COLUMBIA —In 2001, when her first son was born, Chris Willow resolved to avoid plastic toys and games. She wanted to surround her children with something warmer and more wholesome.
So when she couldn't find what she wanted in mainstream toy stores, she took it upon herself to make them. That decision led to mamaroots, an online shop through Etsy.com that sells handcrafted wooden toys, stationery and birthday candle holders.
Small wooden toys shaped like animals and mythical creatures make up the bulk of her wares. Some are characters from children's books, while others spring from her own imagination and those of her two boys.
Willow, a book buyer for The Mizzou Store, began selling her creations to local mothers in 2003 and moved to the artisan website five years later.
Mamaroots originally featured sock monkeys and flannel teething dolls before Willow moved on to wooden toys in 2006. She estimates she's sold between 3,000 and 5,000 items in the last 10 years.
"Etsy is a really great way for me to connect with my customers and other mothers," she said.
Back to the basics
Willow's success fits a growing trend among parents looking to find children's toys made from natural products and to promote imaginative play.
Catherine Cooper, MU's lead instructor for preschool child development, said a renewed focus on healthy living, combined with education and environmental awareness, helped the shift gain momentum.
Cooper said a wooden block can be anything a child can fancy, while a plastic cell phone can only be one thing.
"I know children's imagination and what they are capable of," she said. "And when you hamper that by giving them a toy with one use, you are saying you don't trust their abilities as much."
Willow makes her toys using raw wood and nontoxic water colors. She transformed parts of her basement into a workplace to make and package the orders she receives from around the world.
Often, she makes toys that reflect seasons and holidays. She said a big seller for February was a wooden groundhog popping out of a felt hillside looking for its shadow.
During the Sochi Winter Olympics, Willow created Russian bears.
She also carves rabbits, baby chicks, love bugs, Yetis and leprechauns.
Half of the space in Willow's basement is used to make toys; the other half serves as a play area for her boys, Jasper, 12, and Silas, 8.
She keeps her scroll saw, wood and other scraps in a closed-off room; the wood burner, paint and sealants are in another section. Many of her tools are kept in brightly-painted Mason jars and stored in simple wooden furniture.
Willow starts the process by penciling shapes onto a piece of wood. She typically chooses poplar but also likes to work with walnut. She uses a scroll saw to cut the shape she's drawn, then sands the piece to make it smooth. Using a wood-burning tool, she fashions the eyes and other features as needed.
She finishes her pieces with watercolors, sands them again and seals the toys with a homemade beeswax and jojoba oil mix. The process takes about an hour for each toy.
Willow said it is important that her sons know how things are made and what happens to them when they are thrown away. They are included in the process of crafting the characters, either from books they have read or their own imagination.
Mamaroots also prides itself on making natural toys that can decompose back into the earth, Willow said.
Promoting healthy play
Her business is a brand that pays attention to the physical health of children, Willow said, as well as the mental and emotional growth that hand-crafted toys promote. As an English major when she was a student at MU, she said she loves the aspect of storytelling that comes with her toys.
"Plastic toys tend to already have expressions on their faces," Willow said. "But kids aren't always happy or surprised. My toys don't have expressions, so kids can make up whatever emotions they want."
She said she wants her toys to inspire stories and stir the imagination rather than serving as a tool for a controlled activity.
Although children will outgrow her toys, the stories they create may be lasting. That is the real benefit Willow hopes families will get out of her products.
Alysia Beaudoin is a frequent customer of mamaroots who has purchased at least 20 toys from Willow for her own 6-year-old sons. Her favorites are wooden tags that say "spend," "save" and "give" that teach children how to manage their money.
Overall, Beaudoin said she admires the simplicity the toys offer and their ability to encourage rich experiences. She also said she appreciates the hard work and passion Willow puts into each piece.
"When I buy from her I am buying from someone who loves what they do," Beaudoin said.
Because she works full time and is a mother of two, Willow doesn't want her toy business to grow too fast.
She has already cut back on the amount of merchandise she puts on her Etsy site, but hopes she can participate in local craft markets and trunk shows. She wants to keep the business close to home.
"I don't want to burn out," Willow said. "I want to feel like I have control and like my heart is always in it."
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