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The Art of Play

05/07/2013

Assistant Professor Cas Holman believes in really pushing the iterative process. | photo by Beth Flatley

Growing up without a TV, Assistant Professor of Industrial Design Cas Holman started inventing her own toys and gizmos as a child and she has been making things ever since. Tinkering, she says, is at the heart of the ideation process, and the more “useless” the object you’re working on, the better.

“At each step of my own process, I review my options and make sure that I have thought of everything before I move forward,” says Holman. She actually promotes this idea in the classroom and is particularly fond of a creative exercise she calls “10 by 10,” where students have 90 minutes to make 100 sketches of any given assignment.

“After 10 or 15 sketches, they usually stop and say it’s impossible, but you have to push past – like with running – to get in the zone,” Holman explains. “In a classroom of 17 students, for instance, 15 will end up pursuing ideas they generated between sketches 75 and 100.”

Before coming to RISD in 2012, Holman worked with David Rockwell of the Rockwell Group to design the Imagination Playground for Manhattan’s South Street Seaport. The over-sized building blocks she created have since become a staple in parks and playgrounds around the world. Her design was inspired by post-WWII Adventure Playgrounds in Europe, where an entire community would build a single large project out of wood, nails and screws and then take it apart in order to start all over again.

In 2011 Holman's New York connections led to another high-profile project when she was hired by the Friends of the High Line to develop play opportunities for young children along the popular elevated trail. “It’s tricky,” says Holman, “because kids are not supposed to run through the grass and pick the flowers. So I tried to turn their attention to the industrial nature of the space.”

The result is a “pop-up playground” – the Workyard Kit – which debuted in June 2011 and is now being sold for use at schools and community playgrounds. The kit is filled with custom-designed wooden planks, wheels, ropes, gears, bolts, cranks and pulleys that children can use to build whatever they want.

“What’s more exciting than a pile of construction debris?” Holman asks. “The less I design, the more flexible these toys are and the more the children’s imagination is involved. That’s where it gets really good.” She is now in the process of rebranding the kit and lining up a large-scale distributor.

Holman and her dogs are currently spending most of their time in Providence, where she has quickly made connections with local childhood education experts. “Janice O’Donnell, the director of the Providence Children’s Museum, reached out to me,” she says. “They are in the midst of redesigning their water feature, and students in my Design for Play class are proposing ideas.” Holman calls O’Donnell a “genius” and appreciates the museum’s hands-on approach to learning.

She is also toying with the idea of creating a traveling carpentry lab for kids that retired woodworkers might volunteer to run. This summer she plans to design several Workyard Kit add-ons – one that includes axels and wheels for making carts and another that encourages children to build cranes and other simple machines – and to launch her first kitchen product, a “beautiful and silly” peppermill that will be distributed via Areaware.

–Simone Solondz

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tags: faculty, innovation, Industrial Design, research, STEAM

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Foundation Studies students consider each other's work under the guidance of Professor Merlin Szasz.