February 4, 2014

Child-like then and now: Tree Hopper Toys’ Eric Siegel at Chicago CreativeMornings #26

Photo by Nate Burgos. View More.

The first CreativeMornings/Chicago gathering of 2014 featured Eric Siegel of Tree Hopper Toys at the Chicago location of Grind, a coworking space. Tree Hopper Toys handcraft their products using sustainable American hardwoods. They make toys that are 100% friendly to kids and our planet, safe, and most of all, fun.

CreativeMornings’ global theme for January 2014 was Childhood. In his talk, Siegel used the theme of childhood as a comparative lens on his creative path to becoming a toy designer and producer.


If one’s level of curiosity was graphed along their life, I feel that the curiosity curve would progressively dip over time. The artist Pablo Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Curiosity seems to be a fleeting resource—overflowing in youth and waning with age.

A child greets the world with brave curiosity. It’s this consecutive thrill of the unknown that Siegel applies to his work with Tree Hopper Toys. Making something already highly opaque and intimidating, like a business, does demand the curiosity of a child. More so, making a living strongly influences the act of making a life. A life that’s enriching, fulfilling, satisfying. What was exercised with natural ease, curiosity takes more attention and work as reality gradually becomes spelled out.

In his talk, Siegel encouraged cultivating the practice of child-like curiosity to one’s quality of work—to one’s quality of life. This practice, personally and professionally, connects with what Jim Coudal, of Coudal Partners, who spoke at the first CreativeMornings/Chicago gathering (July, 2011), stated: “Our number-one value isn’t in any of the skills we have. It’s that we’re essentially curious.” (via Swissmiss)

For a child, the frequent button to press would be Play. Whether indoors or out, a common scene is children’s search of play with objects and the environment. Tina Roth Eisenberg, who invented CreativeMornings, tweeted a quote by Raul Gutierrez, Founder and CEO of Tinybop, a studio that crafts and builds educational iOS apps for kids: “Every time we talk to or interact with a child, we are constructing their childhood whether we like it or not.”

The notion of “constructing a childhood” also applies to us, because with every instance of observing children play, there is the potential jolt of reverie in hearkening back to our respective histories of childhood and the quintessential feelings embodied in this early frontier of experience. Childhood is a storied experience made memorable with playfulness. This child-like playfulness presents the challenge of maintaining its essence (along with the essence of curiosity).

Kindred, perhaps, to curiosity is naïveté. Being playful pairs with being naïve. In his CreativeMornings/Chicago talk (July, 2012), toy maker Shawn Smith shared an important principle of his company: “We want to be purposely naïve.” The word “naïve” can be considered pejorative by some. But a naïve person can also be one who channels ignorance as a positive force to be curious and seek information in order to make sense of matters that, in turn, lead to successive layers of competence.

The language of childhood lends itself to forming and expressing questions, elegant in their economy of words and stripped of pretense. In his business, Siegel shared the fact that asking questions at the start and often, even so-called “stupid” questions, can help preserve sanity and resources later on. That is, to know better early on (proactive) than to know better after it’s too late (pyrrhic). Astrophysicist and author Carl Sagan celebrates human inquiry as a vital path to empowerment: “There are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question.”


Tap into your inner child. Have fun. Be curious.

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“Do not discourage childish fantasies.”
—Author Susan Sontag via Brain Pickings’ “How to Raise a Child: 10 Rules from Susan Sontag.”

“Listen to the mustn'ts, child. Listen to the don'ts. Listen to the shouldn'ts, the impossibles, the won'ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me… Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.”
—Shel Silverstein, Author of Children’s Books

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Typeface of quotations is Cooper Black, designed by Oswald Bruce Cooper, in Chicago.

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2011 was Chicago CreativeMornings’ debut year. Download the entire collection of selected insights.

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