Cool Guy

By Zachary Block '99 / January / February 2002
July 1st, 2007
Rick Hartman is probably the only person in the world who can say that thumb wrestling paid his way through graduate school. As a student teacher, Hartman was on the playground thumb wrestling with a young boy when it dawned on him that there had to be a way to improve the classic children's game. So Hartman went home and cobbled together a few pieces of wood and some rubber bands, and the prototype of Pro Thumb Wrestling was born. Ten years later he's sold more than 500,000 of the final product: tiny plastic wrestling rings.

Other toys soon followed, including Crazy Cords, a gadget that weaves bracelets out of string, and a motorized ice cream cone that whirls around a scoop of ice cream in a plastic cup, which he showed off in August 2000 on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

Hartman does much of his work in a converted two-car garage behind his house that he refers to as his "magical toy studio." The shelves on one wall are crowded with classic folk toys from around the world. On another wall hang hundreds of recycled soda bottles holding such "inventing supplies" as springs, beads, tongue depressors, and Ping-Pong balls.

The garage is the main setting for Hartman's first video, The Toymaker's Workshop, in which he leads children through the step-by-step process of building three simple toys - a noisemaker, a wooden puppet, and a puff-ball catapult - with a homemade hammer and saw. The toys are some of the forty projects he teaches in workshops he conducts at children's festivals, schools, libraries, and museums. "I'm kind of like a folk singer," Hartman says. "Instead of sing-alongs, I do build-alongs."

Although he has been compared to the frantic PBS personality Bill Nye the Science Guy, Hartman's style is much quieter. He speaks in almost hushed tones and uses simple gestures. In the video, he whispers "go" and a group of children spring to action to build their toys.

Since he started doing the workshops in 1993, teaching toymaking has come to occupy more and more of Hartman's creative energy. He says he now conducts about 300 classes a year, mostly in the Seattle area. This August he's scheduled to return to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History to help kick off a traveling exhibit, "Invention at Play."

Because kids love to play and are not constrained creatively, as are many adults, Hartman says inventing and teaching feed off one another. "I immerse myself in play for a living," he says. "I work in an environment where kids are constantly playing and discovering, and that is very inspiring. Just watching kids tinker and come up with new ideas, seeing the light bulbs go off, is very motivating for me."

Hartman says the reaction from children he teaches ranges from the brash ("I want your job when you retire") to the poignant ("I wish you were my father"). "Other kids say, ԙYou're cool,' " he says. "And of course I immediately respond, ԙYou're cool, too.' "

But Hartman says the highest compliment often comes from adults. "Wow, you're a teacher," they say.

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January / February 2002