Lean Into You

Free Play and Developing a Philosophy of Openness (Part One)

August 24, 2022 Season 3 Episode 47
Lean Into You
Free Play and Developing a Philosophy of Openness (Part One)
Show Notes Transcript

Cas Holman is a toy designer and play advocate who has spent her entire career creating products that encourage openness and free play. She has worked with Rockwell Group, has been a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, and was recently featured on Netflix's Abstract: The Art of Design.

In our two-part conversation with Cas, we explore what we mean when we say "free play", some of the reasons why humans tend to create categories for what play is and what it should look like, and how we, as adults, can develop a philosophy of openness in adulthood.

To find out more about Cas' work, you can visit her website at:

This project is funded through a grant with the Tennessee Department of Human Services and Signal Centers, Inc. 


Free Play and Developing a Philosophy of Openness (Part One)

Wed, 8/24 3:00PM • 33:21


work, play, children, perform, people, podcast, understand, conversation, designed, teachers, toys, adults, designer, art, adulthood, recognize, life, students, approach, docu series


Cas Holman, Alex Farrell, Wesley Mayes


Cas Holman  00:00

We as adults, we understand support as like encouraging, right? When we see a child doing something that we recognize as successful or productive or like good, like, Oh, you're fast, that's great, you're fast. And then you're like, Okay, it's good that I'm best. Maybe I'm supposed to keep being fast. But like, nobody's gonna say like, Oh, you're so good at with rolling that stick and running down the hill. Like that. That's what I love. So I think that we really, really like unconsciously kind of channel children and channeling each other in ourselves into these known ways of being right, these known categories of athlete or artist or intellectual, because we recognize it and we know that and it's categories which are safe, and that's how we come to understand the world. But it's also like it kind of, there's so much in between that we cut off when we do that, you know, we kind of slice off the edges and the edges are often where like that's the good stuff is or that's where like the maybe the joy is found.


Alex Farrell  01:05

Everyone This is Alex and Wesson lean in to podcast and today we are really excited to have Cass Holman. Some of you might be familiar with Casselman. If you have seen the Netflix Docu series abstract, the document really great Docu series that features different designers and a bunch of different disciplines. Castleman is a toy designer, cast, his line of toys that she's developed are toys that among other things really encourage open endedness and free play. 


Wesley Mayes  01:33

Yeah, and I really liked how Cass brought her own personal history and her own childhood into this conversation. It really showed us how she's been able to sort of approach toy designing in a way that breaks us out of the different roles that we might feel like we need to perform in life.


Alex Farrell  01:51

And one of our biggest goals with this conversation is to figure out this concept of free play and open endedness. How can adults themselves actually adopt this mindset? And how might that make us more free is as people and might contribute to our own self care, the way that we approach our day to day, this is actually going to be a two part conversation. So we hope you'll join us for the next few weeks as we chat with Cass Holman on how we can develop a philosophy of free play and openness. Hello, Cass, how are you?


Cas Holman  02:30

Hi, I'm well, how are you all doing?


Alex Farrell  02:33

Super excited to have you on thank you so much for joining us on the on the podcast today. We're we're like probably many people that know of you. I assume this is an assumption on my part. But we found out about you because of your Netflix documentary that was on abstract, which is a little Docu series, focusing on designers, different designers from various disciplines. And it was a really beautiful, lovely kind of snapshot of your work and what you do. And I immediately was like, I wonder if she'll be on our podcast because that was incredible. And you're really touching on a lot of things in that little snapshot that we like to focus on, you know, we talked about in the just before we started recording the this podcast being a two pillar approach between preparedness in the classroom and also the inward work. And then this conversation marries those two things really effortlessly. So very excited to to chat with you today. Before we get started, for those of you, those of our audience that aren't familiar with you, can you just introduce yourself kind of what your work looks like. And then also just interested what feels really urgent to you right now in your work?


