This article discusses the key methods utilized in the creation of a children’s toy: the “Anatomy Vacuum”, a three-dimensional puzzle designed for three-year-old children. Research on behavior, fear, toys, and mental development of three-year-old children was conducted to understand the needs, capabilities, and desires of this specific user-group. Direct user research through observation and testing with a target user provided critical and insightful feedback and was instrumental to the design. This article highlights the significance of applied research and user testing in aiding the design and development of a children’s toy.


The Anatomy Vacuum project was inspired by a story entitled “The Vacuum Cleaner” in Sherry Turkle’s book Evocative Objects: Things We Think With. The objective of this five-week project was to re-imagine an object from the book under the premise that the outcome fostered an interactive experience. “The Vacuum Cleaner” is a story about a three-year-old girl, Emma, and her fear of an object she does not understand: a household vacuum cleaner.
Emma shies away from the vacuum, as she is unsure of how to approach or interpret it. However, as she explores and learns about the vacuum she becomes more comfortable with it and her fear lessens. This exploratory approach to learning about the vacuum became an inspiration for the project.
Beat Schneider defines design as a discipline that can “help make our increasingly complex world more transparent…by simplifying complex information, processes and objects” (Schneider, 2007). The challenge for this project was determining the most appropriate way to make a vacuum more transparent to a child.
Through user and precedent research I identified the puzzle as the most appropriate didactic form for my goal. The refinement, final product, and success of this project hinged on the diversity of knowledge gained throughout the process. This paper intends to emphasize the importance of diverse methodology in the creation of knowledge, and thus, the success of the Anatomy Vacuum puzzle as a teaching and learning tool.

Figure 1. The Anatomy Vacuum Puzzle
Figure 1. The Anatomy Vacuum Puzzle


Research Question

Could the vacuum be re-contextualized into a teaching and learning tool? My intention was to translate the principles of Emma’s learning into a toy that could help a child understand the vacuum and lessen their fear of it (Fig. 1). The design opportunity was to re-imagine the vacuum as a puzzle that did not deny the essence of what the object really was: a loud, man-made cleaning device.


Literature Review

Preliminary literature review on children’s behavioral and cognitive abilities was not age specific and included a number of online educational resources including Fisher Price®, LEGO® Education Center, and the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology. Realizing a significant level of development occurs in children within a period of six months (Fisher Price®, 2009), it became necessary to determine a specific target demographic in order to better identify and comprehensively understand the capabilities of a potential user. I referred back to the story and researched the ages that most commonly experience a fear of vacuums, finding that it tended to be mainly two and three-year-olds (Henry, 1997-2011). Within this range, three-year-olds appeared as the relevant audience because of their curious and exploratory nature. Being at a key stage in their development, learning tools are highly recommended—puzzles being one of the most popular didactic tools (Fisher Price®, 2009).

Initially, I questioned whether creating a puzzle was an innovative enough solution. However, after reading an article by M.D. Alvin Poussaint which stated that interacting with a puzzle helps three-year-old children not only understand an object, “but the notion that whole objects are generally made up of parts”, I concluded that the puzzle would be the most appropriate medium for the design of a learning experience for my user group (Linn & Poussaint, 2009).

Precedent Review

Precedent research included visits to a local Kids Market and Toys “R” Us™ store to determine “best-selling items” and purchasing trends through conversational interviews with market shopkeepers and parents. Stuffed animals, building blocks, books and puzzles were popular items. Regarding parental motivations, a toy was likely to be purchased if it offered a unique function that distinguished it from any other toy previously viewed. Puzzles, and objects that replicated a specific object (vacuum, lawnmower etc) were typically bright and colourful, and provided a host of surface features (lights and sounds) for the child to interact with. Many were designed to make the imitated object seem “friendly”, and while this approach has its merits, it is also problematic because it denies the essence of the object—the very thing the child needs to explore and understand to alleviate their fear.

