Toymaking (creating “tools for the imagination”) is, for Cas Holman, all about learning. “Play and a playful pedagogy are so relevant to students. We don’t know what future jobs are going to be. Students are going to graduate into a world that contains roles we haven’t seen before. Every few years, whole new opportunities to do and be in ways that nobody has seen before open up, whether it’s about supporting ourselves or expressing ourselves or about how we move through the world. So I think that as younger generations come up, they should learn how to be good at inventing new models of how to be. One of the things I like about working with undergraduates is getting to plant that seed – you don’t have to become something you already see. Make your own version, whether it’s your business, your work, who you are as a person.”
Before Holman became Associate Professor of Industrial Design at Rhode Island School of Design, her education in design came through the problems she had to solve as a pastry chef, breakfast cook, iguana-chaser, artist, furniture maker: “All through college I paid my way as a breakfast chef because I could finish my shift by 11:00 AM and then go to my classes. I didn’t really know what I was doing or where I was going as an undergrad. I knew that I loved learning and I loved thinking about our subjects, but I was hyper-aware of how much debt I was accumulating. I had always loved doing art, but I didn’t consider that a career option – I thought of art as something I could do in my garage on weekends.”
Holman took off time throughout her undergraduate education: “I took a year off at one point and a half year at another point to just go and have adventures and take more time to figure out what I was doing. I liked doing a lot of things, and that felt like a problem at that time. It’s funny. I actually see this now as a professor – so many students come through and they’ve known forever what they wanted to do and be with their lives. I’m excited for them, but honestly I am also a little worried. I hope they find time to play and to explore many different paths. Specialists, I think, have had their day.”
Holman’s uncle is a herpetologist working in the Galapagos Islands. She worked for him, “chasing iguanas.” She sailed around the world for more than a year. “And then I decided I was ready to find my own thing.”
She earned her undergraduate degree from UC Santa Cruz in 1998. Her first job post-college was with office furniture dealer Coordinated Resources, known as CRI San Francisco. Working with Herman Miller and others on furniture design turned out to be “how the artist I was on weekends – who I felt I was — started to come together with what I do for a living. I grew up in a small town and didn’t know what a designer was.” “Making art on weekends in my basement,” informed by her work in the contract furniture industry, turned into one-off furniture designs Holman sold to galleries and restaurants. In 2002, she started pursuing a degree in 3D design at Cranbrook Academy of Art – where she designed her first “tool for the imagination” – Geemo, a new kind of building toy with “flexible magnetic limbs that grab and repel each other in unpredictable ways.” Geemo was launched at the Museum of Modern Art in 2007.
Play, to Holman is “such an essential place of learning. Many kindergartens have managed to attain that. Learners still get to use blocks and tinker and work on projects. But starting in first grade, students are often treated like robots. They are in something that more closely resembles a factory than a playground.”
The toys that Holman designs enable those who play with them to invent stories about what they build – “not just a structure but a giraffe or a monster or some kind of abstraction that doesn’t resemble anything else.” At the time Holman designed Geemo she was working at in architectural design in New York. Then Geemo won an award and MOMA wanted to add it to their offering. While she was working at the New York architectural design firm The Rockwell Group, the oversize building blocks she designed for New York’s imagination playground are now used all over the world. Holman started a company, “Heroes Will Rise,” in order to “design and manufacture tools for the imagination. These materials are manipulable parts and pieces which inspire constructive play, imaginative forms, and cooperative interactions between people.” One of her design goals was to make the instructions for use implicit in the design of each toy. After three years at Syracuse University, she joined the Rhode Island School of Design.
“Coming out of the working design field, especially coming from New York City’s architectural design world, academia was a big shock. I was used to emails that had three words, but in academia carefully composed emails are a big part of how we communicate. As a designer, I’d been a creative director. I could sit down with a designer and talk about what was working or not and then tell them how to fix it. But that’s not teaching! I quickly realized that I should apply everything I knew about toy design to what I know about how children learn through play – because constructivist play is not limited to how children learn. It’s how people learn.”
“Things need to be learned in context. Constructivist pedagogy involves how learning and building one thing leads to learning another – you have to understand how one stage works before you can build on it, which means that ideas aren’t initially presented purely as abstractions. Another thing I quickly learned in regard to learning by building is that I couldn’t tell students ‘I told you that this wouldn’t work.’ You have to let them figure it out. So I started applying what I knew about designing toys for children to teaching adults.” Holman received a fellowship to apply her ideas in the classroom: “Design is the perfect subject for play as pedagogy because failure, tinkering, experimentation are built into design. There’s not always a right or wrong answer. I’m learning to use play not just as an outcome but as a process in the classroom.”
Of course, students expect rigor from a design class at RISD. Holman asks her students if the kind of play they do lives up to the rigor they expect from RISD industrial design. Together, Holman and students talk about the design of the class itself. What does rigor look like in the context of playing with design? “It turns out to be especially important to spend time figuring things out rather than looking for a definitive answer. Even if I know the answer, I usually say ‘I don’t know, let’s see if we can find out,’ because it’s not only good to explore for yourself – it’s good for the students to hear a teacher tell them she doesn’t know but is willing to figure it out with them. Not knowing encourages curiosity because it’s fun to find out. If you’re not comfortable not knowing, then you don’t want to wonder. You stop asking if you’re supposed to know rather than experiment.”
Another toy designed by Holman, Rigamajig, was also designed according to constructivist “learn how it works by playing with it” principles. It is used in children’s museums, some pre-schools, kindergartens, first and second grades. “We get a lot of requests for instructions. And I want to give teachers and schools what they need so they’re comfortable using it as a material and learning tool. But part of the design is that there aren’t instructions. We provide a page of open ended prompts that will give students enough if they need a little more structure, but won’t hold them back if they have a vision of their own. Again, that design involves how to design for no instructions and how to design for no right or wrong answers. I trust students with learning materials. I’ve never had a child ask me for instructions. Ever.”
Although Holman adds that she’s never heard a child say about a construction with one of her toys, “Is this right?, she notices that creative adults – and she, herself – catch themselves thinking that they are stuck because of the lack of instructions. “I think we hear rules in our head louder than children do.”
Holman’s professional network grew largely out of her work with the imagination playground. “One led to another. And in recent years I’ve had people I didn’t previously know but who admitted professionally approach me. I realized that I’m in conversation with other designers through my work and my networks. Child psychologists who advocate for playful pedagogy are part of my network – play informs the work I’m doing and the work speaks to people who take the same approach. They contact me and I learn from them. So I’ve come to realize that it’s more than a network of designers – I have a network of people who are working around play and learning and people who are advocating for the values of childhood.