For her first Mother’s Day in 2012, Michele Chiaramonte was gifted what every new mother really wants: a DeWalt table saw by her husband, Michael. Their daughter, Amalia, 5, likes to tell this part of the story. “Mama started building things for the house, like bookshelves,” Mali says as she colors. “She made me toys, too.”
Chiaramonte says she’s always been handy with home improvement projects and as a former NYC public school teacher, she relied on project-based learning for her second, fourth and fifth graders.
“Whatever it was we were learning about, we would always create something through a project. When I stopped teaching, I had this burning desire to continue being able to create things,” she said during a recent interview.. The couple moved to the village in 2011, just before Mali was born.
Earlier this month, Michele and Mali showed the Advance their workshop in the basement of their Bellport home, from which they launched Little Miss Workbench, a wooden toy line, in 2015.
The 20 toys in their collection harken back to a simpler era of play. There aren’t any bells and whistles, nothing talks or lights up. “Those are not what Mama makes,” Mali says, explaining their simple design.
Made from maple sourced within the U.S., Chiaramonte touts the antibacterial and non-splintering perks of playing with wooden toys.
These toys are powered by imagination, not AA batteries.
There’s theory at work here too—wooden toys are having a ‘moment.’ Theorists Jean Piaget and Erik Erikson in the mid 20th century pointed out that children acquire knowledge through open-ended play, as they explore, manipulate and imitate the environment around them. It’s a critical moment of development, as cognitive and motor skills are developed through play.
A study published in late 2017 by researchers at the University of Toledo found that developing toddlers played “better” when they had fewer toys available–four versus sixteen. They judged the ‘quality’ of playtime based on how long the toddlers engaged with each toy and found that fewer, simpler toys helped toddlers focus better and play more creatively.
Little Miss Workbench shares a similar ideal: play = learning. “It’s so important for kids to have those hands-on learning experiences and the freedom to do what they want with the materials you’re giving them,” Chiaramonte said. “They really are more tools than toys, and they promote imaginative growth.”
It all started out with a wooden camera made from pieces of scrap wood. Photography had always been a hobby of Michele’s and as Mali grew, she wanted to emulate her mom. “She would try to get her hands on my camera. To have a toddler really want to be involved is exciting, but you also don’t want your expensive camera to break,” Michele explained. She really wanted to find a toy that had a mechanical element, but didn’t find what she was looking for on the market. “So I made it for [Mali.]”
Complete with a leather neck strap and magnetic flash and zoom attachments, the natural camera has evolved to be one of her bestselling products. “Friends and family saw the camera and wanted to know where they could buy one,” Chiaramonte said. And so Little Miss Workbench was born.
Now, the lineup of toys includes everything from wooden cameras and binoculars to balloon boats, crayon holders, robots and chalk talk, a wooden smart phone replica.
Keeping Bellport’s knack for the nautical in mind, Chiaramonte also crafts magnetic fish and a ‘Knot your anchor’ toy to enhance fine motor skills. “It’s for kids who are learning sailing who need to know how to tie good knots,” Mali explained. For little ones, they can weave the cord through the spaces. Older kids can begin to explore cleats, figure eights, bowlines and anchor hitches.
It’s all made in their basement workshop, which has since grown from one table saw. Michele enlists a team of local artisans, including a neighbor who sews, to help her in production. She says hours for Little Miss Workbench get fit in when there’s time. “I’m a stay-at-home mom, so the family comes first,” she said.
That family comes first is even apparent in the company’s simple logo: a workbench with a double meaning. “[Mali] was born on Pi Day, March 14,” Chiaramonte said, pointing out that the logo also doubles as a mathematical Pi symbol.
Chiaramonte has also partnered with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Guggenheim for special projects and done holiday pop ups in Bellport and with J. Crew. After the interview with the Advance, Chiaramonte packed up her pegboard display and headed to the Javits Center for a four-day makers festival called NY Now.
She’s glad to be raising Mali in Bellport and giving her a creative outlet that she can now share with other children. “She’ll come down here and sit on the rug and just build,” Chiaramonte says. Mali is also a source of great new ideas. While talking about designs for a new binocular toy, Mali points out that the washers are “too heavy for the magnets.” “This is my number one prototyper right here,” Chiaramonte says, smiling.
Though she never expected that she would have left teaching to start her own toy business, Chiaramonte but still hopes to have an impact on children’s lives. This spring, she plans to host a series of workshops for children at the Brookhaven Free Library to teach kids about moving through the design stages of drawing, creating blueprints, prototypes, and actually creating something. She also said she hopes to one day get involved with a shop class in Bellport schools.
“It’s really therapeutic and meditative,” she said on creating the unique toys.
In creating the toys, Chiaramonte acknowledged that tech has taken over for many families. She advocates for not ignoring the tech, but monitoring the usage. Many of her toys, like the camera or chalk smartphone, resemble technology that kids might see their parents using. Chiaramonte pointed out that for many young kids, using smartphones or tablets comes second nature to them. The toy camera or binoculars or even phone forces kids to use their imaginations and be aware of what’s happening around them. “[The toys] are another form of play, aside from being in front of a screen.”