Rick Hartman is a Pied Piper of sorts. The former elementary-school teacher chucked his classroom job and now follows his dream of designing toys and teaching children to make their own gadgets and gizmos.
Wherever Mr. Hartman goes, whether to community centers, schools, folk festivals, or fairs, a trail of children follow.
As a toy designer, Hartman has had modest success with his Pro Thumb Wrestling (a miniature wrestling ring that fits over two players' thumbs), and with Crazy Cords Friendship Bracelet Factory (modeled after an old hand-crank tool used to make rope), the latter sold by Wal-Mart. This fall, he will travel from his home in suburban Seattle to Washington DC to teach a class at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. It's one of 200 toymaking workshops he expects to give this year.
As the father of two preschoolers, Hartman knows the difficulty in finding projects that simultaneously engage children of different ages and abilities. "The best projects are ones that are challenging for every kid, but at which every kid can succeed," he says in an interview in his home workshop.
What he attempts to do is boil down classic handcrafted toys to their purest forms, giving children an opportunity to build something they can finish without an adult's constant attention. He also likes them to build their own primitive tools and encourages them to custom-decorate their finished work.
His workshops are geared for six- through 12-year-olds, although older children would get something out of them, too. Any younger than six, he says, and the heart is willing but the hand strength is weak.
One popular project is a catapult catcher from China. Hartman has children fashion catapults out of a yardstick, a plastic cup, a film container, a small wooden block, electrical tape, paper fasteners, and a carpet tack. When finished, children enjoy trying to launch a small pom-pom from the can into the cup.
Other simple projects that consistently elicit "wows" from young toymakers, says Hartman, are a bull roar and a monster clapper, both of which make the sort of noises children love.
Safety is on Hartman's mind in the workshop, where he and the children wear safety glasses and talk about acting responsibly. But, he adds, the tools they work with are no more dangerous than a pair of scissors.
Skill levels and comfort around tools vary greatly among kids. Some have parents who are carpenters and housebuilders, while others are basically tool illiterates. Hartman knows how to give each child a feeling of confidence.
Need a hammer? Not to worry. While Hartman says a steel-forged one with a claw is nice, it's hardly necessary. He's devised plans for making some simple, economical tools. A saw, for example, can be made by taking part of a hacksaw blade and wrapping tape around one end for a handle. And an effective hammer results from securing a metal bolt to a small strip of wood.
"Even kids whose parents own power tools are still fascinated by, and love, the idea of making these primitive tools," Hartman says. "It helps them learn about ingenuity."
It also opens up a new world to children, who've had shop classes in school replaced by computer labs.
Teaching toymaking to youngsters doesn't nullify their interest in electronic games and computers, he says, but it does help them combat a tendency to just sit still. "There's a lot of talk about kids slipping into a state of lethargy, but I'm not finding that," he says.
"What I'm seeing is kids bringing this incredible energy, enthusiasm, and excitement to hands-on activities."
Hartman clearly relishes helping children discover that they, too, can make toys. He remembers giving a workshop soon after beginning his toymaking venture.
"The children were not just attentive, they were riveted. They did not just follow directions, they surpassed them. I've experienced this magic many times since, but this was the first time I knew that I'd found a job that really mattered."
He promptly told his wife, Lee, "Don't ever let me stop doing this."
While children are capable of creating and inventing on their own, Hartman says adults play an important role in providing some initial direction and supervision.
"Parents should help set up a work space, fill it with good supplies and tools, and then spend time with their children, trying to build some things," he says.
He says that while his projects don't involve a great deal of woodworking, parents should be prepared for a little sawdust, some noise, and small messes. But he urges parents to keep things simple.
"I'd recommend against putting a lot of money into a shop," he says. "I think that sends the wrong message. Children should ultimately be the creators of their work space."
From his introductory workshops, Hartman has learned that children seem to prefer making several small toys to spending the full two hours on a single project.
These lay a foundation of achievement. "Once kids feel comfortable and successful, then the real fireworks begin," he says.
*For information about Rick Hartman's workshops or project booklets, write:
The Toymaking Workshop
PO Box 228
Issaquah, WA 98027
Or visit: www.toyworkshop.com
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society