Engaging Art & Nature with Spiritplay Toys

Written and photographed by Koa Kalish

On the winding road that leads to the wild coastal shore of Sonoma County, CA, you will reach the quaint, sleepy town of Bodega. Nestled between the world-famous Northern Light Surf Shop and Colleen’s Coffee Shop lies the toy studio. A small cedar-shingled shack with a red-painted door and a glass bay window, Spiritplay Toys is a world of magic, of softness, of subtlety, and yes, of spirit. Spiritplay Toys was created 11 years ago by Robyn Lynn Smith, a tenured Waldorf teacher with an innate love for the fiber arts. “Spiritplay is a name that came organically,” explains Robyn. “Because engagement in playfulness and play activates a divine essence that arouses soul quality in our work.”

As a child, Robyn grew up spending time playing and crafting with her grandmother Dotty, who taught her how to sew (both with a machine and by hand), crochet, knit, embroider, and make pillows and quilts. “She was a master seamstress,” Robyn reflects. “And now it’s these practices I am able to pass on as a handwork teacher.”

Robyn became a Waldorf Teacher, rediscovering her childhood love for fiber while attending the Rudolf Steiner College. As a kinder teacher for many years, she practiced working with wool, wood, and botanical dying, making dolls for her classrooms. Now, she makes around 100 toys per year at Spiritplay. “Children are my inspiration,” she says. “As a teacher of 20 years, I have a passion for natural toys.” Her inspirations for her toy designs come mostly from her direct engagement with the natural world. “When I become a keen observer of the world around me, through engaging with playful activity in nature, my art comes to vision and then to form.”

Robyn utilizes 100% local wool from elder shepherdess, Hazel Flett of Bodega Pastures, located a few miles away, and botanically dyed wool from Retired Waldorf Teacher Judith Ashley at Wild Rose Farm, from the neighboring town of Sebastopol. Robyn also botanically dyes Bodega Pastures’ wool into a rainbow of colors. Then, she felts the wool, sculpting it into creatures of magic and mysticism. For example, there’s the Owl, one of her most popular totem toys. There’s the Swan, there’s the Fairy Prince, and there is Yemanja, Goddess of the Waters. There is Hopi Corn Woman, whose proceeds are all donated to Robyn’s weaving mentor and teacher, Pearl Sunrise, a native Navajo elder and blackstrap loom weaver in Taos, New Mexico.

The dolls are simple and beautiful, and there’s something innately soothing about them. In Waldorf education, Steiner wrote of the “simple dolly” — toys built-in ways that are less linear and detailed, and softer. Many of Robyn’s dolls do not have eyes for this reason. “Steiner believed we must leave something for the imagination of the child,” she explains. “Too fixed and detailed of a face does not allow a child to bring forth or imbue its own feelings or imagination expression of the doll. If a doll has a painted smile on its face, does it fully express what a child is feeling in each moment? A less defined face gives a place for the child’s imagination to work with the dolly and through the dolly more authentically.”

Through connecting with Fibershed and learning more about soil-to-soil system, Robyn changed her protocols from using acid-dyed materials to using all-natural, local, botanical dyes. She was able to choose not to buy imported fiber and only purchase local fiber from Sonoma. “It’s changed everything,” she says. “I have acquired an understanding of regenerative farming and more awareness of synthetic fibers and how they’re produced. Ultimately, I have a refined appreciation for the fiber from where I live.”

Robyn is also interested in supporting farms where sheep live out their full natural lives, like at Heartfelt Fiber Farm in Sonoma County, which practices “no kill” animal management. Robyn sees this as a way to incorporate vegans into supporting natural fiber production and to become more informed and involved in regenerative farming practices. “Vegans are opening their minds to animal fibers,” she says. “Instead of going to plastics, vegans can get wool from farmers who raise sheep that are ‘lifers’ [where farmers are able to support sheep in living full natural lives]. I believe there is a seat at the table for everyone in this movement, and honor Fibershed for that consideration, openness, and inclusion of sanctuary farms.”

Robyn’s dollies are for everyone, not just children. “When we are alive in play, we are alive in the world in a full sensory way. When we are engaged in playful activity, thoughts and ideas arise, and we are inspired to bring the forms and patterns of nature into our creativity.”

You can find Robyn’s toys on the Fibershed marketplace, at Handgoods gallery (an artisan coop in Occidental, CA), and gallery showings and pop-up events at SpiritPlay Toys studio.