When Toys are Handy

The big round tables are stocked with pads of paper and pens, Post-it notes and Sharpies. The agenda is printed, after the last finishing touches to the intended choreography of the event. Flip-chart stands are positioned around the room. The projector has been tested, our slide pack is ready to go. But it isn’t time to start a Knowinnovation meeting until the toys are out on the table.

The playful gizmos and gadgets we bring along help make the conference room look less sterile and corporate, but the toys are not just for show. If you’re a tactile person, being able to pick up a squeezy rubber ball, or twist the beads of a wooden wand, fumble with a Rubik’s cube or stack tiny colored magnets into small mountains can actually aide the fluidity of your thinking. While your hands are fidgeting, new things can pop into your mind, and it can help you stay focused during a meeting or workshop.

In fact, putting your hands around something may actually help you get your head around it.  Neurologist Frank Wilson, in his book The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language and Human Culture, believes that hands-on exploration is critical to cultivating inventiveness in children.  He’s concerned that the current generation of students isn’t getting enough hands-on practice to develop the necessary problem-solving skills.

Another case for keeping toys handy, according to Scientific American, is that toys can serve as inspiration. Benjamin Franklin used a kite for his experiments, The Etch-a-Sketch has served as a model for problem solving, Lego have been used by researchers to test theories and by R&D teams to build prototypes. If we can think of problem solving as playing with ideas, then why not use toys, the cornerstone of play to stimulate our thinking? Our silly table toys can become, inadvertently, a metaphor for framing a problem, or a spark for a new idea.

At the end of our workshops, all the toys we’ve put out on the tables are up for grabs; we expect participants to take the gadgets home. People usually ask if it’s okay, usually with the same excuse: “I just want to take something home for my kids.”

(Ahem. Right.)

Know further: Tips to help tactile learners. Not sure which is your learning preference? Take this survey. And finally, further reading on the science of play.