What could be more fun than playing with your food? How about playing to make your food? The ball-shaped Play & Freeze Ice Cream Maker recently acquired by the National Museum of Play at The Strong promotes itself as the entertaining way to produce homemade ice cream wherever you are—in a campground, aboard a boat, or on a picnic. However, if you're visualizing using the Play & Freeze as the ball in a soccer or volleyball game that concludes with a frozen treat, you can think again. A closer reading of the instructions reveals the firm warning "DO NOT KICK OR THROW" because of the potential for damage to the hard plastic ball. However, you can "shake, pass, or roll" the ball, as one retailer suggests and, in a mere 20 minutes, you'll have a pint of delicious ice cream. So is it really fun? And how’s the ice cream? I decided this was a project for the inquiring researchers of The Strong’s Collections Team. In our quest to understand play in all its dimensions, we’ve baked with the Easy-Bake Oven and consumed the results; raced Hot Wheels Sizzlers toy cars to a photo-finish; and pooled our personal funds to play game after game of skeeball in the hopes of earning enough points for something more substantial than a souvenir pencil. So one summer afternoon, I gathered my colleagues for an ice cream challenge between the Play & Freeze Ice Cream Maker and a crank Donvier ice cream maker that I brought from home.
The night before our comparison test, I followed the recipes provided by each freezer’s instruction booklet. For the Play & Freeze, I opted for Basic Vanilla with a mere three ingredients: heavy cream, vanilla, and sugar. For the Donvier, I went with a French Vanilla recipe that required cooking a custard and then chilling the mix overnight. The Donvier doesn’t require ice or salt, but its metal liner also needed freezing overnight. Then it was time for the test. Just filling the Play & Freeze proved more trouble than I envisioned. We couldn’t fit even modest-sized ice cubes into the compartment surrounding the ice cream container. The constricted opening required one of my colleagues to selectively insert only the smallest cubes while I resorted to a plastic bag and a wrench (the first sufficiently heavy tool I could find) to pulverize the larger cubes. With the ice cavity full to overflowing, I then added the required rock salt. Let the shaking, passing, and rolling begin! I’m sure it would seem different outdoors at a campsite, but in my office the clacking ice against the hard plastic ball of the Play & Freeze was just plain LOUD. The instructions helpfully suggest, “This is a great time for kids to sing songs, tell jokes, or come up with some fun games,” but they’d have to do it at considerable volume to be heard above the racket. Meanwhile, the Donvier’s paddle rotated quietly every couple minutes when one of us turned it. We tried multiple tactics to make agitating the Play & Freeze fun but, frankly, it seemed a lot like work—especially to produce a single pint of ice cream. So how did the ice cream turn out? At first it looked as if the Play & Freeze had only produced a chilled milkshake-type liquid, but a little more excavation with a wooden spoon brought actual ice cream out of its freezer container. The ice cream had a pronounced and pleasant vanilla flavor that won thumbs-up ratings from several tasters. One said it sent her back to her childhood and eating vanilla ice cream out of paper cups. I preferred the smoother, richer French vanilla from the Donvier ice cream maker. But we rapidly concluded that, whatever the production process required, eating vanilla ice cream on a summer afternoon was definitely fun. And we’re ready for our next play research project—no matter how arduous it proves to be.