California Aquatics, Alakazam!, East County Electric Shock, Flying Pigs, DC Chicks, AshJenMagCor-poration – what do these somewhat cumbersome and quirky names have in common? They were all participants in Saturday’s TOYChallenge Western Regional competition, held at the San Diego Aerospace Museum in Balboa Park. I hope that they all Google their names and find our site! I just tried to find some updated information about the results of the competition, but the TOYChallenge site hasn’t been updated yet and Reuters hasn’t seen fit to cover this exciting event as of yet, so you’ll hear about it first on the LATDA blog!

Thanks to David Hoffman and Brenda Wilson and Kristen Greenaway at Sally Ride Science, Blue and I were able to meet with some very bright and promising stars in the future of toy design. Well, maybe they won’t all become toy designers, but it was heartening to see enthusiasm, creativity, humor, and work ethic in the next generation.

The day started out EARLY as we arrived at the SD Aerospace Museum at 8:45. Judging didn’t begin until 10, but we needed to get oriented and paired up in teams. I was partnered with David. There were 18 judges hailing from diverse backgrounds, but weighted heavily on the science/academic side. Hasbro and Sony (another corporate sponsor) contributed a few judges, and there were two young engineering (I think) students. We were never formally introduced to one another, but my impression was that there were not as many judges who were representing the ‘toy’ side of the competition.

Since we arrived so early, we took the opportunity to wander around anonymously and check out the projects being set up. For the most part it was like a typical science project fair, with the obligatory tri-panel cardboard backdrops peppered with Word-generated graphics. But here and there you could pick out the kids who were market-savvy because they had laptops playing commercials, matching outfits and buttons saying things like ‘Ask me about____!’

The judging was split amongst nine teams. Each team was given about twelve projects to assess. Each project was viewed by two sets of judges. The projects were divided into four categories: Robots/Build It; Get Out and Play; Toys that Teach; and Games for the Family. Originally there were seven categories, but due to the spread of the projects received, they consolidated some of them. Our task was to choose two of the best projects to go to Hasbro to compete with two of the best from the East Coast Regional. We were also looking for Best in Category and Honorable Mention in Category.

With two hours to judge the first round, it gave us about ten minutes per project, a restriction that David and I found extremely difficult to adhere to (the judge nazis kept coming around to tell us we were taking too long). We were so interested in listening to these kids talk about their creative process that we tended to take too long. We only saw designs in the Games for the Family Category.

After the first round, the judges were gathered in a room to eat Subway sandwiches and hash out their favorites. Some of us relied on memorable conversations with the kids to make decisions, while others actually gave numerical values to criteria and chose their top contenders by the numbers. After the first round of favorites was listed on a board, each nominee had an advocate present a case. This is where it got interesting. There was a split between people who were attracted by projects that were technically sophisticated in design and execution and those who were impressed by originality of concept and process. It was clear that there was a difference in the process it took to create a mechanically sophisticated object and a board game, but it was not clear how to rate them in the same way. One of our (LATDA’s) concerns was also how fun was the toy? Would kids really want to play with it?

We decided that each of the groups that had made it to the final board deserved another look, especially so the teams who had not seen the finalists in their section could vote with authority.

Those of us who were there as ‘toy advocates’ seemed to have different opinions than those who were there from the science or even toy marketing side. But eventually, it seemed that everyone was satisfied with the recognition of a wide range of projects.

There was one dicey moment when one of the projects that Blue and I had lobbied for was inadvertently not named as the Honorable Mention in the Games for the Family winner. I had to fight my way to the stage and insure that they were properly recognized. (whew)

Since the East Coast Regional has not taken place yet (May 7), I won’t mention the winning projects here. But I would like to highlight some of those who participated but didn’t win the big prizes…

 One board game dealt with foods of the world. It was essentially a trivia game where the object of the game was to answer questions about food of various countries. In order to win it you had to be familiar with at least a food from every continent of the world. That they had included the Philippine delicacy ‘balut’ in their questions grabbed my attention (although they had incorrectly identified its contents – I am quite well acquainted with balut; but that’s a story for another time.) They also had a very clever solution to extending the life of the game, but I’m not going to reveal it in case they end up taking it to market – even though they were not one of the finalists.

 Another game had the catchy name “The Gift of Humiliation”. This was one game that we could actually see ourselves playing. Unfortunately it was dubbed ‘a slumber party game’ (which seemed to delegate it to a girl’s toy and too exclusive), but what was appealing is the fact that it required coordinated motor skills on a team level along with humor.

 A popular movie provided the inspiration for another game. At first glance this seemed to be a rash decision, since such a project involves copyright issues, but when we questioned the team, they had thought of this and obtained permission to use the images and names in their game – a fact that impressed the judges very much. This team was infectiously enthusiastic and of all the board games there, we could imagine many of the kids wanting to actually play it.

 Of all the outdoor toy projects, our favorite was one that had started off as a huge floating bird pool toy. It ended up as a minimalist water-version of the Mad Hatter’s teacup ride. It looked like a lot of fun, although the prospect of making oneself dizzy and close to barfing in a pool might not be a great idea.

I wish that we could be at the East Coast Regional just to extend the experience of being surrounded by young creative energy. We would like to heartily endorse this competition for next year. There seemed to be a preponderance of home-schooled groups entering the competition. If public schools were to take this on as a final class project for extra credit it could prove a valuable life-skills experience in design and critical thinking. Not to mention the potential for fun (although a lot of the projects seemed to pander towards the educational/science theme). College students interested in education could mentor a group as a project.

When LATDA finds a home, we would hope to host a future TOYChallenge. We’d better start looking for a big home because TOYChallenge has the potential to grow in the coming years.

Look for more thoughts on this blog about TOYChallenge...I'm still digesting...