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Posted: May 10, 2011

Small biz: Toy design contest worthy of Play-Doh and Aristotle

Mike Taylor

One evening last month I found myself on stage in a school auditorium judging toy designs by sixth to eighth graders at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy, a DPS magnet school in southwest Denver.

How this happened: Back in March I'd written about Kazoo & Company toy store owner Diana Nelson for a Colorado Ethics in Business Alliance Award she'd won. Someone forwarded that story to Talya Dornbush, a Kunsmiller exploratory arts teacher and toy-contest coordinator who asked if I'd serve as one of the five judges for the competition.

Sure, I said. Toy sales in the U.S. topped $21.8 billion last year. That's a good enough business case for me. And maybe I'd find a Mr. Potato Head in the rough. But then, fearing my low toy I.Q. might be exposed, I prepared with some research. A sampling:

• Play-Doh, named one of Time magazine's 100 all-time greatest toys, started off as wallpaper cleaner before it was re-purposed in the late 1950s as a modeling clay soft enough to be shaped by tiny hands (and eaten). Noah McVicker and Joseph McVicker received a patent for it in 1965.

• Mr. Potato Head, invented by George Lerner in 1949 and debuting commercially three years later, originally consisted only of the plastic parts - noses, ears, eyes, etc. - that could be jabbed into a real potato or other vegetable. Government regulations later forced toy maker Hasbro to include a plastic potato.

• The board game Monopoly traces back to 1903 when creator Elizabeth J. Magie Phillips, a Quaker, sought to illustrate the negative aspects of concentrated land ownership and business monopolies. Her creation, which debuted commercially in 1924, originally was called The Landlord's Game.

• The Super Ball, invented in 1964 by chemist Norman Stingley, initially was so popular that it sold for 98 cents. But what comes up must come down. By the end of 1966, Super Balls were selling for 10 cents in vending machines. Side note: As a promotional stunt in the late 1960s, a bowling-ball sized Super Ball was dropped from the 23rd story of a hotel. It destroyed a parked convertible on the second bounce.
• Only one real person is represented in cable network VH1's ranking of the Top 100 Toys of All Time, based on a survey of viewers. That's Evel Knievel, whose action-figure likeness checks in at No. 47. Knievel, the daredevil motorcyclist who once estimated that he made $60 million in his career and spent $63 million, died in 2007, but the bendable action figure lives on.

So that's some of the knowledge I took with me to Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy to judge 16 toy designs. Among the entries, judged on likeability, craftsmanship, innovative design and effectiveness of the sales pitch:

• "Teddy Teacher:" Created by seventh graders, a stuffed animal that talks, thanks to a voice mechanism from a greeting card transplanted into the toy.

• Sandwich Pals: Conceived by sixth graders, these are puppets shaped like sandwiches with (imitation) bread slices for moving mouth parts.

• Egg Buddies collectibles - plastic eggs containing soft creatures, or "puffles"- a term coined by the team of three sixth graders - and other collectible accessories.

• DJ Robato, a toy created by three eighth graders, equipped with wheels and a turntable to help teach youngsters 6 and up how to be deejays.

• Bizz Buzzes, a felt bee with Velcro-attachable wings and legs to help teach preschoolers how to match clothing colors.

• Mr. Robato: No relation to the aforementioned DJ Robato, I was told.

Results came to me via e-mail a few days later. The No. 1 toy:
Egg Buddies.
A future blockbuster like Play-Doh might not be in this batch. But who knows. Even Play-Doh was just re-purposed wallpaper cleaner starting out.
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Mike Taylor is the managing editor of ColoradoBiz. He writes about small-business money issues and how startups are launched. Email him at mtaylor@cobizmag.com.

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