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Creativity

Homemade Art Is the True Hero in Toy Story 4

© 2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

© 2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Last month, Toy Story 4 hit theaters. The latest installment in Pixar’s flagship movie franchise features Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and the rest of the familiar Toy Story characters we’re used to seeing. Yet Toy Story 4 introduced a new, unexpected toy to love: Forky. Far from the average anthropomorphic store-bought personalities, Forky is a handmade creation and, importantly, the product of a child’s ingenuity.
In fact, Forky is barely a toy at all: He’s a plastic spork adorned with a pipe cleaner, googly eyes, bits of clay, and a broken popsicle stick. All of his parts are quite literally taken from the trash by Woody and then put together by a kindergartener named Bonnie. But what Forky is, and has become in the wake of Toy Story 4’s release, is a reminder of how making things at home—toys or otherwise—helps children develop creativity, which can benefit them in many ways as they grow up.
In the film, Bonnie has plenty of toys, but Forky quickly becomes her favorite. She plays with Forky, she sleeps with Forky, she gets upset when Forky goes missing. (A major plot point of the movie involves Forky running away from Bonnie because he doesn’t want to be a toy, he wants to remain “trash.”) While Forky is Bonnie’s newest toy, additionally—unlike her other playthings—Forky is a product of her own imagination.
Elizabeth Margulies, who is the Museum of Modern Art’s director of family programs and initiatives in its department of education, has seen firsthand—both professionally and personally, as the parent of a six-year-old—the effect that hands-on making can have on children.
© 2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

© 2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

“My shelves are filled with things that [my son] has created,” Margulies said. “We have a fire truck that he made on his own out of an egg carton, a paper towel roll, and a plastic food container. I can’t say that he plays with it as much as he does a Transformer, but there was excitement about it.”
In family workshops at MoMA, Margulies has observed the pride that children take in being able to problem-solve through artmaking. Like Bonnie in Toy Story 4, children are adept at turning simple found materials into their own beloved creations. “We see all the time that kids look at an ordinary object and they can imagine it as something else,” Margulies said. “I think with these activities, we’re trying to empower them to feel like they are a creative being and that they can solve problems.”
Tamar MacKay, the Brooklyn Museum’s family program coordinator, has experienced this, too. In a previous role as an educator at Blue School in Manhattan, she led a class where students created puppets from found materials on hand at the school. “I told [the kids] to choose objects they were interested in, and not to think about how it fits together yet,” MacKay explained. The purpose was to have the children follow their instincts and then see if they could solve the puzzle of fitting the materials together.
One of the more memorable creations was a puppet named “Nutty.” MacKay recalled that the puppet’s materials didn’t involve an actual nut, but for the student, it was reminiscent of one. The young creator gave Nutty a flower for hair and went so far as to make a list of its likes and dislikes. “She made a whole story around it,” MacKay said.
Unsurprisingly, Pixar and Disney thought of ways to merchandise Bonnie’s inventiveness with a “Forky Creativity Set.” Turning a cherished piece of intellectual property into a slew of merchandising opportunities is nothing new. However, as writers at Fast Company and Polygon have pointed out, something felt off about kids using a kit to recreate Forky, instead of just making their own from scratch. As the writers at Polygon explained, “In the movie, Forky is an organic creation, made of regular arts and crafts objects and a spork. Forky is a creature born of creativity and innovation, not mass-produced in a factory!”
© 2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

© 2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Is this kind of mass-produced creativity actually harmful? “I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily harmful,” MacKay said, “but I would hope that that would be looked at as a starting point and a way to ignite creativity.” She added that using a movie character as an example can help guide children to develop their own creations independently.
Margulies, who has helped develop the museum’s “Making with MoMA” art supplies, noted that as a parent, artmaking kits can be helpful in the materials they provide. “Sometimes it’s easier to just have all the things you might need,” she offered.
Whether you use a kit or simple everyday objects, the key is the making itself. At the Brooklyn Museum, MacKay said, activities are focused on process, rather than product. This allows for children to “really witness a lot of joy in the making,” she explained.
“I think that besides just trying to make something, if we encourage kids to create using everyday material, it can expand their own thinking about what’s possible,” Margulies said. Getting children to think broadly about what is possible within the world is perhaps the greatest benefit to this kind of making at a young age. Margulies cited a 2015 study by the Center for Childhood Creativity, which found that once children start feeling that they are creative, they begin to take a problem-solving approach to whatever activity they are working on.
In Toy Story 4, Bonnie builds Forky in a moment of inspiration and suddenly creates her favorite toy. But that kind of creativity can happen every day with children all over the world. What we can take from Toy Story 4, and the work that educators like MacKay and Margulies are doing, is that we need to encourage that kind of creation and making as much as we can. Even if our children don’t become artists or creatives of any kind, they might become problem-solvers—and we always need more of those.
Matt Domino is Artsy’s Director of Editorial Operations & Growth.