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Child’s play

DES MOINES — With all the attractions and distractions at the Iowa State Fair, it seems unlikely — improbable even — that one of the most popular destinations for kids was a booth filled with wooden toy barns at the Walnut Center.

There wasn’t a computer screen or a digital device in sight as kids and their parents explored the barns hand-crafted by John Kauffman, 48, of Eagle Grove. The kids weren’t easily distracted as they explored every door, gate and livestock pen in the barns. Creativity soared as young fairgoers imagined they were working in a real barn. Conversations flowed naturally as children and adults interacted not only with the toys, but each other.

This old-fashioned fun felt surprisingly modern and welcome in this electronic age. These toy barns also might just be one of the keys to inspiring the next generation of ag leaders.

“You’ve got to reach kids early if you want to encourage tomorrow’s farmers, veterinarians and livestock nutritionists,” said Kauffman, a former agronomist who has owned and operated Kauffman’s Wood Kreations for more than 10 years. “Instead of just giving kids an iPad, why not give them a barn that sparks their creativity?”

Just like the real thing

Kauffman builds wooden toy barns in a variety of sizes, styles and colors, from gable roofs to hip roofs to monitor-style designs. Most barns measure 24 inches by 28 inches and stand 22 to 28 inches tall.

Kauffman sometimes designs a barn to match an actual barn that once stood on a customer’s farm.

“We gave John photos and descriptions of the white barn that stood on our family’s farm until a fire destroyed the barn in the 1990s,” said Kim Gehling, whose family lives near Geneseo, Illinois. “The original barn was built by the kids’ great-great grandfather, so the toy barn John created has a lot of meaning to my sons’ grandfather and great-grandfather.”

Gehling’s children appreciate their toy barn, which is permanently set up in their grandfather’s basement so they can play with the toy every time they visit.

“My two boys have always loved playing farm,” Gehling added. “Having a realistic barn for them to use as they set things up and play is something they had always wanted. John’s barns are so detailed and well-built, and the one he created for us was a perfect gift that my kids have enjoyed for years.”

Designing a toy barn that captures a child’s imagination requires Kauffman to see the world through new eyes.

“You’ve got to think like a kid,” said Kauffman, who describes himself as a former kid who is now a “bigger kid.” “Where will they want to reach in, and what will they want to grab? Remember, kids are pretending that this is a real barn with real doors and real livestock.”

Kauffman discovered his talent in the winter of 2008, when he decided that his nephew, Nick Lemmon, needed a barn to house his toy farm animal collection.

“I went to the garage with a sheet of half-inch plywood and out came a gambrel-roof toy barn. You should have seen the look on Nick’s face when I gave it to him. I was hooked on making wooden barns from then on,” he said.

Attention to detail makes the difference

Building each barn brings back many memories for Kauffman, who grew up on a farm south of Marcus in northwest Iowa.

“I baled a lot of hay in my day,” said Kauffman, whose grandfather was a woodworker and whose father was skilled at welding and repairing farm equipment.

Kauffman, who studied drafting in high school and worked for a cabinet shop in Nevada at one point in his career, relies on these skills as he crafts his toy barns.

“Everyone thinks they can build a toy barn, but attention to detail is the key,” he said.

This is evident in each toy barn and farm building Kauffman makes, from the curtains that go up and down in the hog confinement barn to the gates in the gambrel-roof barn that swing open on real hinges. These aren’t fragile dollhouses, either. These are sturdy farm toys that can stand up to repeated use.

“I want the barns to look as real as possible and be strong and durable,” Kauffman said. “Remember, kids want to pretend that everything is just like the barn or farm building where mom and dad or grandpa works.”

That means making a door in a toy machine shed or barn big enough the child can drive a toy tractor or combine inside. When children play like this, they are doing more than entertaining themselves. They are also developing fine motor skills as they move wooden livestock pens, open barn doors, hook gates and more, Kauffman noted.

There’s more than just barns

Along with barns, Kauffman has built cattle sheds, chicken houses, gas stations, a zoo, small machine sheds to house 1/64 scale farm toys, larger machine sheds to store 1/16 scale farm toys and more.

“I look at barns and farm buildings as I travel the countryside and get inspiration for what to make next,” said Kauffman, who works on multiple barns at a time and would like to start making toy garages for race cars, too.

Kauffman’s toys range in price from $85 for smaller buildings to $350 or $450 for larger structures. It takes Kauffman a matter of weeks to craft each unique toy. Business continues to grow, thanks to word-of-mouth advertising. Kauffman also attends various farm shows across the country and events like the annual BreyerFest in Lexington, Kentucky, which brings the model horse world to life.

“Both boys and girls love playing with toy barns,” said Kauffman, who is grateful for the first-time and repeat customers across Iowa, America and Canada who are helping him inspire the next generation’s interest in rural life. He also appreciates the photos some customers send him of their kids playing their toy barns from Kauffman’s Wood Kreations.

As he refines his skills, Kauffman checks in periodically with the experts.

“I ask the kids what they’d like to see that’s not part of the barns so I can know what to do differently next time,” he said.

This commitment to excellence sets Kauffman apart from the competition, Gehling said.

“John is extremely talented. I would venture to say he is the best wooden toy barn builder in the USA,” said Gehling.

For Kauffman, there’s no better reward than seeing a child smile when he or she is playing with one of his toy barns.

“I make my barns to last. I hope they become family heirlooms,” he said.

To learn more, visit http://woodentoybarns.com.