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Blocks with Character 

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She's an early childhood educator. He's a mechanical engineer. Together, Becky and Josh Mandell of Underhill — parents of kids ages 2 and 5 — recently started Ish, a small business that makes uniquely shaped blocks for all ages. The company name is borrowed from the popular picture book by Peter H. Reynolds which, says Becky, conveys a message that there's no perfect way to do things. When the couple became parents, the plethora of plastic, landfill-destined playthings they found didn't align with their reduce-and-reuse values. Becky's educational approach is influenced by the Reggio Emilia philosophy, which highlights the importance of self-directed learning and natural materials, while Josh works at Rutland-based Accordant Energy, which converts municipal solid waste to fuel. So they began experimenting with different materials to create their own toys, and friends and colleagues soon began asking for them. Their first product, uniquely shaped Tumi Ishi blocks, named for a Japanese philosophy of balance, focus and mindfulness, have multiple uses, from imaginative play to stacking to making patterns. The aesthetically pleasing blocks, which come nine to a set, are made of Vermont-sourced pine, ambrosia maple, black walnut, cherry and hickory. Josh buys slabs of wood from the Tree House Hardwoods & Millshop in South Burlington, cuts them into squares and rectangles, uses a sander to make facets on each one, then hand sands and rubs them with butcher-block oil to create what he describes as a "smooth, fine-finished feel." Because the blocks are not uniform and made with different species of wood — each with its own weight and density — stacking them is a fun challenge. Said Josh: "I play with them equally as much as our children do."

Find Ish on Facebook at facebook.com/ish.VTproducts. Ish blocks are available at Boho Baby in Essex Junction for $38 a set. The company will have a table at the Old Fashioned Harvest Market at the United Church of Underhill on Saturday, September 28 & Sunday, September 29.

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