Cas Holman  03:46

Yeah. My name is Cas Holman and I am a designer and a play advocate. I think increasingly a lot of the the, the conversations I'm having are more about play advocacy than about design, about my work and my advocacy manifests in designed objects or spaces or systems and sometimes curriculum even that relate to and facilitate play for children. I think what's urgent right now, for me is opportunities for children to collaborate and cooperate and, and communicate. I think we're urgent in that we're we're, we have a generation of students who have children who had two years where they have been isolated, socially, so and it's just like it's so it's really tricky to imagine. Like the work of undoing, being afraid to approach strangers. I mean, I know we have came up in the 70s name He said there was a stranger danger. But this is much different when everybody is dangerous. That's, that's so cool. Yeah. So, so a lot of the I mean, I've always worked, my work is about collaboration, and community. But I think in particular, now, it's even more important and more relevant. So that's what that's what's feeling urgent kind of how to how to help the generation of, of children of various ages, right. So it had impact on I have, I have children in my life who are three years old. So you know, they haven't experienced community and, and public space, in the way that we most of us had. And I have children in my life who are, you know, sixes. So they had a little, and then it was taken away, and now they're giving it back? Kind of, yeah. And I have children in my life who are, you know, in the teens, and they're just, it's tricky for everybody. And then, of course, the adults. But I'm like, there's other people working for us to focus on my specialty, where I kind of relate and understand the most, which is children.


Alex Farrell  06:12

Yeah, our boss, Heather, once kind of told us in a video interview that we were doing with her that, for the first time in a very, very long time, our children are infants and toddlers are being born into a state of stress in a different kind of way. And that's really tragic, of course, but we're all experiencing that and in some way, but the stakes feel a little higher for these age groups that have known nothing other than this. So really love this idea of facilitating community and collaboration as almost a healing as a remedy. Yeah, to some degree. Oh, yeah.


Cas Holman  06:48

I mean, well, and even before the pandemic, it was a preventative measure. Right. Like, I think that when we understand, when we get when we can play together, we can live together. And I believe that on every level, that so many of the things like who we become happens through play. Yeah. And that can still happen when you play alone. Of course, like, you know, I played alone a lot as a kid, and it has everything to do with that said, that everything I designed is for playing with with many, so maybe that's a little bit telling. But it's, it's, it's, I think it's not only healing, for what was broken by that they, you know, that they, they couldn't be together. And also, like you said, like being just the stress and, and tremendous pressure and fear that that collectively we were living under, but also just the the skills that that they and the relationship to other people that relationship to to each other that we have based on that is, is going to take some time to unlearn and hopefully relearn. Yeah, remember how to interact,


Alex Farrell  08:04

and also take some time for those effects to manifest. Right. Yeah. Oh, for sure. And so I think there's, we're gonna have a years, decades potentially, before we see the some of these things and these really formative birth to five years, really manifest to see, okay, how does this influence the individual later on in life? 


Wesley Mayes  08:23

Yeah, I think it's a great reminder in engaging in the work of facilitating collaborative play, for kids. It's a great reminder for us as adults, that that's something we need to engage. And I know for me a big part of my way to engage with other people and communities through music. So I got to go to a lot of live shows. And going back after the pandemic, I mean, I know it still exists, but but really starting to go back when shows started to be a thing again, was really stressful for me and I and that was a relearning process. I think in engaging with this work with kids, you know, that can help rebuild some of that for us as adults as well, hopefully.


Alex Farrell  09:11

So, I'm just curious, it's your approach to your approach to your design work and knowing some of the products and the toys that you have developed is is really unique. And that has to come from come from somewhere so I'm just curious, like, what about you what your kind of your personal history a little bit what do you feel like were the contributing factors to your approach to how you designed toys in the in the concept of just free play in general?


