Various astronaut figures at Alan Ladwig's D.C. office. “The toys are a good way to introduce kids [to] what space is all about. Let’s face it — we all like to play with toys,” said Ladwig, NASA’s deputy associate administrator of communications. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Capital Business)

The crew at Falls Church marketing firm Crabtree + Co. don’t play as many pranks as they did a decade ago, but they still like to goof around, and sometimes right in the middle of an important meeting.

With a toy in hand, pulled from a bowl in the conference room, an art director or other staffer may actually focus more on the subject of the meeting, said the company’s president Lucinda Crabtree. “Your mind is better able not to drift,” she said, if a portion of it is puttering with a plaything.

Crabtree said she believes toys and silly objects — like the wicked witch from the “Wizard of Oz,” her legs sticking out from underneath Dorothy’s house — are valuable. They relieve stress, build community — and they are amusing. “We have to keep our spirits up,” she said, so the staff of 10 can tackle some “very serious work” creating marketing or branding campaigns and Web sites to fight AIDS or women’s heart attacks or promote Georgetown University.

Toys at offices around the Beltway certainly are not as common as pencil holders, but neither are they merely decorative or the purview of parents with young children. They encourage creativity, brainstorming and imagination. They can be found in some creative departments and advertising agencies, on some association executive director’s desks and even at NASA.

“The toys are a good way to introduce kids [to] what space is all about. Let’s face it — we all like to play with toys,” said Alan Ladwig, NASA’s deputy associate administrator of communications, who’s in charge of public outreach, including exhibits and astronaut visits. Plus, he said, they are a great conversation starter for meetings.

Astronaut nesting dolls are part of Alan Ladwig's toy collection at his NASA office. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Capital Business)

Ladwig’s office is filled with vertical rockets and space shuttle toys, plus his own folk art showing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids hiding out behind moon rocks. His favorite is a Japanese horizontal rocket with a spaceman in the cockpit and a TV camera that moves back and forth when it’s turned on.

As a child, he said, he watched “Wagon Train” and played with six-shooters and cowboy hats. As an adult, he’s worked for NASA three times — and also amassed a collection of space toys and memorabilia that used to fill his basement. Most of it has been donated to the St. Louis Science Center. But he kept some duplicate items and a few favorite treasures that are in his workspace.

“It sparks people’s imaginations” to see the space toys, he said. It sparks his, too, and in an agency that’s filled with engineers and scientists, he appreciates the creative boost.

When you take a short break and throw that Nerf ball through a hoop for seven minutes, you’re reducing stress levels, recharging batteries and encouraging the creative self to show back up, wellness experts and researchers say. The minutes spent playing with Legos or a rag doll or Jenga could give you an “incubation” period when great ideas grow or it could give you some energy for the rest of the afternoon.

Yet many workplaces prefer the clean professional look to a desk covered with wind-up toys or miniature ponies and mermaids.

“Some people more seriously inclined may think that it’s a little too, what’s the word, not serious enough. An office should be more sedate or business-like,” said Ladwig, who even uses his ceiling to display some space ornaments and items.

Or as Lucinda Crabtree said: “It’s almost embarrassing how serious we are here [in D.C.] It’s such an intense place that it drains you.”

A Roy Rogers milk cup from the 1950's. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Capital Business)

Even her shop in Falls Church has lost some of its most outrageously playful people over the last 10 to 15 years. Those pranksters used to fill a colleague’s office with balloons or tape a paper perfume strip under a colleague’s desk and keep him guessing all day about the source of the scent. “We had some outrageous pranks that we would play for each other,” she said. One recurring prank involved placing a surprise in the office of a staffer who was out of town or on vacation. One very serious man came back to find his workspace had been turned into a spa, with candles lit and lotions (inspired by his conversations about his daughters spa visits). The message: Welcome back; we missed you.

“It looks like play, but it really is a way to keep the bottle open,” she said, referring to the flow of creativity and problem-solving ideas.

Crabtree has a collection of Automata toys, Rube Goldberg-like but much simpler. One looks like a log but when a wheel is turned, a lotus and butterfly appear and open. She also keeps shelves of Zuni fetishes, small carved animals and art pieces. “I pick it up, fondle it, focus on it while I’m trying to process some problem or information,” she said.

Her agency staff faces a lot of stress and deadlines and “no money to do anything. It’s crazy these days,” she said. So the team needs toys and playfulness, and so does she, adding: “I’m sitting by Dr. Seuss. I’m surrounded by every joyful thought that I can muster up.”

Want to add a toy or two to your desk but not sure your boss will like it? Here are some ideas:

●Find out what your company policies are on personal items kept in the office. If there’s no mention of it in your corporate handbook go see someone in HR — and pick the person who already has some creative items on her desk.

●Start with something inconspicuous, even small enough to keep in your desk drawer at night.

●Pick up a stress ball or another foam stress piece. Officeplayground.com offers a flying pink pig, a foam blueberry or hamburger.

●Tie your first toy to the company’s mission or goals. A miniature dump truck could drive right onto a construction manager’s desk. Or a magnetic sculpture of dollar signs works for anyone in finance or accounting.

●Get playful with desk accessories. Add a bike chain or teeter totter business card holder (from Uncommongoods.com) or a desk light that looks like Minnie Mouse.

●Bring in a virtual toy or game on your smartphone or computer.