Ava Harris, 8, (left) and Isabelle Harris, 12, of Crystal Lake work on loom band inside Marvin's Toy Store Wednesday in Crystal Lake. The sisters have created a manger scene, a purse, a peace sign, a mermaid and all sorts of charms. Marvin's Toy store challenges the kids every week to make new loom designs. Kids can bring the designs in and win prizes. (Kyle Grillot - kgrillot@shawmedia.com)

Give 12-year-old Isabelle Harris a bunch of little rubber bands and she can make nearly anything.

A nativity scene, a unicorn, a reindeer, a mermaid, a purse and "a ton of other things," said the Crystal Lake girl, who in about six months has become quite the expert in the creation of Rainbow Loom bands and objects.

The colorful bands and their many knockoffs have been the latest craze for kids – both girls and boys – for quite awhile now, and their appeal doesn't seem to be wavering.

"They're really fun, and you can be really creative," said Harris, who crafts with the rubber bands daily.

They're basically weaved together solely by hand or with the help of a plastic loom. Children have gone from making bracelets out of them to crafting charms, characters and all sorts of creations. They trade them, give them as gifts, collect them or simply show them off.

Child development experts and parents are praising them as a healthy alternative to time spent in front of the television or video games.

At Marvin's Toy Store in Crystal Lake, children are challenged weekly to create objects, such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and flowers, out of the Rainbow Looms. Winners earn Rainbow Loom bands and kits.

The idea is to keep children both engaged in the store and the craft, which the owners were hesitant to carry when they first opened the business last June.

"Our reps kept saying, 'This is the hottest thing. This is the hottest thing.' We hadn't seen it yet," said Lori McConville, who co-owns the store with her daughter, Kate. "It's a lot of plastic, and that wasn't the direction we were going. Then we started to hear about it in the news ... kids making bracelets and necklaces to match sport teams.

"It was something active and creative. Kids were getting inspired by it. We brought it in, and people love that they have a local place to go rather than the big box store."

Invented by Cheong-Choon Ng, a former Nissan crash-test engineer from Novi, Mich., the Rainbow Loom requires use of fine motor skills as well as a bit of problem solving.

He is reported to have invented the loom to create alongside his daughters, who were making rubber band bracelets. He sought to weave the bands together using geometric patterns.

"He just hit a sweet spot with the kids with the creativity of it all and how this loom works," Lori McConville said. "Once you learn the basics, you can go as creative as you want. Boys like it, too."

It takes math skills, as well, as the children make patterns with the bands, said Isabelle's mother, Julie, of Crystal Lake, who works part time at Marvin's Toy Store. She hasn't tried to make the bands herself but loves that both of her daughters are engaged with them.

Her younger daughter, 8-year-old Ava, is learning to create the the bands as well.

"I'm actually surprised at how long the craze has been going on, but I think it's because they can so much other stuff other than the bracelets," Julie Harris said. "It's been a life-saver during this cold season."

Like many who use the looms, Isabelle often works alongside instructional videos on YouTube and such that guide her through projects. Others she creates simply by looking at pictures, she said.

"It was kind of hard to learn because I'd never done anything like it before, but then I got the hang of it," she said.

"I think it's great because she's old enough to figure it out on her own," her mother added.

Aside from the television time the craft perhaps takes away, it also provides psychological benefits, said Linda Derscheid, an associate professor of Family and Child Studies at Northern Illinois University in Dekalb.

Children gain a sense of success and pride when they master craft skills, she said, and gain confidence. Crafts take time, patience and focused attention to details, she said.

Unlike video games, crafts provide a tangible end-product that can be used or displayed, she said.

"So, I do hope that parents will encourage their children to try these kinds of craft-making opportunities," she said. "There are many benefits and can be more social benefits when the children work on their individual project with their friends.

"They can practice their oral language skills while practicing their fine motor skills in addition to their problem-solving skills," she said. "One never knows when creating things can lead to a new invention."

By JAMI KUNZER - jkunzer@shawmedia.com