’t “readily” availeable. We don’t really purchase that many things that come in big boxes (maybe like 5-10 in a year). But I live a minute away from a store called Boxman that only sells boxes. Cardboard boxes…and that’s really cool. A quick search online shows that there’re tons of places that either make cardboard toys, playhouses, furniture for kids, but somehow they aren’t too popular. I guess maybe because most of them lack the level of detail and bright colors that capture kid’s attention in those first 2 minutes. They also take away the “creation” aspect by trying to sell this:

It’s only fun when you get to cut the windows out yourself, you know…

Anyway…the other thing is that, for example:
As a child you got your basic He-Man, an awesome toy, it punches, it got all of the coolest weapons ever…

…and then you’re pressured by the advertising in your favorite cartoon (He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, of course) to upgrade to a Deluxe Figure, Battle Sound He-Man (…Same ol’ He-Man, you just don’t get to make any battle noises yourself.)

What if there was some sort of TV ad blocker, something like an attachement to a gamecube that would block TV ads and let a kid play 15 second long educational ( or not) games Wario Ware style.

Kid doesn’t watch the ads, kid doesn’t ask his parents to buy a new He-man with a cool shit-taking action feature.

So the fundamental challenge is to design a toy or plaything which transcends current commercialistic trends through a timeless tactility which will appeal across generations.

Did anyone see the bear that Starck designed with a different animal head on the end of each arm, as part of his Good Goods range? The idea was that a number of different toys could be rationalised into a single entity, and cherished as a whole. But there is a difference between the pretension of a parent saying they have bought their child a designer toy, and the child appreciating the cultural semiotics over, say, spongebob squarepants (ok, I admit that show is very clever anyway). A toy a parent might see as beautifully constructed, classically designed, and lavishly finished, such as an authentically hand-crafted Belgian teddy bear, a child may view as passe due to a lack of credibility on their level.

That stick on accesories idea above is very clever. Would it be possible to create some take on the cardboard box house, but with more durable materials? modular interlocking systems? How about a customizable surface finish- a whiteboard-type wipeable surface, or perhaps clear plastic slots. You could also look at the way tents or other flexible shelters are built, and use high-tech materials in the awning structure for long life and strength, such as kevlar. How about a rigged play house, that could be expanded in a modular fashion, with changeable surface finishes. This could be expanded as the children grow, and even be durable enough to act as a tent when they go camping. To satiate any designer aspirations of parents, the exterior could be a tent layout with styling worthy of any modern Santiago Calatrava- this would mean that as teenagers, they would not be embarrased to be associated with such a structure. They could even be modified quite easily by families to develop a patchwork quilt type personality, developed across generations.

This is what kids need to be playing with to “prepare” them:

The toys I remember enjoying most as a kid were:

Legos/erector set - build something and when tired of it, build something else! also teaches a great deal about mechanics and basic physics. I had both legos and an erector set, but could do more with the legos. I’m sad to see Lego moving away from their original product, however.

Chemistry set - so I was a geek as a kid… :laughing:

Nintendo (and later iterations) - i remember it well, although I can’t say it was beneficial to my development; great for hours of mindless entertainment and bonding with your little brother!

Computer - started with an Apple IIe. only a bit better than the Nintendo (played games on it mostly) but even then it gave me computer skills at an earlier age than many of my classmates.

Magnifying glass - what does every young boy do with a fresnell lense? Make small objects bigger and burn his initials in the side of the house! :laughing:

Also, bicycle, skateboard, treehouse…

Even more than the actual toys that my parents payed money for, I enjoyed just getting an large empty card board box or two and building whatever I fancied at the particular time. Or taking apart old electronics/mechanical things that had practically no value left and seeing how they worked. I think that the “ultimate” or better designed toy should only last as long as the child will be interested in and is equally as inexpensive and recyclable, or is extremely durable and equally timeless so that it can be passed on/handed down/etc,. Anything inbetween seems to be a waste of money and resources.

I always thought there was a very strong link between a childhood obsession with Lego, and my fascination with ID. When I was young, I would design aircraft with Lego (complete with moving surfaces, retractable gear, as much technical detail as possible), then build them from balsa. I did tech drawing at school to continue this pastime, got interested in design as a profession, and it went from there. The toys I got most enjoyment from were also those I made myself, in fact I think the process of building them was more important to me than having a functioning end result. I don’t think there will ever be a substitute for having one’s parent teach their child the art of building a large balsa glider.

I absolutely love the cardboard-box-accessories thing. The cardboard box is one of the few “timeless” toys out there (along with couch cushion fort).
Another thought: does the product have to remain a toy? What if it served more than one function over the child’s lifetime? I’m thinking of the Stokke Trip Trapp chairwhich “grows with” the child. What if the toy could somehow become used for something else entirely as the kid gets older?

all this is reminding me of some of the “toys” we (me and my brother) had as kids. Tents - we had a “tent” which some years later I realise was a wooden clothes horse with fabric stapled over it - that’ll be why it matched the curtains then :slight_smile:

Other things we had, a whole load of die-cast cars from car boot sales, charity shops, rummage sales, etc. that we played with on a toy wooden garage that our dad made for us from leftover hardboard and stuff, it even had a lift on a bit of string that went up and down a groove when you wound the handle to take the cars to different levels.

