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How should we judge whether a toy fits into the maker movement? I pondered this as I explored the 2015 New York Toy Fair, and came up with some ideas. My advice is to ask yourself the following questions. If you can answer “Yes” to any of them, it has some merit. The more questions you can can answer in the affirmative, the higher the toy rates:

  • Is it a hands-on activity?
  • Is the end product:
    • Fun?
    • Attractive?
    • Useful?
    • Educational?
  • Does the toy allow kids to modify the design of their creation or come up with their own?
  • Can it be used in more than one way or expanded upon?
  • Does it introduce real-world skills or concepts that kids can build on as they grow?
  • Will it inspire kids to take on more challenges and seek out other opportunities for making?

I understand why many in the maker community view efforts to create “maker toys” with a wary eye. There’s more to creating a toy that will lead kids to build, design, and invent than just plastering the word “maker” on the box. Does the toy industry really get it — or are they just co-opting the label? Can wannabe maker toys do more harm than good?

Maker sign (450x800) (2)

As someone who regularly encounters school-age kids who have little to no experience putting things together or tearing things apart, I probably take a more accepting view of kits and toys than most makers. I agree that in a maker paradise, all kids would be introduced to real tools and skills as soon as they were ready. But in today’s world, where “mess” is often a four-letter word, I believe there’s a place for toys that give kids even a taste of what’s out there if they care to look for it. Take a couple of toys that I’d consider almost-not-quite true maker tools:

Crayon Carving
Crayon carving is an art form in itself. When I saw the new Crayola Crayon Carver (coming out in July), it reminded me of the cool crayon lathe from the littleBits site last year. This machine doesn’t rotate the crayon as you carve, which is disappointing. But it does include a spinning needle-sized blade that lets you carve neat-looking letters or symbols into crayons as keepsakes for friends and family. I’d be interested to see if the maker community can hack this toy into a true lathe. In the meantime — it’s a real spinning blade (housed in a safety shield that keeps it away from kids’ fingers) in your living room.

3D Creation Maker 3

3D Printing
For years I’ve been hearing that toy companies are working on kid versions of that ultimate maker plaything, the 3D printer. The closest I’ve seen so far is the prototype 3D Creation Maker from the 3D Magic brand. It uses a gel similar to the kind used on your teeth in dental offices, and it cures using UV light. Kids squirt the gel from a little tube into molds that come with the kit, or make their own using things like recycled soda bottles. The finished product looks very much like the designs you can make with the popular 3Doodler. And there’s also an app that allows kids to turn their own drawings into templates.

Are these toys the equivalent of using real tools? Of course not. But they are kid-friendly and much more affordable than the real thing. I’d argue there’s a continuum of products and teaching techniques that can lead beginners to becoming real makers, and toys like these definitely have a place on it.

I’ll be sharing more of my finds from Toy Fair in future posts, so check back soon!