At the Children’s Creativity Museum, visitors are given many opportunities to be designers and storytellers. In the Animation Studio, children create their own characters to animate in imagined scenarios; in the Innovation Lab, they design homes for flowers, ways to breathe in outer space, and Tyrannosaurus Rex dentures. For my first solo workshop as a Creative Fellow, I wanted to give children a chance to be character designers, combining my personal interests in toys and character design with my desire to create storytelling tools for children.
I came to the museum with a struggle; I was interested in pursuing a career designing toys and media for children, but was frustrated with the idea of “selling” to kids. Why should I be the creator, and children mere consumers? The material culture of childhood is, in many ways, shaped and imposed on children by adults. While toys function as story props for children engaging in narrative fantasy play, over-determined toys are actually influencing the stories and robbing kids of character design opportunities.
Children have a strong grasp of character, as they have been exposed to dozens of archetypes in fairytales and children’s literature and television programming from a young age. Character traits across media, (such as film, animation, and computer games), are presented visually, audibly (through voice acting) and physically, something that is often exaggerated when marketed to children. Toys such as dolls and figures often come with inherent personality traits that kids intuitively pick up on; slanted eyebrows with a smile evoke mischievousness, soft flowery colors evoke sweetness, and a muscular build with bold, primary colors evoke a heroic personality. Physical design elements of a toy character therefore influence the narrative in children’s fantasy play, and toys are becoming increasingly authored: “Toys today are a mass medium, a channel where stories get published in parallel to film, comics or computer games…(there is) a cross-breeding between the stories inscribed in toys and the stories invented by children during play” . Although a toy with a strong personality can inspire and prompt fantasy play, there is a risk that a toy’s narrative is so determined that it dampens creativity.
The point is that adults interpose themselves in questions of character by conceiving, designing and making choices for children. This idea of determinism in toy design is something that CCM’s educational philosophy actually addresses; at CCM, the idea of “20% inspiration” is essentially a way of avoiding under or over-determined design. Providing just the right amount more than a blank canvas can unlock creative potential in children.
With the goal for my workshop clear, (to give children a chance to design their own toys), I had the following three things to work out; 1) What is my 20% inspiration? 2) What materials and tools can I use so that children can do a maximum of the designing and making, independently from adult assistance? 3) How can I formalize character creation?
The answer to the first question came easily. What better inspiration for character design than the museum’s own Creativity Critters? As for materials, I chose based on safety and universality; using felt, yarn, and craft fluff to create plushies meant that kids of all ages could safely participate and I could avoid the gender bias that comes with dolls.
Finally, for the question of formalizing character design, I thought back to my scriptwriting class in college. My professor would constantly remind the class, “You must know your characters, inside and out!”, and catch students off guard by asking what their protagonist’s favorite fruit might be, how many siblings he or she had, or what his or her pajamas looked like.
I realized that it didn’t really matter what character traits kids were asked to come up with, as long as they were encouraged to think about the individual personality of the critter they created. I designed a name tag that kids could fill out when they finished making their plushies, asking for the critter’s name, current mood, habitat, favorite food and hobbies.
I had the workshop set up so that kids would draw and cutout a shape on two layers of a felt of their choosing, which they would then sew along the edges and stuff with fluff. (The really young kids could select a prepared plush to decorate). Kids could then decorate their plush shape with googley eyes, yarn, fluff or felt cutouts, and then take their critters to the photo booth area where they’d fill out the name tag.
After five months at the Children’s Creativity Museum, I have come to expect being blown away by kids’ reactions to workshops. I was thrilled with how enthusiastically they responded when prompted to come up with names for their critters, how patient even the young ones were with this tricky new sewing skill, and, of course, with their remarkable ability to cover anything and everything with googley eyes.
Although at the end of the day it was just a simple craft project, I accomplished my goal to provide children with tools for character design. A few days after my workshop, Hugo, (a regular visitor at CCM), brought in plush characters that he made on his own at home using the sewing technique he learned at the workshop. Mission accomplished!
- Never underestimate a child’s creativity
- 20% inspiration is enough
- You always, always need more googley eyes
 A. Harvard and S. Lovind “Psst”-ipatory Design: Involving artists, technologists, students and children in the design of narrative toys. Participation and Design: Inquiring Into the Politics, Contexts and Practices of Collaborative Design Work 2002. Proceedings of the Participatory Design Conference, Malmo. 2002