Toy Designer Cas Holman Is Obliterating Old Notions of Play

Toy Designer Cas Holman Is Obliterating Old Notions of Play

By Kate Reggev
We chat with designer Cas Holman, whose gender-neutral toys encourage new ways of thinking and collaborating, about the importance of play—for kids and adults alike.

As a designer, educator, and creator of objects for play, Cas Holman’s work can be found in schools, museums, and playrooms around the globe. Holman’s award-winning "tools for imagination," as she describes them, are interactive, gender neutral, thoughtfully crafted, and place emphasis on unstructured play rather than coming with restrictive instructions. Take Rigamajig, a large-scale building kit that Holman first dreamed up for the High Line Park in New York City, which encourages imaginative, collaborative play with materials that have real heft.

Cas Holman designs "tools for imagination." Rigamajig is a large-scale building kit that includes wooden planks, wheels, pulleys, ropes, and hardware that allows for open-ended exploration. The weight and size of the materials call for kids to collaborate, helping each other hold parts up as the pieces come together. 

Holman is also highlighted in the second season of Abstract: The Art of Design, a Netflix documentary series that re-launched on September 25. To mark the occasion, we spoke to Holman about her work, which sits at the intersection of design, research, learning and education, craft, psychology—and of course, play. 

In Abstract, you talk about finding inspiration in nature for a specific product. Where are you finding inspiration right now? 

Holman: Mostly, watching kids play! We developed the Rigamajig Junior Spinning Tops Kit after seeing children make giant spinning tops with [Rigamajig]—so I came up with colors and shapes for them to experiment with. Now they’ll be able to play with and test patterns, inertia, optical illusions, and hopefully sound.

I also get a lot of inspiration listening to teachers and early childhood specialists about what children are struggling with based on the world we’ve built. For example, my friend [and psychology professor at Temple University] Kathy Hirsh-Pasek tells me that digital natives have problems with impulse control, so now I’m thinking about how play can help them develop those skills. I hear from many teachers and early childhood psychologists about children lacking conflict resolution skills. Playing with Rigamajig helps those skills—basic communication and cooperation. We need to help them develop those skills early, and that happens in play. 

Much of what I designed Rigamajig for was "as a tool for children to create," so as I see what they do with it, I get to respond and give them more based on what I observe. It’s a dream. Like, I’m secretly collaborating remotely with hundreds of thousands of children. Each piece has something they’ll understand is for them: a detail in how two pieces fit together, or a weird shape they discover that no one else notices. It’s a wink to say, "Hey, I see you," or even better, "Hey, I understand you."

"Each piece...has a wink to say, ‘Hey, I see you’ or even better, ‘Hey, I understand you.’’

—Cas Holman

Holman prototypes her playthings in Hope, Rhode Island, on five acres of land called Camp Fun; she also teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence.

Can you tell us about some projects you’re working on right now? 

I’m currently teaching a new class with Alesdair Ittelson, a civil rights attorney and also my boyfriend. It’s a graduate seminar called "Disobedient Creativity." It’s been great to work with a small group of students to unpack what it means to design for impact, for social good. There is a lot of overlap in Alesdair’s work as a civil rights attorney and mine as a designer, and we’re seeing how those two lenses can inform the graduate students’ projects and approaches. 

In my studio, I’m thinking about and working on Rigamajig Workshop, a storage hub for the Basic Builder. It launched two months ago, but the marketing hasn’t been easy, so I’m more involved with that than I would normally be. And we just launched on September 25 the Rigamajig Junior Spinning Tops Kit—so we now have a lower price point Rigamajig for folks to play with at home. That was really fun to design, but I was really slow with the colors and patterns. 

Through her company Heroes Will Rise, Holman designs and manufactures tools for the imagination. The design process often involves a mixture of sketches, prototypes, material explorations, and color considerations.

It seems as though children are increasingly playing with devices like tablets and cell phones from a very young age and spending more and more time indoors. Do you think that this will ultimately have an impact on future generations—possibly on their creativity, their interest in physical objects—or have other unanticipated consequences?

Digital tools will, and have already absolutely had, an impact on all the things you mentioned. I hear from early childhood psychologists, teachers, and parents about issues that are arising because of the amount of tech all our lives. I see our devices as tools that can be useful and also harmful. We haven’t—yet!—done a good job of creating boundaries for ourselves. 

I also see a correlation between the way we educate and the options for play that surround kids. Kids are supposed to "learn to the test"—they are rewarded for right answers. There isn’t room for exploration or daydreaming in their learning. So when they play, they will seek a similar experience to feel successful, which is more easily found in a video game than drawing, pretending with friends, or staring at the clouds, or running around in the woods. In playing with digital technology, we’re giving them habits of extrinsic motivation and quick rewards.