Cas Holman  09:44

Yeah. Um, yeah, I I had very rich play as a child. I, I mean, I think a number of things kind of related or relate to why I where my approach comes from, I think, you know, a big part of But it's like I did, I played a lot, I had a lot of time and space to myself. And some of that, you know, I had neighbor friends around my dog that I, we lived in the woods, so I was just out all the time. Yeah, my mom had a few jobs. And so I was by myself a lot. And, and, and, you know, I didn't I don't think I noticed that as a as a absence, I noticed it as. So, um, so yeah, every afternoon after school, I just was on my own and took full advantage of that. And was out on my bike and was wondering if it was raining and rearrange the living room to reenact music videos with my sister. We had Sound of Music record, like three records. And we wore them to I'm sure that they're, they barely even have groups. We just danced and reenacted and made up new routines. So and the TV was broken for a lot of the time. So that probably helped with a lot of the jealous, I didn't have that like kind of entertainment junk food option, I had to entertain myself interesting. And if the TV hadn't been broken, then maybe I wouldn't have right maybe I wouldn't have had the quick, easy, like, think of it as junk food. Because I also if there's junk food around, I will eat the junk food before I'll like slice the carrots and open the hummus or grab whatever is shiny and in the bowl, you know. So, um, so I think that because what was available to me was, was all open ended. And we did have some toys around and but for the most part, I think I was engaging with my environment more than more than anything else. And and so as I kind of came up, I was a unique, I was I've experienced things as being different from my peers, Linkin Park, because I was an artist and was always like drawn to be making things I had a lot of energy. So I did have kind of a voracity for play that, that not all my friends could keep up with. There were there were definitely times when they were done for the day. And I was definitely I was not. And, and then I think the older I got, the more I realized, like, okay, like I am, like I am having, having a different experience of a lot of the, the a lot of our lives and a lot of our shared experience I am experiencing differently than my than my peers. In part because of being queer, and in part because of being kind of gender queer, like I was the big in this came up in abstract. Yeah, that, that, you know, when the time came that girls were meant to be doing girl things. I didn't have interest in those. So I, I kind of had, I felt different from my friends, because they didn't want to play the way that they were playing. Yeah. And, and so, yeah, I, I think that that allows for a kind of a perspective, that, that even as a kid, I was able to kind of see and choose when I might kind of play at being the kind of kid that would want to play with Barbies, right? So I could choose like, I don't really want to play with that. But if I want to play with somebody, then I'm going to have to play with that. So what if I pretend to be the person who would want to do that, like, can I pretend to be heard? So it's already having this kind of like, folding in on myself to to perform a certain type of play? That maybe wasn't intuitive to me, right? Yeah. And then I think early on, I learned how to perform at school. So I was like, Oh, I see this students who seem to be good at this. And I do not understand why we're meant to be doing what we're supposed to be doing, like sitting here for six hours or, you know, making marks on paper. But I learned how to how to perform it. So i i At school, I feel like I learned how to be good at school. And that was really useful. Yeah, so So I think something in there. Like because I early on recognized a lot of what is socialized as socialization. I I was free to choose what rules to follow and not because I knew I could perform the ones that I thought were Maloney which was Many of them. So, in coming into adulthood, I, I'm I've been able to recognize like, what isn't isn't necessary and take on what's useful, and, and perform when necessary, what's not, but not actually internalize it as part of my identity. Yeah. Right. So that's left me the freedom to not like repress how to play and how to feel free when you know, when you're rolling down a hill, and how to not pay attention to what everybody else is thinking when you want to go and jump off of a rock that your bathing suits not right.


Alex Farrell  15:43

Right. What a what a gift.


Cas Holman  15:48

I mean, I we can frame it as that it's that's not always easy. Like I also sure yeah, of course. It's hard coming. But yeah.


Alex Farrell  15:56

Really no question, no question. But a gift in the sense of being at a young age and recognizing that the things that you were seeing around you, even with your friends of girls and quote, doing girl playing with girl Barbies, and boys, you know that having that kind of segregation of boys play a particular way girls play a particular way, having a recognized recognition at a young age that that that might come from something that you don't have to prescribe to.


