An African encounter led
to the 'Culture of Toys'
The "Culture of Toys" conference, held at Emory Jan. 24 and
25 in Cannon Chapel, had its origins in visits to Africa by two people whose
interest in handmade toys brought them together.
In 1989, Neil Shulman visited a remote village in Kenya where he had
coordinated a medical conference for 1,000 doctors and nurses from 28 countries.
While there, the Emory associate professor of medicine saw children playing
with toys made from discarded Coke cans-foot-long "buses" complete
with suspension and moving parts. Intrigued, he wondered, "What's involved
in these handmade toys?"
Back in Atlanta, Shulman met Sharon Mnich, a handmade toy collector who
once lived in Zimbabwe. She discovered children use whatever materials they
can find to construct amusements-stones, yarn, discarded wire. Her collection
of more than 60 playthings includes "yarn babies" from Romania,
an intricate shadow puppet from China, a "bottle cap" man from
South Africa and a camouflaged helicopter created with plastic milk containers
from Haiti. "Play is universal and breaks down boundaries," said
Mnich, who is "impressed with the creativity of children worldwide."
Shulman and Mnich were in the process of creating a nonprofit organization
called WorldPlay Inc., designed to teach children about creativity, other
cultures and recycling through toys, when they visited Richard Kurin, director
of the Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies at the Smithsonian
Shulman walked into Kurin's office "wearing a Dr. Seuss hat and
pulling a kid's homemade toy behind him," remembered Kurin. Charmed
by Shulman and encouraged by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, Kurin made
plans to feature handmade toys and 200 children from around the world at
a turn-of-the-century Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife.
"Culture of Toys" is a precursor to that event, expected to
draw more than 1 million visitors to the grounds of the Washington Monument
in the summer of 2000. "The conference at Emory is really a working,
thinking strategy meeting," said Kurin. "Kids around the nation
and the world continually create culture by making up homemade toys, games,
play and other activities. There is a vital spark of ingenuity and discovery
in this, yet currently systems of child care, education and commerce seem
increasingly to supply children with packaged experiences and products."
Conference organizers aim to examine with what and how children play, age
and gender issues in play, types and varieties of playthings, similarities
and differences in toys, and the current state of international research
Emory anthropology professor Melvin Konner will co-chair "Culture
of Toys" with Brian Sutton-Smith, professor emeritus of education,
psychology and folklore at the University of Pennsylvania.
In conjuction with the conference, the Carlos Museum will host a family
day, "The World of Play: Children Creating Toys Across Cultures,"
on Saturday, Jan. 25, where children and families can experience hands-on
toy-making traditions. Projects will include an Italian cork snake, a Swiss
jumping puppet, an "attitude doll" from Bonaire and a Mexican
version of cup and ball. A series of performances emphasizing the importance
of creativity in the lives of children will round out the day.
For more information on the "Culture of Toys" conference, call
404-727-0427; for information regarding the Carlos Museum family festival,
to January 12, 1998 Contents Page