Sketches of the Rigamajig Junior highlight the bright color palette and material choices for the toy, including 1/2" birch pieces, colored bolts and brackets, and 1/8" laminated pieces that together form a kit with thousands of possible combinations.

Have you ever considered incorporating digital elements into your objects for play? Is there an aspect of digital design that interests you? 

I would incorporate digital elements if it made sense for the play value—and if it weren’t tech for tech’s sake. While there are some great tech toys, the market is still flooded with those that claim to teach code or claim some STEM learning outcome because they have wires or a battery; often, they don’t teach anything more than how to use that toy. A child would get more from breaking it open and tinkering with its broken bits than they do actually following the instructions! I’m not a Luddite, but I see my role in the market as balancing what the toy industry has decided to offer kids. And right now, they need to be trusted to make their own play. So I strive to give them tools to do that. 

Holman’s first toy, Geemo, was designed while pursuing her MFA at Cranbrook Academy of Arts and launched at the New York MoMA Design Store in 2007. 

You talk in Abstract about how dance is a release for you—almost a form of play for you as an adult. Do you think adults need more play? 

Adults absolutely need more play! As adults, we often need to be given permission—courage which really comes from within—to play. I suspect we think we are supposed to act a certain way—"like an adult,"—so don’t let ourselves be present and inspired and behave outside the social contract of "adult." Or, we compartmentalize behaviors and activities in ways that aren’t helpful: we exercise at the gym, relax at yoga, connect with partners over dinner, and think play has to be a sport or playground or something. There are opportunities for play everywhere. Curiosity is playful; ideas can be playful; asking questions can be playful.

"There are opportunities for play everywhere. Curiosity is playful; ideas can be playful; asking questions can be playful."

—Cas Holman

Rigamajig’s success has led to new iterations, including a Junior version that uses scaled-down parts.

Are there playground designers, artists, psychologists, or other experts that you look to for insight into how children play, or do you primarily rely on your own intuition when designing? 

I absolutely look toward others to understand a design opportunity from multiple perspectives. I love being a designer in conversations about education or childhood or public policy around play—I surround myself with incredible people advocating for children and play in these spaces, and I get to be the one asking how design can impact the issue.

For example, I mentioned above that I hear about children lacking ways to learn and practice conflict resolution. I’m there saying, "What does that look like? What is its form?" I’m always in ideation mode; I understand a problem by imagining solutions for it—many of them are not great ideas, so again, the colleagues I work with are part of refining and developing the designs from an early childhood development perspective, or a public parks perspective.

I’m always hesitant to cite specific people as general inspiration because there too many to mention (although I have started a very long list), but I find immense courage from different artists and authors at different times. I just had some students read James Baldwin’s The Creative Process, and I just re-read Ivan Illich’s Tools for Conviviality, so...broad inspiration! 

The Rigamajig Junior Spinning Tops Kit contains a variety of pieces in different shapes, colors, materials, and patterns that encourage children to experiment with symmetry, moving parts, color, and forces like gravity and inertia.

Natural materials like wood and plywood are prominently featured in your work, along with bold colors. Is this the material palette that you’re naturally drawn to, or do you consider gender neutrality, color theory, or other ideas when selecting material and color palettes? 

Children’s worlds have a lot of plastic. Materiality communicates a perception of value, and that [of plastic] isn’t a message that I want children to get. I want them to interact with things that are well made, well designed, and communicate to them that they are worthy of solid, "real" things. I love that Rigamajig is shared. I’ve heard from more than one school whose students take care of their materials, including toys, at the end of the year. The students love sanding wooden toys like Rigamajig, taping up torn pages of books, helping a carpenter repair the classroom furniture. I think that’s so lovely. Let’s all take care of our things! 

I use color very carefully. I’m glad the episode of Abstract touched on this somewhat. Color is loaded with meaning and symbolism, and I want the imagination to have more room. I always say, "The less I design, the more room the child has to design." And by that, I also mean that the object can support what the play needs it to be. But color can also be beautiful and inspire—not just limit—stories, so I run with it sometimes.

Encouraging free, unstructured play is what allows for the creation of unusual objects, stories, and beings. Holman’s work tries to engage kids' inquisitive ideas and creative spirits, helping to feed the creative minds of the future.

And finally, did you have a favorite game or toy as a child? As an adult? 

Honestly, my dogs have always been my favorite toys, then and now, in part because they always want to play, and so do I! And, like me, they always want to be outside. Now my play happens in my studio, and in the classroom. My best days teaching feel like we’re all playing together. The RISD students and I play with ideas and form and abstraction. It’s the best.

Learn more about Cas Holman and Rigamajig. 

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