If you’ve ever seen a kid tear open a birthday present, toss the gift itself aside, and proceed to have the time of his life with the box it came in, then you won’t have any trouble understanding Makedo’s worldwide success. The toy, which was launched in Australia a few years back and has expanded steadily since, gives youngsters a collection of plastic clips and connectors for building stuff out of cardboard boxes, yogurt tubs, milk jugs, and more. Now, Makedo’s arriving on American shores, giving parents across the country a reason to feel all right about forgetting to put the recycling out.
"Kids’ learning happens through play," Paul Justin, Makedo’s creator told me. "It’s those formative years that are so critical, that teach them ways to think." This belief in the power of creative play is one of the core tenets of Makedo’s philosophy.
A few years back, Justin had been working as an industrial designer and felt he was ready to develop something on his own. He had just had his third child, and he started thinking about the toys, like Lego, that inspired him to become a creative thinker, a builder, a designer. "Having started the family was one of the biggest influences on what I was doing," he says, but, working in his home studio--a converted garage--he didn’t have the means to go out and fabricate some intricate Tonka truck or Super Soaker. Out of those limitations, Makedo was born.
The current incarnation is composed of three main components: a zip-tie like "re-clip," an adjustable "lock-hinge," and a dull, plastic "safe-saw." But that basic set has proven to be incredibly versatile. A quick glance at the user-submitted gallery on the company’s MyMakedo website reveals just how adaptable old boxes can be, with photos of trucks, monsters, and forts posted alongside shots of intricate mazes, geodesic domes, and even a decent-looking wedding dress.
At a time when most toys are shiny, loud, and require elaborate instruction manuals, Makedo could be considered the anti-toy. There’s something a little bit subversive about saying, "Hey, all that stuff you thought was trash could actually be the best toy in your house." And Justin himself admits that sometimes parents can’t really grasp the concept. "Sometimes we joke that the kids always get Makedo, but it’s the parents who are buying the product that don’t."
But it’s clear that many people are getting it, to say the least. The company has hauled in a bundle of awards, and Makedo now retails in over 40 countries. "In every country you get people who get it, and love it, and are crazy passionate," Justin says, but when you’re dealing with a toy that only really becomes a toy when combined with other stuff, its use will vary from country to country. "In Japan," Justin explained, "there’s this amazing packing material--but we’re finding that people don’t hold on to much stuff…It’s not part of what they do."
And what of Makedo’s newest frontier? "In America, we’re really excited by the potential, because I think there are certainly those building blocks available"--there’s no doubt that, as a nation, we’re swimming in packaging--"but also, there’s a huge revolution in the Maker movement that seems to be stemming from America. It’s a wave we’re definitely riding. And people are just sort of getting back to making stuff, doing their own thing, and sort of customizing their own toys."
In the U.S., parents will be able to find Makedo products in speciality toy retailers, like Fat Brain Toys and MindWare. The company offers FreePlay kits, which just give you the plastic connectors and let you go wild, as well as guided kits, which come with instructions for building playtime standbys like robots, cars, and planes. But it’s that unguided, exploratory play that excites Justin most. "We’re not very into the color by numbers approach," he says. In toys right now, "there’s a whole lot of right and wrong…We just create the framework for play, and you just drop the kid into that and they just go for it."
"What we’re trying to do, ultimately, is help kids develop creative thinking. And the way we’re doing that is developing products that open that creativity," Justin continued. "It’s a bit devastating--kids being babysat through iPads. There’s potential for learning [there], but I think it’s abused quite badly." Those might sound like fighting words to parents who’ve finally found road trip solace in the warm glow of the tablet, but it’s hard to argue with the value of letting kids actually build things, with encouraging the imaginative leap it takes to repurpose something old into something new.
Just ask the National Toy Hall of Fame--they inducted the cardboard box to their ranks in 2005.