Then obviously there is getting a big box from the supermarket (the stores unwanted packaging left for customers to carry things home in) and cutting a big square hole out of the front and pretending to read the news, or getting a whole load of them and building a fort in the front room. Or simply building a “house” by spreading sheets and blankets and towels over chairs.

Sure, I never realised too much at the time but we were poor, and we didnt have many of these expensive injection moulded toys that you got pressured by your peers into having or feeling inadequate for not having, but when we did get them I was mostly disappointed that they werent like the advert had worked them up to be. Mr Frosty was a real let down. :imp:

I did have lego though, almost a must for a designer I think. My lego technic pneumatics set was fine until you lost some of the bits and couldnt make the models to plan anymore, but its all still kicking around somewhere after many years of being everything from a very tall tower to a plane to a maze for gerbils, a “guess how many bricks” charity fundraiser, a cub scout creative challenge, etc., etc.

After all this yattering I think I have a point to make re “present at hand” and “ready to hand” (Martin Heidegger’s ideas on Vorhanden and Zuhanden - google it if you dont know) I think as we specialise things more and more and create specialised products, either for them to be better ergonomically for the task, or to have better functionality, or for some other reason (sales? profits?), we run the risk of over-specialising stuff so that you need a specific object/tool/product for every task. Its hard to explain what I mean but, e.g., you can use a clothes horse with a blanket over it for a children’s tent but you can still use it to dry clothes. Designing to prevent misuse can equally be very necessary but it narrows the scope of what you can use the object for - by making things more ready to hand (presumably ergonomically superior for the task) and less present at hand you make more objects, more products, more polymer, more waste. Yet making things better is a good thing. Theres possibly a line in the sand to be drawn somewhere between these two, its a tough one.

I tried to illustrate this one a while ago actually for a bit of fun, its here. The guy got christened Bill, it seemed appropriate for some reason.

I too had Lego but the toy that has stuck with me until now is Meccano (Erector in the USA). In fact, I still use it when I can no longer envision the mechanics of something in my head.

When I think about it, the one thing that bothered me most as a child was that all my toys wouldn’t play together. I could play Hot Wheels cars with Matchbox cars, but I had to build 6-unit wide Lego transporter trucks to carry them around. Of course, I hated that the scale from one toy to another was completely ruined by this.


If wheels for all vehicular toys were made to the exact same scales then everything would play well together. The same for toy people, whether it was Barbie, Ken, GIJoe, Transformers, etc. Then the various village sets could be made to the same scale, with houses that were right-sized for the people and garages for the cars. I don’t think it mattered if the people were 1 inch tall or 12, just that you could play them all together.

My reasoning is that toys that can play with other toys will not only be played longer, but may be played across generations. Imagine that your original toy cars would still play alongside any of the new Star Wars action figures. Now that would be cool.


when you’re a child your toys didn’t play together!? woah…I can see how an adult could have a problem with toys not being the same scale, but children?

Having a “toy standard” and everything being to scale would limit child’s imagination. Plus, different age groups have different needs, an 8 year old girl might be fascinated with everything miniature and she’d love a playset with an inch tall little character…while giving an inch tall figurine to a toddler would be just plain dangerous.

As a kid I didn’t have a Ken to go with my Barbie, so I took a Cindy doll, cut off her hair and drew an awesome curly moustache on her pretty made-up face…i think that’s when my love for transvestites had started, 'nyway…

ensen, i mean purplepeopledesign, are you a bit of a neat freak yourself? I just see you as a child having all of your lego bricks sorted by size and color in see-through labeled bins.

I know this is not where the discussion has been headed but you mentioned a indestructible big-wheel in your first post.

This bad boy is made out of titanium. I’m sure nobody’s going to throw this away after they’ve forked over the ungodly amount of money for it. Not very cool looking though…

I’m actually not a neat freak. In fact, my apartment, my desk, my office is in a constant state of disarray. I think that having everything sized to specific scales would actually challenge a young imagination. It become difficult to play with trains when the cars cannot be placed on them to be moved from one “coast” to another. When the Barbie is tied to the tracks, it becomes hard to believe that she needs to be saved from a train that is smaller than her leg. IMO, if you could put all your toys into on “city” and get your different factions interacting you would have… “The Sims!”


Following on from the post by “melovescookies” re the plastic pirate ship versus cardboard boxes, and also my thoughts on over-specialisation, can we conclude (or do you think) that this sort of toy design limits the scope for creative play?

is the value of a toy limited only to play value? is it limited only to the child? who or what defines “toy”? and is that definition variable?

when i was a kid, i had lego, but plastercine was my favourite :smiley: