Karen Hewitt has two passions: children and art. This
becomes evident when looking at her life as an artist, early childhood
educator, toy historian, and college lecturer in art education. Most of her
education – B.A. in Art, M.S. Ed. in
Early Childhood Education – and career were spent immersed in one or the
other, yet today, Hewitt gets the best of both worlds – as a toy designer.
She founded the Learning Materials Workshop in 1979 when the
Thingamabobbin was created as a collaborative effort between parents at Ethan
Allen Childcare Center in Vermont. The Thingamabobbin is one of 8 award-winning
sets of construction toys designed by Hewitt. She has designed 14 in
Monthly (TDM): What are the concepts behind your designs?
Karen Hewitt (KH): The designs have come out of knowledge of child development. Children are
interested in toys that stimulate their creativity. As an artist, I enjoy
making things that are aesthetically pleasing. The toys are made with unusual
shapes, colors, and materials in order to provoke questions from the children.
Why do you think the aesthetics of a toy matters?
(KH): I enjoy designing eye-pleasing toys, and working with materials like hard wood,
which has a real quality, a heaviness to it. And children gravitate towards
them too. They like things that are beautiful and have some complexity to them
Is there a reason why you design construction toys?
(KH): Construction toys are modular toys. Children
like to take things apart and put them back together again. Learning
Materials Workshops' toys are open-ended, yet carefully designed in a variety of colors, sizes, shapes,
and textures that stimulate and develop perceptual, motor, and language skills;
mathematical thinking; physical knowledge; cooperative problem solving; and
Where do your ideas come from?
(KH): I get ideas from watching children play, and from scouring for new materials.
I’ve used an assortment of unusual materials in my toys: different types of
wood, acrylic prisms, colored tubing, mylar, or net to make soft walls.
How do you begin the designing process?
(KH): I design by either making new shapes myself or playing around with shapes that
are available. I try to relate each toy to other toys that I’ve made, whether
it be in size, color, or the shape holes.
How are your designs tested?
(KH): I know children pretty well, and can reject designs even before I take them to
schools to test. I’ve done this for years, but that still doesn’t mean they
don’t surprise me. I usually test the design to find out how difficult the toy
Give us an example where you were surprised?
(KH): When I designed the Carosello, I was thinking of it as a toy for older
children, around 5 or 6 years old. But when it was tested, I found that
toddlers really enjoyed it. So I have simplified it, with less pieces, putting
things in holes, etc so that toddlers can play with it.
Were there any toys that passed tests but didn’t work in the market?
(KH): There was a toy called Toptical – optical top – it did really well in the
beginning. The Smithsonian bought a bunch and put it in their catalog, but we
had to drop it because we weren’t selling enough.
What was the most unusual design you created and how was it inspired?
(KH): The Arcobaleno, which means rainbow in Italian, is our most popular toy. I knew
someone who was a furniture designer. He was making a display stand with pieces
that were cut out of wood. The way it was cut out was a special process. He got
in touch with me and said the kids really enjoy playing with the display at the
local Montessori. So essentially, he came with the idea and I developed it. It
only has 12 pieces and a base, yet its still the most interesting and popular
Do you miss being an educator? Would you go back to teaching?
(KH): I miss teaching, but I wouldn’t go back now. I spend a lot of time in the
classrooms. Right now I’ve put together the two things I really love –
children and art.
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