“I want my designs to speak to the weirdos, to be tools for children to feel understood,” says the toy designer Cas Holman. Her toys—simple, gender-neutral systems made up of manipulable, connectable parts—are meant to inspire constructive play and cooperative interaction, skills imperative to conflict resolution and creative thinking. Holman insists it’s not children she designs for, but people more generally. “They are the ones who are going to make the world suck or not suck,” she recently explained in an episode of the Netflix docuseries Abstract. “Good toys make good people.”
Holman, an associate professor of industrial design at the Rhode Island School of Design, hides surprises in her toys for kids to discover, like a quirky shape or a detail revealing how two pieces in one of her connectable toys fit together. She’s best known for her 2011 Rigamajig, an open-ended building kit that uses wooden planks, wheels, pulleys, nuts, bolts, and rope to empower children to be the architects of their own play. “A glorified pile of construction debris” is how Holman described it in Abstract. “Not having instruction gives children the fluency to say, ‘What’s going to happen next, and how are we going to do it?’” Above all, Holman’s toys encourage exploration and use color sparingly, so as to allow their users to think more creatively. Fittingly, she named her design company Heroes Will Rise.
Holman grew up in Northern California and struggled with how her elementary school reinforced systemic hierarchies, like gender norms. The daughter of a single mother, she wore her hair short, liked to sneak boys’ clothing into the girls’ section of department stores, and wondered why toy stores had separate blue and pink aisles. She felt frustrated that she was taught to seek answers to—not ask questions about—life’s problems, leaving little room to daydream. Schools, she realized, enforced dynamics that weren’t entirely friendly or inclusive. “Childhood, in a way, enforces this idea of who we’re supposed to be,” she says. “It’s pretty dehumanizing.”
Though she dropped out of the University of California, Santa Cruz, Holman eventually earned her M.F.A. in 3D design at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. During her studies, she invented Geemo, a system of flexible magnetic branches that latch onto one another in unpredictable ways, and it debuted at the MoMA Design Store in 2007. Although Geemo is no longer in production, Holman still gets inquiries from people who want to play with its different configurations. (“A missed opportunity,” she says with a laugh.)
Holman doesn’t distinguish play from design. “A lot of what we do in design is play—testing things out as ideas, but also as objects in space,” she says. She was part of the New York design firm Rockwell Group in 2005 when it was prototyping the Imagination Playground, a series of large-scale foam blocks that children can arrange as they see fit. After a version of it debuted at Manhattan’s Burling Slip park to critical acclaim, the Imagination Playground became part of a UNICEF initiative to bring unstructured play to children in developing nations and underserved local communities.
Holman introduced Rigamajig as a pop-up playground on New York’s High Line in 2011. She spent the next three years reengineering it for mass production and integrating feedback from teachers and children’s museums. Since then, it has found its way into hundreds of schools, playgrounds, and backyards. Her biggest challenge has been convincing skeptics to incorporate her radical learning systems in schools, which are beholden to bureaucratic rules and liability. “But once parents and teachers understand it,” she says, “they’re completely on board.”
In fact, a series of rejections nearly led her to give up, until she got wind of a bootleg Rigamajig being used in a Chinese primary school. Most designers don’t react well to being knocked off, but Holman was intrigued. The school practiced Anji Play, an approach in which a child engages in an activity of their choosing for a long, uninterrupted period of time. Holman contacted Cheng Xueqin, the educator who developed Anji Play, to see how they could collaborate, then traveled to China to see the method firsthand. The driving ethos of Anji Play, she learned, is inquiry. “The goal is to always be curious, which opens up room for adults to learn from children,” says Holman, who, in 2015, licensed a Chinese edition of Rigamajig for use in schools.
The method continues to gain momentum in China and is currently being tested through pilot programs in San Francisco, Wisconsin, and the Netherlands. Holman has even explored ways to bring Anji Play principles to upper grades and universities including RISD. For one assignment, she asked her freshman-year students to convey their feelings by drawing a cake, which sparked some moments of self-discovery. “I want to teach my students how to learn rather than trying to hand down knowledge,” she says.
The most important feedback, she says, comes from those outliers who are rarely heard. “Through good design and an open-ended way of understanding it, we can discover—and invent—who we are,” she says. The glimmer of hope she felt when she first went to China continues to propel her. “When I go to Anji Play schools,” she says, “I feel like we’re going to be okay.”
Photographs by Thalassa Raasch.
This story appears in the March issue of Surface. To experience the complete issue subscribe here.