One of the best parts of my job is getting to vicariously relive my childhood through the experiences of my students. The very best days are the ones that revolve around imaginative play. As a kid, I entertained myself endlessly with imaginative games I created. Now that I think back on it, they were less like games, and more like plays, in that I’d revisit the characters and their worlds daily. They had backstory and plot, and my friends were excellent collaborators. Will Barrios has created the limitless playset, Tatro. Through his product he is taking play to a whole new level by bringing us all back to the basics of using your imagination. I got to see this product at BroadwayCon, and as a speech pathologist I see endless possibilities for all of the goals my students are working on. Not only is it multi-function, but it’s lightweight, portable, and magnetic so the students (or I) won’t lose the pieces. Will and I talked about the creation of Tatro, the collaborative aspect of creating a playset that runs on the operator’s creativity, and the importance of play.
Stef: How did you get into theatre?
Will: I was in a production of Where the Wild Things Are in preschool. As it turns out, I ended up going through the entire rehearsal process and not being able to perform in the production because my aunt came to visit us the same weekend. If you were to ask my mother, she’d probably say I went after theatre to take back the experience of missing my first performance. I didn’t really revisit theatre again until I was nine and auditioned for Godspell. The cast was all ages and it was the first show that showed me that this is what theatre does—it creates these bonds and communities and after that I just wanted to do it again and again. Since then, I’ve always been extremely creative by nature.
S: How does being a theatre fan turn into creating a playset?
W: I was homeschooled for my seventh-grade year, and I was still doing shows around town. But more than being a theatre kid, I was just a creative kid. As a creative kid, I was always creating shows at home. I’d build set pieces and bring them home. I made sets and put on shows for my parents. I did it until my parents said I couldn’t do it in the house anymore, and so I built a theatre in the garage. I had risers and a green room and sets, and I got to do this with my friends. I needed a way to make this smaller, so I could be creative in the house in addition to what I had set up in the garage. One day I was watching a show on television about magnets, and I thought, “What if I did that but with characters as magnets with a magnetic floor?” So, I got some cardboard and cut out a proscenium hole with a magnetic floor and made the characters. Tatro is the durable, reproduceable version of what that was.
S: So, dedication and drive has always been part of your DNA, huh?
W: I guess you could call it that, but it’s the joy of creating. I ended up going to design school in New York. For me, it’s the joy of creating. That’s what Tatro’s centered around. I want to give that back so kids can create in any way possible without instructions.
S: This is all how your materials got chosen, magnets over Velcro and the like?
W: Well yeah. I was thinking of a couple different materials and I came across magnets. They’re durable over time and I went with it and stayed with it.
S: I love it. I love that it is simple play that is accessible to everyone. Everything is so technology-based now, I have students who are learning how to code. My tech knowledge is not that advanced. Those same kids still come to me with “I have this grand idea, check it out, but I can’t do it. I’d never get it right.” I’ve found with a lot of kids, fear of failure can be a deterrent from even beginning a project. You’ve stuck with this for so long. What would you say to my students?
W: I have a really good friend who has a great mind for business. We were talking about my process. I mentioned failure to him, and he said, “You never fail; you pivot.” And it changed everything. You don’t fail, you pivot. You try something else when the first thing doesn’t work out and eventually you’ll figure it out. How do you eradicate the fear? You ask questions and ask for feedback and move in that direction.
S: We’ve had conversations about what this product would look like in a speech therapy session, and you shared that you worked on articulation in speech therapy as a kid, and without thinking I was able to find three different ways to use Tatro to target articulation goals. I know you’ve been talking with other health professionals and other theatre-branded creators. Who is your target audience for Tatro?
W: So, I was a creative kid, and I thought if I loved this, so would other creative kids. That was my initial market. I found that this could be a very narrow audience and wanted to see how to expand it. What’s interesting was I had psychologists, parents, and even educators come out of the woodwork with interest, which allowed for a larger audience beyond the creative kids. Right now, I’m finding parents and therapists are very interested in Tatro, which is great.
S: I really do think it’s a product for everyone. All of that said, how do you feel about Tatro being used for therapeutic purposes?
W: I have always thought that it had a lot of potential in talking with different professionals. I get the feedback of its durability and scalability and I didn’t realize how important that was. It’s doing what I wanted in the beginning, which is working without limits and boundaries. You can have different settings and characters and create any world, which allows an uninhibited, unlimited amount of imagination.
S: I think it’s a great tool. As someone who would use it for language, I can see it being used for turn taking, perspective sharing, social skills, language comprehension…really, I can do so much with this one playset that I can with a lot of my materials. The creation of this seems like a huge undertaking, is it all you or are you working with a team?
W: Aside from me, I work with an illustrator, a product design firm. There are very specific components of the product that their skill set matches. I also have a lot of really awesome people in various fields—education, health professions—who are so passionate about the product, and I’m reaching out to them for feedback and as product ambassadors.
S: So, what does collaboration look like for you?
W: Really clear communication. As our conversations continue about the development of the product, and in four months we’d come up with a proposal that went from a design to manufacturing. As we kept talking, patience and clarity of message and really listening to each other made this process so smooth. It’s been an amazing experience so far.
S: Sounds like everyone involved is learning from each other.
W: Yeah! The key is really our abilities to listen and hear each other in all aspects of development. The team has stuck with me as much as I’ve stuck with them. As tedious as this can get, they’ve been so supportive every step of the way.
S: Every week I challenge my kids to do something outside of my comfort zone. What would you challenge my readers and students to do?
W: Do something that scares you. As simple as it is, what scares you? Talking to someone you don’t know yet? Go talk to them. What’s the worst that could happen? Get creative. Embrace the moment of feeling scared and be aware of feeling scared. You will come out of it, and there is growth in experiencing that feeling and in coming out of that feeling.
In case you couldn’t tell, I could not be more excited about Tatro and what it’s going to open up for kids’ creativity. I have already pre-ordered mine and I know it will be the perfect addition to my therapeutic tools. To learn more about Tatro, and even pre-order your own, click here. Preorders are open once a month and are announced on Instagram at @tatrotoy and on Facebook at Facebook.com/tatrotoy. What started out as one of Will’s creative endeavors as a child is going to give so much back to even more children, and I am so excited to watch that happen. Will and I are both very eager to hear how this challenge goes for all of you, so please let us know in comments.
Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef the StageSLP