Naturalistic Observation

Sociology has introduced a number of ethnographic methodologies that, following the university’s research ethics protocols, can be utilized by a designer to “identify key target user requirements, behaviors, and needs” (Vihma, 2007). I approached the day care program coordinator at Douglas Park Community Center (DPCC), and was granted permission to observe and interact with the children in their pre-school program. The class included twenty-two three-year-old children from different cultures and ethnicities, which provided for a diverse sourcing of information. The first session was observatory. I took notes on the children’s behavior: their interaction with toys and peers, level of activity, and willingness to learn. The pre-school had about a dozen puzzles, most of which were of an object based theme: trains, boats, planes, cars. I paid close attention to the children who played with them, noticing which puzzle themes were most popular and which challenged the children’s dexterity. Few children played with the puzzles for longer than ten minutes and most completed a puzzle and moved on in less time. I observed that the children were most excited to see what the “big picture” of the puzzle was once it was correctly assembled, and while some felt a sense of accomplishment for putting the puzzle together, others simply walked away.

Figure 2. Iterative form exploration
Figure 2. Iterative form exploration

On a second meeting, I brought colored blocks for the children to play with (Fig. 2). The blocks were slightly different in shape and size in order to identify which sizes were ergonomically easiest for the children to handle. The interactions showed that three-year-olds’ dexterity was generally fluid, and that the children preferred the blocks that they could really grip and wrap their hands firmly around. This information would later be applied when designing the handles and size of the puzzle pieces. The children were also consulted to determine their favorite colors; the children seemed to choose spontaneously and no gender differences were patterned in these choices.


Initial sketches were quick and simple line drawings for a range of concepts, and were followed by more detailed analytical sketches that explored and defined the desired form (Fig. 3, 4). My goal was to produce a three-dimensional form and through iterative sketching I was able to identify important characteristics. First, to ensure a realistic presentation of the vacuum, the three-dimensional form could not be too bulbous or abstract as was the case in many of the friendly toys I encountered during research. Secondly, after sketching the puzzle from a variety of angles, I determined that the form had to be presented from the most familiar and problematic viewpoint, the front. Lastly, when sketching the actual puzzle pieces, it became clear that it was not necessarily about creating a number of pieces, but that each puzzle piece had a purpose or meaning that would enable learning about the object. It was out of this conclusion that the idea of the Anatomy Vacuum was born.

Scale Prototype

I produced three cardboard cut outs of the vacuum at different scales. A 30 x 30 cm puzzle based on the observed scale of precedence proved too small to communicate the “realness” of the object. A close to life size prototype provided a more accurate sense of scale, yet it proved too large for three-year-olds to easily interact with. The third prototype was about half the life size model (24 x 70 cm). This proved to be a realistic, relatable, and accessible scale for the user.

Figure 3. Early sculpting, creating the body
Figure 3. Early sculpting, creating the body

Refined Prototype

The vacuum form was sculpted by hand from a block of insulation foam; refinements to the shapes and lines occurred over a two-week period (Fig. 5, 6).
The proof of concept puzzle consisted of eight removable pieces, each representing a specific component: the motor, the bag, two wheels, the light, the brush, the hose and attachment. An illustrated diagram was incorporated to the back of each removable puzzle piece. These illustrations gave the puzzle layers of interest and made the functionality of the vacuum more transparent, therefore helping children learn how a vacuum works.
During the observational process, I watched a number of children spin puzzle pieces between their fingers as a means to determine how the piece would fit. This was translated into each vacuum puzzle piece having a small wooden grip to allow the child to spin the piece in the same manner.
A successful colour palette for the Anatomy Vacuum required a delicate balance between realism and playfulness. The puzzle pieces were painted in bright colors and the body of the vacuum light grey, which reflected the appearance of the household item and allowed for the puzzle pieces to be clearly identified as parts. Finally, the puzzle was mounted onto a ¼” Baltic birch base with color-coded labels for the vacuum parts.

