Dog pull-toy crafted

Dog pull-toy crafted by Bruce Kuhnau, of Aberdeen, Washington, and painted by his daughter Monika.

KODIAK — Bruce, a friend of mine from Aberdeen, Washington, sent me photos of toys, wooden toys, that he and his Woodworking Guild make each year. It warmed my heart and troubled me at the same time.

I thought about a Sunday morning, years ago, while visiting my Dad. We were sipping coffee and reading the Sunday paper together. A large display ad caught my eye: “On Sale: Baby’s First Computer! Cell Phones for Kids!”

The idea of exposing kids to computers at a young age didn’t feel right. My mom wouldn’t have had anything to do with it. When we came home from grade school, the five of us were greeted with a dining room table covered with everything we needed to create art: Tempura paints, scissors, finger paints, crayons and glue to paste curly noodles on construction paper.

“Television homogenizes the brain and dulls your creativity,” Mom told me years later.

Fast forward to this summer. One of our bed and breakfast guests was a child development specialist. 

“Studies are now saying that you should not show devices and screens to children under the age of two,” our guest said.

“And why is that?” I asked.

“At that age, a child’s brain is still malleable, deciphering and learning about their environment with all their senses, like texture, contrast, shadows, depth, sense of touch. Computer screens only slow development.”

I don’t have children, but I know that my childhood was very different from what what kids have today. The biggest change? Technology.

On November 13, the Washington Post published an article, “Worry about what screens are doing to your young child’s brain? Here’s help.”

The article states: “…the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that for children younger than 18 months, parents avoid the use of screen media other than to video chat.”

I learned about a nonprofit called Defending the Early Years, which commissions research about early-childhood education and advocates sane policies for young children. The commission published a report listing six core ideas about child development. 

Number two: “Young children learn from direct, firsthand experience in the real world.”

I scrolled down to idea number five: “Young children learn inner resilience and coping skills through play.”

And that’s where the wooden toys come in.

“The Grays Harbor Fine Woodworking Guild has been making toys like this for the past few years,” friend Bruce said. “We make them to be give them out to children that might not get any personalized Christmas gifts.

“The Guild has gathered together at the local community college to make trucks and various pull-toys. I think that year we made over a hundred toys. We’ve also purchased wheels and given them out to members so they can make them at their own shop.

“It has been a fun and rewarding thing to know that children will have a handmade toy and that someday they might remember the toy and do the same for other children.”

Just as making toys brings joy to children, as well as to Bruce and his friends, as making something with your hands can also be healthy for the craftsman. Life-saving, in fact.

Doctors told Dennis Nixon of Olalla, Washington, that he had, at best, a few months to live. Today, Dennis not only makes wooden toys and cutting boards, he owes his life to wood. I met Dennis a few years ago, by chance in an elevator. We got to talking.

“I’ve had two massive stokes, from birth defects, and two open brain surgeries and laser surgeries,” he explained. “Prognosis was very poor and I had an almost zero chance of ever coming back and recovering. It’s been a long journey but now I run computers and a business and I’m having a great time. It’s really fantastic.”

You wouldn’t know by looking at him that he nearly died, several times. With a twinkle in his eyes, Dennis could have passed for one of Santa’s elves. He certainly creates toys that Santa would appreciate having on his sleigh.

Trying to imagine all he’d been through, I asked, “What keeps you alive?”

“The joy on a child’s face and the joy on people’s faces that look at something different, that’s all natural, that’s good, that’s not made out of plastic or made out of oil; that’s very healthy for the environment. If I could give them away, I would,” he said.

For Dennis, simply working with wood provides a life-support system.

“We go to great lengths to incorporate physical movement into each of our toys. We want them to engage the child and maintain his or her attention in a healthy way,” Dennis said.

“Wood is such a wonderful product. And even though the wood’s been cut down and harvested, we still feel that something is released when we work with wood. I see it in all my employees and in everyone that comes and works.”

Working with wood continues to be a life-saver for Dennis. 

“It drops my blood pressure by 20 points when I go from the office to the shop and start touching wood, moving wood and manipulating wood. I think that’s what brought me back from being an invalid to what I am today,” he said.

Since the strokes and surgeries, Dennis is a changed man. 

“I’m the kind of person now that stops and smells the roses, I just don’t say it, I really do stop and smell flowers. And when you see a piece of grass growing in a crack, it’s all living, life is wonderful,” he said.

Marion Owen’s 2019 calendars are available at Monk’s Rock, Kodiak Marine Supply, Big Ray’s and other retailers. For more gardening, photography and cooking tips, plus tasty-healthy recipes, join Marion’s newsletter. To sign up, visit Marion’s blog at marionowenalaska.com.

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