Toys in meetings? You've got to be kidding! Not long ago, this would have been unheard of. But toys are popping up in meeting rooms all over the country--and for good reason. Toys can help managers achieve all of the following, and then some:

*Stimulate creativity--No matter how old we are, toys put us in a more youthful and playful frame of mind that can result in problem solving and creativity.

*Diffuse anxiety--Better to get "beaned" by a Nerf ball than for hostility to build between you and the guy whose proposal you are reviewing.

*Provide mental breaks--After periods of sustained concentration, a squeeze ball or a Slinky can provide a much-needed break for the conscious mind while the subconscious continues to flow with the meeting.

*Engage the whole person by providing a tactile experience--Business conversations are typically very "left-brained." But creative solutions require using the whole brain and the whole person.

*Make for a more enjoyable and memorable meeting--Toys provide opportunities for unforgettable, often humorous, meeting experiences. And who wants to hang around at meetings that aren't fun?

What kinds of toys? Here are some toys to start with that are easy to find, low cost, and don't take up much room in a bag or case. Many are even given away at trade shows and conventions.

* Tactile, stress-relieving toys to play with and pass around such as gel-filled squeeze balls or a Slinky.

* Balls for tossing or throwing in fun, amusement, mock disgust, or anger! These include foam balls, Koosh balls, bean bags for juggling, and fabric discs for tossing.

* Honking horns, clickers, whistles, and other noisemakers for providing timely feedback--positive or negative. These are especially useful for celebrations, or to manage difficult meeting-goers.

* Pretend toys, such as puppets, animals, or small windup toys to place on the conference table and send off in the direction of the quiet person, dominator, or overzealous meeting participant.

When should you bring toys? If it's your meeting, then you can introduce toys anytime. If you are not in charge of the meeting, try showing up with a couple of squeeze balls or other small toys. Handle one yourself and place the other on the table. Then see what happens. If someone objects to the toys, you can easily make them disappear. Most likely, everyone will appreciate them. Then, you can easily stash a few more in your briefcase to bring to the next meeting.

Experiment with the number and type of toys to see which get the best results. Whatever you choose, remember three things. First, the purpose of the toys is to enhance the quality of the meeting, not to take over the meeting with play. Toys should be put away if they interfere with productivity. Second, don't let your play distract others in adjoining rooms or offices. And third: Toys are for fun. Don't forget to play!

Tips to Take Away 1. Arrive early and put the toys on the table before the meeting starts-- Let people discover them for themselves.

2. Experiment with the number and types of toys you bring--But make sure they don't take over the meeting or distract others in adjoining rooms or offices.

3. Get toys with your company logo on them--Branding will make almost any toy acceptable in the meeting room.

4. If you are not in charge of the meeting--try showing up with a couple of small squeeze balls. Handle one yourself and put the other on the table. Chances are, everyone will appreciate them!