Cas Holman  16:23

Yeah, it's also I mean, I remember actually having arguments with with one of my one of my friends who lived up the street from me, growing up, so we were friends for 10 years. But I remember the moment that it that I said to her, I was like, Oh, wait, but do you really want to play this? Or you just think we're supposed to be playing? Wow, she was like, What are you talking about? Like, let's just play Barbies. And I was like, What are we? Because we want to or because we're like, I tried to get I was like, but you realize, yeah, are we choosing this? Or are we choosing to follow the rule of that we're split. And she was just like, What are you like not? She was not showing up for that meta conversation. Right? Yeah.


Wesley Mayes  17:05

That's really interesting. I mean, just hearing you talk about this, I grew up. Similarly, in the woods, I was homeschooled for for a brief period, really, my formative years. And I remember doing a similar thing with sports. That's an interesting, interesting and a little eye opening to hear that coming from you. Because it was definitely something that I kind of got good at performing. was, that was the whole sports thing, when I really wanted to be running around with sticks, you know, yeah. And sort of doing my own thing?


Cas Holman  17:40

Well, especially I think, because I'm, like, the adults in our lives. Like, we, as adults, we understand support as like encouraging, right. And so when we, when we see a child doing something that we recognize as successful or productive are like, good, oh, you're fast, that's great, you're fast. And then you're like, Okay, it's good, that I'm fast. Maybe I'm supposed to keep being fast. But like, nobody's gonna say like, Oh, you're so good at with rolling that stick and running down the hill. Like that. That's what I love. You're so good at singing in the bath, right? So I think that we really, really unconsciously kind of channel children and channeling each other in ourselves into these known ways of being right, these known categories of athlete or artist or, you know, intellectual, because we recognize it. And we know that in its categories, which are safe, and that's how we come to understand the world. But it's also like it kind of, there's so much in between that, that we we kind of like we cut off when we do that, you know, we kind of slice off the edges. And the edges are often where like, that's the good stuff is or that's where like the maybe the joy is found. It's just harder to understand or categorize.


Alex Farrell  19:06

Yeah, well, and I think to some degree, the margins are the unknown territory to some degrees. Well, it's where the growth is where the horizon is of like where you are right now. And what you can see right in front of you is the comfortable place, but the things that are on the margins are like that. Yeah, like I said, the unexplored territory. And that's, and that's where the development really happens. It's interesting, like hearing you, you kind of tell a little bit about your influences in your development over time. A conversation that we've had on this podcast that I referenced a million times is with Dr. Judy skein. She's a professor of mine in college, where she says we're we're as children as we transition from children, childhood into adulthood. Society has this way of telling us that there are certain parts of ourselves that we should tuck away that are unacceptable. And so for her She's been striving after in her adulthood and her spiritual life was this process of rediscovering herself of becoming whole. And for her whole human wholeness was this process of narrowing the gap between how who she was presenting to her to the world and what she felt at a deeper level inside, right. And making sure that that was as close to one to one as possible. Right, yeah. And so thinking back on what you were saying, I think it's really interesting that you kind of had art because you had these, this experience as a child, and then being an artistic person. I, you know, dabbling with art in various forms throughout my life as well. Art is one of those things that is innately promotes curiosity and exploration. And so I wonder for you, if that's if that was part of what helped kind of bridge that gap into adulthood. Given that what Dr. Skeen said, often, by the time we reach adulthood, many people have that curiosity stamped out of them.


Cas Holman  21:02

I think I would almost just flip it, I think that that all of us are curious. And I think that that, like creativity, and then like kind of framing, rather than then I think the word art is tricky to define. And often, for people who are, you know, practitioners of art, like, that means like a drawing in lead, or like a painting on the wall, and it has to be representational, right? So I kind of shifted to, like creativity, right, and being a RISD professor for 12 years, 10 years now, and recently resigned, I've just focusing on my practice, but the, I feel like our students and kind of the community that like being that immersed in a community of artists who are working, you know, for, for, like, art specifically, but I think in the broader sense, creativity, like the underlying foundation of artistic creativity, which is also curiosity, like all of the tenants of, of creativity, and art are, are, I think, in Clisson in childhood, like they're, they're all there. And we slowly learn and I think that the quote from Dr. Sheen, did you say?


