Emory Report

January 12, 1998

 Volume 50, No. 16

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 Institution.

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 on toys.

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, call 404-727-4280.

-Trina Johns

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