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At Ada Harris Toy Fair, a doll with a message

ENCINITAS — Every year at Ada Harris Elementary School, the sixth-grade students deliver a dose of ingenuity, imagination and amazement with the end-of-semester reveal of their self-designed toys at the Ada Harris Toy Fair.

But this year, two girls, Emily Jones and Keira Vanderlip, went beyond the cuddly stuffed animals, board games and sports equipment and delivered a toy with a strong message. 

Their offering: the “Tiny Feminist Doll,” a sew-it-yourself doll with the faces of important women’s rights figures, including Susan B. Anthony, Molly Brown and Sally K. Ride. 

“My Tiny Feminist is a doll that you sew together with your parent or guardian, while having meaningful conversations about what a feminist is and how they changed history,” Emily said, reading from her prepared pitch to people visiting the girls’ toy booth.

“We decided not to go with something they do every year,” Emily said. “We decided to go for something beyond that, a toy that is role model.”

Watching her as she gave her presentation was Emily’s mother, Kristen Jones, who said that she attended last year’s Women’s March in San Diego, and has encouraged her daughters to have a strong, yet gentle voice.

Her reaction to her daughter’s toy concept?

“I am ecstatic, over the moon how she sees the need for change and she’s trying to be a positive gentle leader into a movement,” Jones said. “I think it is so important for our kids to grow up in a world where they don’t have the struggles we had in the past, where the norm is a kinder, gentler world than we had in the past.”

Teachers at Ada Harris said that the boundaries broken this year are indicative of the progress the students have made with their fair offerings, the fair being in its sixth year.

The annual exhibition marks the culmination of a semester-long project in which the students — alone or in a group — must create, build and market a toy prototype. 

The project touches on multiple disciplines, including mathematics (the students had to show in graphic form how they arrived at their price point), writing (each student had to write a letter to a CEO of a major toy or department store pitching their product) and, of course, design and engineering.

More important as the finished product is the process, teachers said. The students had multiple deadlines along the way to show their progress, and received guidance from teachers to help evolve their concepts from prototype to finished stage.

Then, on the Thursday afternoon before holiday break, the students line the sixth-grade hallway and sixth-grade classrooms with their toys, presentation boards, homemade commercials on iPads and their sales pitches. 

“It’s kind of taken on a life of its own,” said Matt Jewell, a sixth-grade teacher who helped create the concept for the school in 2013. “Some of these kids have seen the toy fair in third grade, fourth grade, fifth grade and in sixth grade they start with an idea, and there is a lot of work that goes behind the scenes to get the project from concept to reality. It’s a fitting capstone to the end of the first part of the year.”

“To take their idea and to bring it to life is a really special thing for them,” sixth-grade teacher John Tiersma chimed in. 

Jewell said that one of the areas where the kids have gotten stronger over the years is developing prototypes earlier with rudimentary tools before refining them into the finished products on display during the fair. 

“They have had a lot of chances to reflect on what’s working and what’s not and refine their designs and feel pretty good about them,” he said. 

Kelly Whelihan and Kali Bogart, who created a life-sized board game called “Pizzazz,” said the toughest part about creating the board was creating the materials. But the final result, the girls said, was gratifying.

“How hard it is to make a toy, it’s really hard you have to go through a lot of steps,” Kelly said. “It’s hard because you have to make it durable but you have to make it fun for all ages.

 “Now I know how proud toymakers must feel when they finish,” she said. 

“When it goes on the shelves they must be like, ‘Hallelujah!’” Kali added. 

The kids also learned other valuable lessons, such as teamwork and time management, which they said they hoped to pass along to the fifth-graders just down the hall. 

“I would give them advice to get along with your group, and pick a group that you would know you would get along with,” sixth-grader Rae Randall said.

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