Alex Farrell  22:29

Skeen. S-K-E-E-N.


Cas Holman  22:33

Is is beautiful and very true. And so like reintegrating who we are into our daily lives, and for some people, I mean, I think of the Saturn Return, really, if you write that if you've if, when you're around 28, and Saturn comes back into the house, where it was when you were born. Like if you have been ignoring your true life calling, like, you're gonna, it's gonna be a rough time, right? Because you're gonna, it's gonna, everything will be in crisis, but, but if you've been on track, like, you're kind of okay, you know, so if you've kind of been doing the work while you go, the work of integrating who you are into your daily life isn't so tricky. Because you're not so far off, like you haven't been performing. You know, like, if I become a stockbroker, and I was like, performing serious person who cared about money, I'd be in big trouble when my Saturn Return came around. But I think I knew early on, like, wow, that's definitely not my magic, I can't even convince myself I care about any of those things. Like I do not share those values, that's not going to be my thing. So I think that there's, um, there's, there's something to be said for, if there's room for you as a child, and as you're as you're coming up, and, and probably there's something really critical that happens around your, your teenage years, where you have to kind of start either actively ignoring all of the clues about that we're getting from the people around us about who we're supposed to be. Right, or like, what we're what we're meant to do if there's pressure to become one thing or another, like not, I think for for creative people, and I know for me personally. It it was it was really hard to maintain and bring who I was up with me. Because my, my family and my, my, the world they came up and like there, we just didn't know that you could be a creative person and support herself. Great. Like we sat like, oh, and it was you know, me being creative. It was like, Oh, you're creative. And also you're kind of weird, like, but you're smart. So you can like, like you said, like you can kind of tuck that into your pocket and and perform successful person enough to like pay your bills.


Wesley Mayes  24:49

It kind of feels like you were talking about your constant. as you got older, picking these things that were useful, right and then performing those things. and it feels like, it feels like when you talk about the successful person and saying, Okay, here's the thing that's going to help me pay the bills, it's sort of tapping into back into that categorical world, right a little bit, while still maintaining the ability to see who you are, to a certain extent having to having to make that conscious decision.


Cas Holman  25:25

It's also, and this has got it, this is all of the, I know, a lot of teachers, one of the things that, that I'm inspired by with teachers is how often and I know, this isn't always easy, but how often they're able to integrate who they are into the way that they teach, they can do that in a way that, that their students are able to, to both understand that they're human. But also understand that that's one way of many that they could be and that they can function and that you don't have to put who you are, you know, into your locker when you come to class. Right, hopefully, and, and I think even in, in my own experience, as it was a professor, but also, you know, it's often a lot of that looks similar to teaching, we just have 19, through 35 year olds instead of younger. Um, but it was, it was liberating and also scary to say to my students, I don't know. Always followed by, let's figure it out. Right? Or I don't know, how can I help you figure it out? How might you figure it out? Right. And I, I got to the point where I would even do that. Sometimes when I didn't know the answer. I just knew it would be really valuable for that particular student to have the experience of figuring it out. Right? Or finding the answer, because, like, who cares about the answer, it's the act of finding it, that's actually what you're there to do. So. So I think that that's something that is scary for teachers. And so with, with regelmatig, one of the things that I designed that is used in classrooms, and it's used in curriculum, we have one of the kind of curricula based add on kits that you can use is simple machines, kit. And it's gears, and it's all kinds of ways to for children to explore and experiment. And it's funny because I designed it with an engineer, an ex student of mine who's very engineer brain. And, and, and so, you know, he and I understood the system. And and as we kind of rolled it out and started play testing it with teachers, we were we made sure to work with teachers who were not science teachers, because we wanted to see, and it was a huge, something that I think about all the time is is like, okay, that we know that the teacher doesn't have to understand gears. But how stressful is it going to be for them? To use this? If they don't, you know, or or not? Has it? Well, I do think of it as how stressful but we also think like, will it be easy for them to say? I don't know, let's figure it out. Right? Can we and how can we empower them to say that, and then know that it could be that at the end of that 40 minute lesson, you know, where they're playing where the classroom and the children are playing and trying to make this system of yours? make something happen? If it doesn't work? Is that going to be okay? Are they going to want to bring it out again? Will the will the teacher be afraid of years afterward? Will the students think years are impossible and complicated? You know? And is their room? And how can we help them? The them also, like use it for literacy? Like Like now let's tell the story of a broken machine. Right, like so. So there's like there are these moments where we, and then as a designer, I'm like, Well, how do I design for that? Like that's, is that something that's gonna happen in the actual three dimensional piece? Or is that something that's going to happen in support materials? Or like how, how do I like, kind of like, because that's, it's an important part of the design, right, especially with things that are open ended. If if the all of the pieces can be open ended, but if there's not a kind of either an understanding or some sort of support material that helps frame it as such, for the facilitators who are often the teachers. It's not, that's not a good experience for the teacher to have. That's just stressful.


