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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Creative Toys

Looking good enough to eat (but don't, they're mostly salt and flour).
When one contemplates buying a toy aimed at sparking within a child the creative gifts we all have to one degree or another, two primary names come to mind--Lego and Etch A Sketch. Both I've written about before, though mostly from an grown-up art perspective. In looking back at what adult artists have done with both, it's easy to forget that they are, in fact, still just toys. There's an old saying that the only difference in men and boys is the price of their toys. That may be true, but where creative toys such as Legos and Etch A Sketch are concerned, there's really no difference except, perhaps in the quantities involved. I was a teenager before either of these toys came along. However I will always be grateful to my parents for their allowing me to indulge in all manner of creativity through the very perceptive choice of toys they provided.
Although I never paid much attention to them, even Tinker Toys
came with instructions seemingly designed to limit children's
natural impulse to created their own...whatchamacallits.
Munich Building Blocks, ca. 1900.
Although some of the earliest creative toys date back to the late 1800s, the choices parents had back then were pretty much limited to wooden blocks and watercolor sets. Architect, Frank Lloyd Wright is said to have been inspired by just such a set of wooden blocks, developing spatial instincts in childhood that became a part of his groundbreaking architecture decades later. I believe my own first creative toy was a set of Tinker Toys (still sold today). They are just one of hundreds of such creative toys parents now have to choose from, though some stretch the definition of creativity, offering a child only limited possibilities. Even Lego is guilty of this. The kid should start with the materials and "invent" a new toy. All too often today, toy companies themselves invent the toy then ask the child to merely replicate it.
At left, the 1920 patent diagram filed by John Lloyd Wright (Frank's second oldest son.)
From Tinker Toys I moved to the more substantial Lincoln Logs (above), which were fun, but once more the possibilities were limited by the size of the sets. From there I moved from pioneer architecture to the 1950s brick houses utilizing sets of American Plastic Bricks, which were lots more fun than logs until you stepped on one in your bare feet. Given enough of the little red plastic pieces, the sky (or at least the ceiling) was the limit. I recall building skyscrapers five or six stories tall (roughly four feet in height). Later, in my early teens (about 1960) came the Skyline Set (bottom), designed specifically for high-rise constructions, though in a style reminiscent of the 1920s. My mighty edifices reached five or six feet in height. Then, about the same time, I got the ultimate creative "toy," a set of oil paints. I've never been the same since.
Inspiring young architects of the future with styles from the past.
Modeling clay--neat, clean, and colorful.
The Erector Set, then and now.
Along the way, I can vaguely recall some of the more conventional creative toys, modeling clay (clay mixed with Vaseline), and later, a distant cousin, Play Doh (above, left) after I was too old for that sort of thing. I had an Erector Set too (above, right), but never cared much for it--too industrial, I guess. I also remember playing with the unforgettable Mr. Potato Head (below) with his wife, children, and eccentric distant relatives.

Recognize these guys?
As I grew into teaching, I often taught the use of creative toys such as clay and later architectural model building (using cardboard, fabric, clear acetate, balsa wood, paint, sawdust, etc.). However it took the advent of the graphics-capable home computer to bring forth a whole new level of creative toys. It all started with Will Wright and his earliest version Sim City (below) released in 1989. I'm not sure just when I first latched onto it, but I quickly became addicted. At least three newer versions of this city planning and management game followed. Even today, I enjoy going back and laying out growing communities much as I did on paper as a teenager.

I'm not sure, but I think this is from the original incarnation of Sim City.
From Sim City came Wright's The Sims. I never played that first version much. My primitive Packard Bell computer at the time wasn't capable of handling the considerable graphics demands even this primitive first edition entailed. I did, however get very involved in Sims 2, which was heavily laden with architectural capabilities tapping into my unrealized childhood dream of becoming an architect. Today, despite the release of the Sims 4, I'm still creating outlandish dream houses in lush, tropical locations, using the Sims 3 version. And yes, I even test out my designs from time to time with real, live, unpredictable Sims.

Some the little people who live, work, and play on my hard drive.
It wasn't Sim City, but it was the closest the 1960s had to offer.


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