You Have to Check Out Happen’s Toy Lab

Where should I start with talking about Happen, Inc., except to say that this Northside non-profit arts organization is one of Cincinnati’s greatest treasures. Founded by Northsider Tommy Rueff 18 years ago, Happen, Inc. now includes an art studio, “make-it” space, toy lab, outdoor play area and several community gardens. Happen Inc. epitomizes the whole idea that community is not just where you live, it’s how you live with other people, offering free art classes, internship opportunities and endless ways to affect positive change in the Northside community.

It’s impossible to spend time at Happen Inc. and not feel inspired.


But, I digress — last weekend, I took my crew to what is arguably the coolest branch of the Happen Inc. enterprise: the Toy Lab. This lab takes the concept of upcycling to another level, giving kids the opportunity to create their own one-of-a-kind toys from old toys that otherwise would have ended up in Mt. Rumpke. This place is seriously cool and a guaranteed hit with your kids; you need to check out Happen’s Toy Lab!

As you walk in, you’ll be greeted by engineers wearing lab coats. Justin, the face of Happen Inc. (seriously — there is a 3D bust of him in Happen’s main office window!), was a huge hit with my kids, his impressive mustache and jovial personality immediately warm and welcoming. He explained the process: each kid inventor would select 7 toys to create as many inventions as they wanted. Most of these toys were broken pieces: parts of cars or dinosaurs, doll arms and transformer bodies. (In case you’re wondering — Happen gladly accepts your kid’s used toys: donate 25 pounds, and get a Toy Lab tee!)

Happen Toy Collage 1

My older two took the approach of finding a few recognizable pieces (a dinosaur for Julian and a unicorn for Mary), and designed their creations from there. My youngest, however, came to the Toy Lab with only one thing in mind: a Skid Steer. So, we worked with Justin and Tommy to find pieces that we could put together to make a truck. The Toy Lab engineers can cut, contort and fuse together most of the toys, so really, the sky’s the limit!

Happen Toy Lab 2

Once my kids had their pieces, they each conferenced with Tommy and Justin to talk through what they were envisioning. Then, from behind a glass divider, the Toy Engineers used drills, glue and a little magic to create brand-new, totally one-of-a-kind toys. Getting to watch the process was really fun!

Happen Toy Lab 4

Tommy explained that all of Happen, Inc.’s programs are all designed to empower kids {there’s a T-Shirt press where teens can create, print and sell their designs; a writing program where young film critics get to publish their reviews in the Northsider Monthly; a gardening club for growing and donating fresh produce}. Happen’s Toy Lab is no exception; kids get to name their own creations, which are photographed for the website, and at the end, the engineers give each child the spotlight while their toys are announced. My kids all felt very proud of what they’d accomplished.

Happen Toy Lab Collage 2

Happen’s Toy Lab is open on Saturdays and Sundays, and you’ll want to call ahead and reserve a time slot, as it’s a popular venue for youth groups and birthday parties. Toys are $10/each, and the Toy Lab’s proceeds go to fund all of other art classes at Happen Inc. — because all of those classes are completely free. 


Happen Toy Lab 1

Visit once, and I guarantee Happen Inc. will become one of those places you’ll want to return — and support. And there are so many ways to volunteer with your kids, there’s sure to be an opportunity that’s perfect for your family. Tommy Rueff and Happen Inc. are proof that positive change starts with just one person and an idea, and snowball into a community-wide force that can’t be stopped. It’s an empowering message that we all need to take to heart, one toy at a time.

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