Wesley Mayes  29:52

Yeah, right. It's really interesting that that you talk about that in this way, because my first thought was whenever you were talking about the teachers experience, I was like, Okay, well, then you put something in the, in the materials, right, that would say, Okay, well use this as a learning method. But I think it's interesting that, you know, when you were talking about children earlier on, you were saying, you know, this idea of play is very innate. And us as adults, we have this value judgment placed on things that need to have a purpose, right? Oh, yeah. You know, and so and so that thing, it needs to have a purpose, or we need to frame the purpose and something that comes along with it. Right. And I think that's, I mean, it's a great lesson in this idea of free play, not just for kids, but for adults, because it's starting to bring us back to that place of, maybe it doesn't need to have a purpose. Maybe the purpose is just us doing the thing, right?


Cas Holman  30:54

Well, yeah, it's I catch myself, I constantly like, well, even just now, when you said it, I was like, No, well, the purpose is that you feel better. So I spent a lot of time trying to walk back, we use the term playful learning, because play is learning. And I'm also constantly trying to, like say, we don't need to justify play, you know, let your children play, because it's, it's physiologically critical, not because they'll get into Harvard, but it will help them get into Harvard, you know, I'm just like, doesn't matter. Right, right. So it's, um, you know, it's it's, I guess that's the dialectic is that it is it is. But well, I think that I think also in, in both of our statements, well, the function is, you know, that you feel better as function as you you connect with your your peers in a way that you wouldn't if you weren't playing. So I think we're also assuming that those are outcomes that are valued. Right, because we value those. So we're like, well, that is a function. Does it does that a purpose? But I think most people would be like, that's not a purpose. That doesn't matter. Right. And especially, maybe not most, but yeah.


Wesley Mayes  32:09

Especially when you're designing curriculum. This is like kind of the way that you have to think to get it into the curriculum. You know, so yeah, and again, it's that process of, of, you know, sort of having to perform a little bit.


Alex Farrell  32:23

Thank you for tuning into the podcast today. Tune into our next episode as we continue our conversation with Castleman on freeplay. This podcast is funded through a grant with the Tennessee Department of Human Services and signal centers. Signal centers is a nonprofit in Chattanooga, Tennessee, whose mission is to strengthen children, adults and families through services focusing on disabilities, early childhood education and self sufficiency.


Wesley Mayes  32:48

If you'd like to leave a review a comment or have a suggestion for a future episode. Please do so on our Instagram account at lean into you pod. That's one word at lean into you pod. Follow us on Instagram for weekly self care tips clips from our episodes and graphic takeaways from many of the talking points from our conversations. Thanks again for listening to the lean into podcast and we hope you have a fantastic week.