BigToys began as Northwest Design Products started by Chuck Kirby and Al MacPherson in 1962. They weren't sure what they were going to produce, but they knew it would be in the Pacific Northwest. Based out of Tacoma, Washington, they started by designing and manufacturing wooden prefabricated dog houses that were a sure sell. However, it wasn't enough to financially support them.
Chuck bought out Al and continued to look for a product on which to base his company. He designed “Construct-A-Play,” an interlocking set of large wooden playing cards for constructing stages, play stores, houses, etc. These caught the attention of the nursery schools and early childhood educators. By listening to the teachers and the children, Chuck designed and manufactured about thirty indoor, wooden play toys that were featured in his first catalog. He was a one-man show, who designed and built displays, taught workshops, took orders, and then built and shipped the final products.
Besides being costly timewise, a marketing analysis showed that the cost of shipping in hardwood to make the play equipment would make it doubtful that a large company based on Chuck's designs could survive. At this point, in 1967, Chuck was joined by Barney Munger, who had previously designed for Kenner Toys.
During an early childhood education class that Chuck was taking at the local community college, he was impressed by some playgrounds made out of old telephone poles in California. These poles were grouped and linked with ropes, cables, and spools to create a radical departure from the typical swings and teeter-totters that were the standard at that time.
After talking with Barney, they set to designing a similar playground for Barney's local elementary school. They found a local source of cedar peeler cores, a waste material from the plywood milling industry, which they could get for twenty-five cents apiece. With these they began creating custom playgrounds. To streamline the process and reduce waste, they created a flexible modular system utilizing spaced drilled holes for attaching and connecting components.
Soon Chuck and Barney had more orders than they could fill by their hands-on manufacturing process. They created machines to do the drilling, hired more people, designed hardware for assembling their designs, and created catalogs.
The year 1970 brought even more changes. Barney left the fledgling business, and Bill Cobler joined Chuck as General Manager of what was now called BigToys. Appropriately, children named the company. When some children were playing on one of the log playgrounds, they were asked, “What is that thing?” They replied, “That's a big toy!” and the name was adopted.1
Over the next 5 years, BigToys made over 1000 playgrounds, which were sold both nationally and internationally. Their designs became more fixed though they still emphasized custom designs. During this time they also launched “Growing BigToys,” which were designs that could evolve and “grow” over time through a flexible use of the components.
In 1976, BigToys collaborated with Jay Beckwith, who used their log systems for his designs. These “Schoolyard BigToys” were designed for children aged 6-12 years old and introduced the modular system of large decks and connected, continuous play components common today, but uncommon then. Since they were largely for schools, these playgrounds came with “Hang-ups,” a physical education curriculum for using the BigToys, one of the first that included a curriculum guide.
By 1982, their supply of peeler cores dwindled, which forced them to switch to pressure treated lodge pole pine. They also started including the new roto-molded plastic components. Adding to their Schoolyard BigToys, they scaled down their designs to match the needs of the Early Childhood play yards. These Preschool BigToys had lower heights and smaller diameter wood or plastic parts.
Starting in 1987, BigToys saw growth, challenges, and changes. They began producing very large modular, segmented playgrounds and adding new play events. It was also during these years that they began the expensive challenge of re-designing their classic designs to comply with the emerging U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) safety guidelines. These newer, safer designs were called the New BigToys.
Changes also came in May of 1991, when KOMPAN, a large Danish company, bought BigToys from Chuck and Bill. With KOMPAN's advice and guidance, BigToys was able to survive the shifting markets. An example was the introduction of EarlyWorks, play structures for ages 2 to 5 years, which was well received.
Four new play designs were also launched: the Triple Slide, the Sky Game, the Turn Across, and the Signal/Receiving Station. These new “marquee” events were combined with the Classic BigToys to create structures that met the social, physical, intellectual, and emotional needs of children according to their new Balanced Play concept.
Another major change occurred in 2004, when Tim Madeley bought BigToys from KOMPAN and established it in Olympia, Washington. Tim had worked for BigToys for more than 30 years, including working directly with both Chuck and Bill. He saw their struggles to produce quality play structures and learned, “...that if you do the right thing, eventually you will succeed.”2
Since the market was shifting away from wood structures, Tim looked at the available environmentally responsible materials that could replace the pine they were using. In 2005 they started using only high recycled content steel, 100% recycled plastic lumber, and Forest Stewardship Council certified lumber. This eliminated the use of PVC in any of their structures. These changes were done in just 10 months due to the Autodesk Inventor software that eliminated costly physical prototypes and enabled them to go from idea directly to manufacturing.
Other green changes included buying all green power for their 22,000 square foot warehouse and expanding their workforce instead of outsourcing the work. Using the motto, “You either innovate and evolve or you are left behind,”3 BigToys has expanded its international market to be a large percentage of its business.
Using the twenty-first century, sustainable materials and software, BigToys was able to also launch the “Rock-n-Cross” in 2005. This innovation updates the traditional teeter-totter to fit the Balanced Play Concepts by encouraging cooperation and team work. In 2008, they launched the “EpiCenter” as another Balanced Play redesign of a traditional play structure.
In 2010 after 40 years in business, BigToys was acquired by PlayCore. Tim Madeley continued with the company as general manager, and the BigToys name was retained. Bob Farnsworth, the CEO of PlayCore, expressed PlayCore’s pleasure in acquiring BigToys, stating, “The addition of the BigToys brand expands our recreation brands group playground offering to include a leading brand in the category of architecturally focused, environmentally friendly play systems.”4
BigToys' mission has always been “to offer all children commercial playground equipment that provides a safe, positive play experience that is also fun, exciting and most importantly developmentally appropriate.”
- 1. “BigToys – The Beginning: An Interview with Chuck Kirby.” Big Toys.
- 2. “Tim Madeley.” Autodesk. < http://usa.autodesk.com/company/sustainable-design/green-leaders/tim-madeley > 8 Dec. 2009.
- 3. “BigToys takes a green path in making playground equipment.” AllBusiness. < http://www.allbusiness.com/waste-management/sold-waste-treatment/12237135-1.html > 8 Dec. 2009.
- 4. Boone, Rolf. “Local playground producer sold.” The Olympian. < http://www.theolympian.com/2010/12/11/1470552/local-playground-producer-sold.html/ > 13 Dec. 2010.