Toys are fascinating- they have the power to create whole new worlds for children. As testimony to children’s never-ending fascination with them, the toy world seems to be teeming with new toys every season- perhaps every day.
Yet, every parent should know that not all toys are equal. Loud, screeching toys are attractive, but they serve the rush of excitement than the
pleasure of discovery- sensory or cognitive. The hand-held distractions of media devices are a different story altogether.
Child development experts seem to agree that the simpler the toys the better. In fact, the simplest toys make the darndest best friends( What’s Calvin without his patient friend, Hobbes?)
Wooden toys occupy a special place in the toy hierarchy- they can hold the child’s attention for longer spans with the uneven contours, their stability and solid feel conveying a sense of authenticity and timelessness. Not to mention that they score hands-down on safety, what with cheap plastic toys being recalled for toxicity.
Up until a few years ago, wooden toys immediate sprung up images of the traditional and (rightly) famous Chennapattana toy range. Today, thanks to people like Mridula Shridhar, wooden toys are serving as deserving companions for our children.
Mridula Sridhar has studied early childhood development for years and was responsible for designing one of the finest early education school starter kits, Kreedo’. At a time when pre-schools were springing up at every turn of the corner, Kreedo became the solid tarmac which kept their visions aligned with the child.
Today, Mridula runs Skola Toys, a brand that identifies with making single-purpose toys that can engage children in learning activities for record durations.
I managed to catch up with Mridula on her journey with young children that led to her entrepreneurial pursuits.
I started my career in the Early Education space in 2000, after my MBA at IIM Calcutta. My mother was running this firm called Kido and used to manufacture Montessori materials for schools. For the first 7 years, we are looking at expanding production and sales, since we were heavily in demand and were trying to cope up with it.
Meanwhile many thousands of preschools were springing up and we were also giving them advice on how to run it from our own experiences with 1000+ schools that we had catered to.
So I started researching in 2009 and came up with a preschool solution called Kreedo that would enable entrepreneurs to set up and run their own schools under their own brand name. This was at the time Franchise chains had started multiplying, and many wannabe school owners were struggling with a royalty based model.
By Jan 2014, we had over 300 schools in India following Kreedo, and we also started our own preschool to ensure that every aspect of Kreedo was researched and developed keeping the child in mind. This gave me an opportunity to work with children directly and refine Kreedo in every area. It also gave me a very clear insight into how children play, how they learn, what takes their interest and so on.
All of this has been incorporated into Skola.
When children play with a particular toy or are involved in a particular activity, it is far more likely that they will engage longer when the purpose of the toy or activity is clear to them.
If there is a slide in a park, they are clear that you can go up the steps and slide down the chute. When that gets boring, you could move on to climbing the chute upside down and so on.
Similarly, with a simple toy, say, for instance, one that has 6 circles of different diameters.
Children are excited because they know what to do without adult intervention. They take out all the circles and put them back.
When the circles are all of the same colour, it is challenging and keeps children interested. If the circles are all of different colours, it would make the toy less challenging and also children may lose interest because they are not clear if they are looking for a change in diameter or colour.
We clearly favour single purpose over multipurpose also for the fact that too many objectives on one single toy confuse children and also distract them, thus diminishing the chances of building concentration.
We truly believe that children take to natural materials with far more interest than they would with a synthetic one. Materials like wood, sand, jute have a textural appeal that is very strong for a child. So all our toys are wooden. We use very few components of metal / other materials only where necessary.
The toys have been made with a universal appeal for children. We use a lot of real-world themes like birds, animals, things around the house and so on which every child will relate to. The world around them is what fascinates children at this age, and Skola themes typically revolve around them. The real world is also depicted as
realistically as possible without any element of fantasy/cartoons in them. Children enjoy working with adult-like formats rather than being something imaginary.
Every Skola Toy is part of a learning journey in which it forms one step. So when we conceptualise the toy, we keep in mind the objective of the toy and then would be accordingly worked out.
For instance, if it is a journey through colours, the second stage would be pairing and identifying colours, which we have built around socks. The third stage then becomes gradation or shading of colours, which we have made in the form of spinning wheels.
The best thing about Toy design is about looking at the world from a child’s point of view.
More than a designer, I actually conceptualise the toy. We as adults assume many aspects of the working of a child’s mind. It is astonishing how differently they actually think.
Once the toy is conceptualised we work with specialist toy designers who design based on guidelines specified by us.
Designing a toy that engages children well is challenging and yet simple. The use of colours, forms and the variety of elements that go into toy design is also super exciting.
It is also an area where many youngsters have started specialising and we are always excited to work with young talent.
Yes, we just had our first international expo at Spielwarenmesse, which is the world’s largest Toy Fair in Germany. There were 3000 toy companies from across the world displaying there. Skola Toys was recognized amidst some wonderful toy companies as having a completely exclusive and unique range of toys. We are also currently exhibiting in the Middle East Toy Fair. And we have had an absolutely wonderful feedback from toy distributors across the world.
We are available online on www.skola.toys. We are also available on Amazon, Hopscotch, FirstCry and other platforms. We are available in Full of Toys in Bangalore, and will be available in some of the large toy retail shops shortly.
Every day is an adventure when work is exciting, so you find time to do a lot. In my field of work, research and work are closely intertwined. Every toy that we want to design goes through a good amount of testing, improvising and prototyping before it is finalised.
My evenings are spent completely with my children, and like any typical entrepreneur, I catch up with any pending work late at night.
It also helps a lot that my family is also involved in the business. My husband Mani is the co-founder and manages the operations and manufacturing largely. My mother is the founder of Kido Enterprises and has been managing manufacturing and logistics for 25 years now. My father supports us with administrative responsibilities.
So somehow between all of us, we always find time for my children.
I would love for Skola to be a leader in wooden toys not just in India but globally. We are working hard towards Skola Toys being a brand that thinks from a child’s point of view. We also hope to build awareness in India towards the importance of playing with the right toys in Early years, because this can change the way children think completely.
Skola is about #playitright
Devishobha is the founder of Kidskintha- a global parenting and education collective, and the host of the global virtual conferences hosted on the platform. You can also find her voice on the Huffington Post, Mother.ly, Entrepreneur, Lifehack, TinyBuddha, Thought Catalog and many other publications.