Figure 3.1 Early sculpting, creating the body
Figure 3.1 Early sculpting, creating the body

User trials

Klaus Krippendoff states that “designers must realize that they cannot go alone. [They] cannot force conceptions onto others, and that whatever they propose must resonate with stakeholder conceptions” (2007). The success of the concept hinges on the ability for it to function for the user, and thus I tested the Anatomy Vacuum puzzle through a user trial. The user, who shall be referred to as Madison, was a curious three-year-old with a mild fear of vacuums I had met during the observation sessions at DPCC. With the permission of the mother, the user trial was held in Madison’s home, ensuring an informal and comfortable session.

Observational Findings

The trial was set up as a “mommy and me” learning experience, the mother being the teacher and the child the student. I placed the puzzle on the living room floor and gave no direction to Madison on how to use it. The first thing she did upon seeing the puzzle was ask “is that a vacuum?”, confirming the realistic quality of the form. Initially, Madison was hesitant to approach the puzzle, but upon receiving permission from her mother and a little bit of encouragement, she sat down next to it. She began by removing the puzzle pieces, exposing the illustrated vacuum parts underneath. While looking and touching the illustrated components, she asked what they were and what they did. Her mother carefully explained and answered any questions as Madison put the puzzle back together, and then apart again (Fig. 7). Even though she completed the puzzle in seven minutes, she did not lose interest and continued to play with it for an additional twenty-three minutes. By the end of the session Madison was able to name the vacuum parts, confirming that the Anatomy Vacuum puzzle functioned as a teaching and learning tool.


The design process is at its best when a designer can “open up the closed algorithmic problem solving process” (Jonas, 2007) to one that reflects and adapts according to the evolving process and problem. A successful design practice must then utilize a diversity of methods, to ensure the solution is as informed as possible. This theory can be confirmed after reviewing the process of the Anatomy Vacuum puzzle. The process was lengthy, but by all means necessary as every method provided knowledge to apply towards the making of the final prototype and the rationale behind it. I had never seriously considered my design process before this project, but it is clear to me now that awareness is essential when making informed design decisions.

Figure 5: Madison and her mother playing during a user trial session
Figure 5. Madison and her mother playing during a user trial session



  • 1) Schneider, B. (2007). Design as Practice, Science and Research. In Ralf Michel (Ed.), Design Research Now, Essays and Selected Projects (1st ed., pp. 209). Berlin: Birkhäuser Architecture.
  • 2) Fisher Price®. (2009). Age By Age Parenting Guide. Retrieved from the Fisher Price Early learning Center:
  • 3) Henry, Sarah. (1997-2011). Easing your 2-year-olds fears. Retrieved from the Social and Emotional Development Baby Center website:  HYPERLINK “”
  • 4) Fisher Price®. (2009). Play Tips. Retrieved from the Age By Age Parenting Guide: Fisher Price Early Learning Center website:  HYPERLINK “”
  • 5) Linn, S. and Poussaint, A. (2009). Puzzles and Games for Pre-schoolers. Retrieved from:  HYPERLINK “”
  • 6) Vihma, S. (2007). Design Semiotics-Institutional Experience and an Initiative for a Semiotic Theory of Form. In Ralf Michel (Ed.), Design Research Now, Essays and Selected Projects (1st ed., pp. 221). Berlin: Birkhäuser Architecture.
  • 7) Krippendorff, K. (2007). Design Research, an Oxymoron?. In Ralf Michel (Ed.), Design Research Now, Essays and Selected Projects (1st ed., pp. 75). Berlin: Birkhäuser Architecture.
  • 8) Jonas, W. (2007). Design Research and its Meaning to the Methodological Development of the Discipline. In Ralf Michel (Ed.), Design Research Now, Essays and Selected Projects (1st ed., pp. 193). Berlin: Birkhäuser Architecture.

Image References

  • Figure 1. through 5 Bianca Guthrie, 2009.

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