Play Stuff Blog

The Strong’s historians, curators, librarians, and other staff offer insights into and anecdotes about the critical role of play in human development and the ways in which toys, dolls, games, and video games reflect cultural history. Learn even more about the museum’s archival materials, books, catalogs, and other ephemera through its Tumblr page.

Bob Ross and Happy Paintings

All Ross assorted Landscape Paints It is rare that I have a chance to sit and enjoy Bob Ross in the middle of the day on the local public television network. When it is possible to catch an entire episode, it is fascinating to see how quickly Bob Ross adds layers to create a landscape painting of mountains, forest, or a coastline with a lighthouse. His style is distinctly different from other contemporary popular landscape painters like Thomas Kinkade. Bob Ross captivates people as he quickly moves paint and brush across the canvas and television screen. His narrative moves much more slowly than the action of painting. Nature painting is no longer just painting. It is meditation. The Bob Ross voice is constant, calm, and radiates positivity. Happy little trees and happy clouds are added to the scene every time. The calm nature of Bob Ross’s voice and unwavering positivity is what I used to soothe my baby to sleep at naptime so that I could catch a few minutes of my own crafty creative time as a new mother.

I am sure some adults find the soothing nature of Bob Ross’s television tutorials encouragement enough to attempt to paint landscapes. They probably believe that if they buy all the tools, palette, brushes, and paints that it would be possible to follow along with the show. As I watch the show, I believe it would be impossible to watch Bob Ross paint on the television show and paint alongside it on a canvas in real time. You would need to “press pause” to let you catch up to how quickly his landscape painting progress on the show. Perhaps that is why the Bob Ross classes were started. They let fans of the show who wanted to really paint landscapes learn how to do so. At one point, when I saw a job posting for a Certified Ross Instructor of painting, I thought it sounded like a great job. “Anyone can enter the program, you only need the desire to paint.”

Drawing by Sophia, age 5 Before Bob Ross had a television program, kids might have enjoyed “Show ‘N Tell” PictureSound programs produced by General Electric. In the cover illustration for the title Let’s Paint Pictures, two children are using the phono-viewer machine to listen to a vinyl 33 1/3 phonograph record and watch a film strip on a screen that appears to be showing a toothbrush dripping with paint. If kids hadn’t previously thought of toothbrushes as painting tools, this cover suggests it is normal practice for art making. This early phono-viewer art lesson seems like a very easy way to entertain and think about possible art projects before art lesson television shows existed.

As someone who grew up painting and drawing in the eighties, I remember books like Drawing with Children by Mona Brookes, a guide for parents to provide a nurturing environment for a child’s creative exploration. The Monart method in Drawing with Children has a few step-by-step guides to drawing specific things, but also describes how to take a mistake and turn it into something else in the picture. This aligns with Bob Ross’s saying, “We don’t make mistakes; we have happy accidents.” All sorts of fantastic and beautiful things “just sorta happen” when Bob Ross paints, and he encourages people to just let them happen.

Paint-by-numbers sets and coloring books are less forgiving. The tools in a paint-by-numbers are real paints and brushes, canvases, and strict instructions with numbers. Coloring books give images that require coloring with a crayon and keeping inside the lines. This goes against everything Betty Edwards would explain in her 1979 book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. The book acknowledges modern brain science that shows that the left side of the brain thinks serially and reduces thoughts to numbers and words and rational thoughts. The right side thinks in patterns, pictures, and holistically. This idea is from the neuropsychologist Dr. Roger W. Sperry who worked on right- and left-brain thinking in the 1970s. When Betty Edwards applied the research to art, it seemed to make sense to draw with the right brain, let the part of the brain that handles patterns construct a holistic picture of something. It is hard for some people to block out the left brain that comes in and says something is the wrong proportion or doesn’t look like what you are trying to draw. It discourages most adults who want to paint or draw, seeing that the result isn’t pleasing to the left brain’s critical thinking. When kids draw stick figures and sunshine and houses, they aren’t thinking about what humans or buildings really look like. They are letting their right brain and their hands make a pattern and representation to the best of their abilities.

Bob Ross Chia Pet. If you have ever played a game where you have to draw something and people guess at what you mean, you will find that right brain and left brain are at odds – a hasty pattern and scribble of a symbol needs to be good enough for all the left-brain guessers in the audience to know what to call it with the verbal, rational part of their brain. They also need to know enough patterns and symbols to have the right brain interpret the whole picture. Whichever side of the brain you use, drawing with kids and adults is a fun way to play. Bob Ross reminds people that painting should be fun, and perhaps that is why so many fans look to collect bobblehead figures, toys, and even Chia Pets that look like Bob Ross. A little icon of Bob Ross on your desk might help remind you that there are happy accidents, happy little trees, and happy little clouds.

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For curators at the museum, some days feel just like Christmas.One day—out of the blue, appropriately—I received a phone call about a local collector with an extensive collection of toy airplanes and related playthings.

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Just how popular are comic book superheroes today?

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Excitement was building at the start of November as we prepared to induct three new toys-the baby doll, the skateboard, and the stick-into the National Toy Hall of Fame. I'd studied up on the toys' histories, gathered my anecdotes, and felt prepared to explain to anyone who asked the all compelling reasons why they should join the 38 classic toys already in the Hall.

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Old Play=New Play?

Ever since they started appearing in kids’ lives in the 1970s, video games have caused controversy. Many grownups fret that video games keep kids glued to the screen instead of setting up a board game, heading outside to play ball, or engaging in other forms of more traditional play (click here for a great demonstration of this view).It’s true that children are spending more time playing video games.

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Calling all Barbie Play Sets!

Feeling nostalgic for your old Barbie dolls?

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The Perfect Holiday Gift

Growing up in the late '70s and early '80s, "visions of sugarplums" never danced in my head and my dream of the perfect holiday gift never included a Red Ryder BB gun. What I really wanted to find under the tree was the latest video game.

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Playing with Politics

Now that Election Day has come and gone, it's time to think about the fun side of politics. Yes, there is a fun side to politics, at least when you look at the dozens of politically-themed games in the collection here at Strong National Museum of Play. Throughout American history, games of all sorts have often reflected current politics and events on the national scene.

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