To some, Rufus Rose’s handmade branch spinners may just seem like a centuries-old toy, much like cup-and-ball.
But it’s much more than a toy to Rose, rather a “prop” for starting a discussion, to tell a story or to build a relationship. For Rose, the fun is in the interaction the toy encourages.
“I originally built these as something to de-stress myself,” said Rose, who lives in Clinton. “But my evolving thought was that this kinetic toy could be used as an educational prop — a prop to tell stories.”
Rose’s toys, which he calls branch spinners, are essentially smooth pieces of wood wound up in twine that spin and gyrate when the strings are pulled apart. The twine runs through the piece of wood’s center so it can properly spin. The twine has hand carved wooden handles on the edges where the player holds the toy. When the wound up twine is pulled apart, the tension that is created rapidly spins the wooden centerpiece, creating a humming sound.
While buttons, bottle caps and other light and circular objects are typically used for the centerpiece, Rose uses what he calls “junk wood,” or scraps of wood that he picks up across South Whidbey. He says he hasn’t bought any wood since starting to make the toys four years ago. Yet he always keeps his eyes peeled for local or irregular woods to sand and polish. As he has continued to make the toys, he’s progressively used heavier or more oddly shaped pieces, and will even put two centerpieces on one piece of twine. He also began painting geometric shapes with vibrant colors onto the toys that change color when spun. For example, he has made numerous red and blue colored branch spinners that turn purple when spun fast. It’s all part of the educational aspect Rose emphasizes.
“I was a helicopter pilot in the Navy, so I can relate it to my understanding of rotational physics,” Rose said. “When showing kids how to use the branch spinners, I tell stories when explaining the physics behind how it works. It engages them and encourages the imagination to go all over the place.”
In addition to describing the toy as a prop to tell stories, start a conversation and educate kids on physics and how colors combine, Rose says the toy carries a symbolic meaning. The spinning motion is created by whoever is playing with the toy, which Rose says symbolizes the driving force in life is oneself. The branch spinners with two pieces of wood are symbolic in another way, as Rose has described to South Whidbey Tilth President Susan Prescott.
“He loves to talk about how the one with two pieces of wood represents a family or group dynamic,” Prescott said. “The pieces will clash, but will then smoothly spin side by side. He also points out that if the pieces are spinning in the same direction, things are smooth. He gets pretty philosophical with it.”
Prescott says the kids at South Whidbey Tilth love Rose’s spiel with his branch spinners. She added that he could care less if anyone actually buys the toys, since the fun is showing kids how they work and the storytelling that comes from the explanation.
In a way, Rose is trying to unplug kids from their devices and show them the magic of their imaginations. Any kind of “prop” can be used this way, as Rose points out one can do the same with a rubber ball.
“The human mind is always exploring and figuring out what it can do with different things,” Rose said.
The toy is Rose’s latest attempt to educate people on Whidbey, albeit much different from his past efforts. He’s one of the founders of the Old Goats Fully Informed Voters, a regular lunch group that brings in speakers to address political or community issues. Well known for his conservative voice, Rose for a time regularly attended county commissioner meetings and has also run for elected office himself — the South Whidbey School Board. He is currently a member of the Island County Substance Abuse Coalition.
For Rose, toy making clearly isn’t a money-making venture. It’s his way of connecting people with something that seems simple but is really challenging their creative thinking process. In the process, he’s stimulating his own mind.
“The branch spinners show that if you’re responsible for your own entertainment, you’ll find your mind exploring,” Rose said. “You can create your own story. If I get you to the point where you’re creating your own story while playing with this, I’ve done my job.”