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Toy School

Students prepare the playthings of tomorrow in New York

If you were hunting for the toys of the future, where would you look? You could ask toy companies for a peek at their drawing boards. But they're secret.

A better place to look is in the heart of New York City, where 20 students are busily working on toy designs. Their toys are school projects now, but they may end up on store shelves someday. The place is the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) on Seventh Avenue, where the students are studying to be toy designers.

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Does that sound like fun? It is!

But it's also a lot of hard work, the students say.

FIT graduates have designed such popular toys as Rock & Roll Elmo, Sound Bites, Sing & Snore Ernie, the Nitro Dozer remote-control vehicle, and more. After 10 years, more than 140 toy-school graduates work in top toy firms.

Do you have a Tickle Me Elmo? That was also designed by an FIT graduate.

Judy Ellis is head of the FIT Toy Design department. Does she have a favorite toy? She says she has too many favorites to list. But as an animal lover, she confides that she did burn out the batteries several times in her Talking Babe (a toy pig based on the main character in the movie "Babe").

Some 200 students apply to the toy-design program each year, but only 20 are accepted. Ms. Ellis looks for applicants who love toys and love children. They must be able to draw well. They also need to have lots of imagination and creative ideas. Some students have been artists and illustrators. Others were architects or even engineers. Many have toy collections at home.

Students spend two years taking classes and working on projects. The projects include books, "soft" toys (such as stuffed animals), "hard" toys (a candy dispenser, for instance), dolls, and interactive games. They make prototypes of their toys. A prototype is a finished, actual-size model of a design.

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Thinking up ideas for cool toys is the fun part. The serious part is learning about materials (clay, wood, styrofoam, and lots of different kinds of plastic), safety regulations, how children develop, and how they play. Students also learn about licensing (getting permission to make a toy based on a movie, for instance), marketing (how to advertise and sell the toy), and ways that toys are manufactured (such as how the machinery works at a toy factory).

Students also get to spend the summer working at a real toy company. That gives them a good idea what it's like to work in the toy business. Just about everyone who graduates from FIT with a degree in toy design lands a job in the toy industry.

Toys that talk back

Today's high-tech toys are very interactive. Some talk back to you, react when you touch them, or can be programmed to perform various tasks. A Furby reportedly has more computing power than did the spacecraft that landed on the moon 30 years ago!

But good toys have always been "interactive," Ms. Ellis says. The new "smart toys," as they're called, have opened up new territory. If the technology can lead to discovery, that's great. Discovery is what good toys are all about. But just because a toy has lots of bells, lights, and noises doesn't always mean it's a good toy. Or that it will still be fun after half an hour.

A good toy is also safe and reflects the play needs of the child, Ellis says. A successful toy is one that sells well. A "great" toy does all those things and one more: It inspires you. Ellis also uses words like "elevate, excite, delight, invigorate, and inform" when talking to her students about toys.

Do you have a toy that you've played with for years? Are you still learning more, creating more with it? That's a great toy.

Modeling clay, wooden blocks, Legos, or K'nex are examples of great toys. You can return to them again and again with delight.

Today, the toy school's senior class is in the modelmaking workshop. They are busy improving their "molded" designs, toys that could be made from molded plastic. Students are sanding and painting. They're working on spring mechanisms and gearshifts. Some wear safety goggles. The air smells of glue and plastic. Among the toys is a bright-purple action-figure robot and a colorful circus setup. Most of the models are still a dull-gray plastic color.

Gil Zalayet shows off his toy-in-the-making: a motorcycle that turns into a car.

Erik Legernes is working on a gear mechanism for his toy that will change the expression of his toy dog named "Enter." The gears will raise the dog's eyebrows and move his eyes. "Enter" will take kids on a trip through a computer.

Cheo Leon is working on a big-wheel tricycle. "When you're working on the actual piece," he says, "you realize there are things you didn't think of." If his toy goes into production, he will have to instruct the factory on every detail.

Many of the students are eager to show a reporter the storybooks they are making. One of the exercises students do is create a character, then write and illustrate a book about it. Some create an interactive game or storybook.

Students watch kids in action

Rob Popolizio has written a book about a pit bull puppy named Ralphie who moves to a new neighborhood and has a rough first day at kindergarten.

Nicole Lemmann has created Oona, a little bat who's afraid of the dark.

Students see how children play by serving as volunteers at a local Head Start program for preschoolers. They also meet with schoolteachers to talk about how children play and use their imaginations.

Do you think you'd like to design toys? Here are two ways you can practice.

1. Look at Judy Ellis's list of what makes a great toy. (See below.) Now see if you can think of some great toys that are available now. What makes them great?

2. Look at the list again. This time, see if you can think of ideas for great toys that haven't been invented yet. What would make it a great toy?

And if in a few years you see, say, a "Roll-out Castle" or a character named "Flyin' Lou" who shoots out of a cannon, remember: You read about it here first.

Checklist for a good toy

Play is about discovery, and a good toy helps you discover. Here's Judy Ellis's list of what makes a good toy. She is head of the toy-design department at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. As you read this list, think about the toys you've had (or have). Which ones would qualify as really good toys?

A good toy:

1. Leads to discovery and creativity. It leaves plenty of room for your imagination.

2. Should be fun. It should inspire, delight, surprise, satisfy, and provide structure.

3. Offers a way to learn. It helps you understand things. Good toys help you develop language skills and hand-eye coordination. They help you learn problem-solving skills.

4. Is age appropriate. If a toy isn't designed for the right age, it can be frustrating or boring.

5. Is safe. It's made well, lasts a long time, and meets safety regulations.

6. Knows that you're smart. A good toy lets you do the thinking.

7. Is user-friendly. It should be inviting and fun for a long time. It shouldn't be something that you're bored with after a few minutes.


(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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