Eight months ago, Vivaa International co-directors Nanditta Kapoor and Sapna Ramaswami went on a cleaning spree to rid their Montessori preschool and day-care centre in Bangalore of every plastic toy.
“We now teach children concepts with puzzles, chess and wooden life cycle toys, which are used to teach about the life cycle of human beings. It is a multiple intelligence approach,” says Kapoor. “Wood is the best choice as it can be graded and takes on various textures and colours.” Wood is the prescribed medium for play in the method initiated a century ago by Maria Montessori, an Italian Catholic physician, educator, philosopher and humanitarian. But she is best known for her philosophy of children’s education from birth to adolescence, which begins with the assumption that every child is unique and his or her education should reflect that.
After several years of schools and parents indulging children’s desires for character toys and things that beep and have lasers and lights, a movement is slowly gaining ground to go back to the basics: simple wooden toys. In preschools, crèches and international schools, educators have been partly spurred by an interest in Montessori methods, which have highly specific standards on materials, sizes and age-appropriateness of toys. Recent scares over lead paint in plastic toys made in China also have forced tougher questions on playthings, their safety and relevance to children’s lives.
The Banyan, New Delhi, which has partnered with Magellan Academy, USA, believes combining teaching aids helps the cognitive and physical development of a child
Toys—these days, also known as a sensory apparatus—educate and stimulate. They trigger emotion and motor development. They help in socializing and enable the child to grasp concepts without being formally “taught”.
As preschool education grows across the country—triggered by education entrepreneurs, franchises and working parents seeking childcare options—many of the schools adopting wooden toys are not strictly Montessori but schools that blend different learning philosophies.
“We see the child as an imaginative person who must be given opportunities to explore. While the Montessori apparatus is great and a fabulous way to embed basic concepts such as shapes, other methods such as Playway unlock the doors of the imagination. A mix of philosophies works best,” says Abha Adams, education consultant, Step by Step School, Noida.
Directors at Vivaa International, Bangalore believe wooden toys are a good choice as wood takes on various textures and colours
The move towards making students more independent is also being felt in the ways that they play. “Play is meant for the growth of the child’s mind and body. It is experiential learning, hence educational tools are important. These help build coordination activities,” says Nandini Mundkur, child development specialist and director for the Centre for Child Development and Disabilities in Bangalore. She describes playtime as business for a child.
The shift also represents big business for schools and toymakers.
Geetha Shridhar, 54, is one of the early entrants. She started out in a small way 16 years ago with an initiative called Kido Enterprises which made toys for Montessori schools. Kido, based in Bangalore, grew into a family business. “Our turnover has grown from Rs1 lakh in the first year to Rs1 crore in 2006-2007,” says Shridhar. “While we have always worked within the tenets of the Montessori mode, we have diversified our product range.”
The company manufactures two ranges of educational materials. The first comprises Montessori materials such as jumbo cut-outs of vegetables and fruit. The second is a line of custom-designed educational products used as preliminary materials by Montessori schools as well as by other kindergartens and playschools. This second line— branded Kreedo—is comparatively cheaper, with products ranging from Rs50 to Rs1,000, while the Montessori range is from Rs500 to Rs10,000.
Beads and animal-shape sewing kits (top right) enhance fine motor skills
Another manufacturer, Maya Organic, a Bangalore-based NGO, makes wooden toys— sourced from their own enterprise collectives in Bangalore and the rural pockets of Karnataka—based on the philosophies of Howard Gardner, a psychologist based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is best known for his theory of multiple intelligences, which encourages educators to look beyond the confines of curriculum.
There are several types of intelligences; for instance, some could be based on smell, others on sound or on logic, and so on. These are specific in nature and appeal to people depending on the kind of individuals they are.
“Along with the Montessori mode, we have also incorporated Gardner’s approach to broaden our product offering. This was done to cater to all kinds of children as no two of them are alike,” says Solomon J.P., founder director of Maya Organic, which is in the process of formally launching educational tools in the market.
Just as companies have begun promoting the education philosophies their products prescribe to, schools, too, are beginning to look to such brands to distinguish themselves in a market that is becoming more crowded.
School house to corporate house
The Banyan—a preschool in New Delhi—has partnered with the Magellan Academy, which runs childcare academies in Florida and some parts of California. The proposition seems unique. The Banyan uses materials from Magellan while combining elements of Montessori with kindergarten methodologies. “A conducive environment is created for learning, apart from interactive sessions. To that extent, we are facilitators,” says Swati Jain, director, The Banyan. For instance, there are pop-up toys, which encourage the child to discover different shapes and identify objects. The discovery line of toys are aimed at the senses, where the child learns through touch and feel, and sound.
The Banyan is among a growing number of preschools which combine philosophies. In some cases, the wooden toys are just the first steps in an overhaul of educational approach.
Nooraine Fazal, co-founder and chief executive officer of the Inventure Academy in Bangalore, doesn’t even call them toys: “We use multiple intelligences,” she says. “For instance, board games address two or more intelligences. The physical education programme uses a soft gym and an adventure course extensively. Literacy is taught through audio-visual aids, music and sensory experiences. Children learn numbers through games, music and dance and in the sandpit, blocks and puzzles, and real world projects like creating a butterfly garden.”
The Little Crest, a preschool in Bangalore, has educational aids in its science corner, water play, sandpit toys, puzzles and geometric mosaic. The water play toys and science-related equipment were sourced from New Zealand (since the school had access to manufacturers there). The geometric mosaic is also from New Zealand; while the sandpit toys and puzzles are from New Zealand and from local manufacturers. “The science corner toys include insect viewer, magnets and iron filings, balance, lens, prism, kaleidoscope and microscope. In the case of magnets and iron filings, children get to explore and understand that magnets attract or repel by playing,” adds Vishalakshi, chief academician for The Little Crest, which serves children in the age group of two to six.
Kangaroo Kids Education Ltd, Mumbai—which has schools in Mumbai, Bhopal, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Kanpur, Jaipur and Bangalore—has begun making a range of equipment such as tunnels, balancing beams and musical instruments, including maracas and shakers, for developing gross motor skills, perceptual motor abilities such as body coordination, laterality and directionality and rhythmic abilities. “A lot of dramatic play equipment such as kitchen play toys are kept in the especially designed spaces called ‘dolls’ houses’ to encourage social interaction through parallel play and cooperative play,” says Lina Ashar, founder, Kangaroo Kids. All these toys have rounded corners and edges and are prepared with wood and non-toxic materials to ensure safety, she adds.
Bangalore-based S.V. Surya Rekha, professor of psychology and treasurer, Bangalore Psychology Forum, says that parents are more comfortable with wooden toys. “Wooden toy manufacturers use organic and vegetable dyes. This takes care of the safety factor, as children put toys into their mouths. These toys are designed with a purpose. Learning, then, becomes play and that is why parents are moving away from plastic toys,” she explains.
As a safety measure, Centre for Montessori Training (CMT) in Chennai ensures that teachers are always around when the children use the materials. “We have children between three and six years, and they are not allowed to use anything off the shelf without the teacher’s help. Children have to be initiated into the use, they should be given the technical know-how of handling it. Or else, if they don’t know, they might experiment, which may not be successful,” says Chithra Mani, associate director at CMT.
The change in play is also changing what is in the toy box at home. “I’m very environmentally conscious and feel wooden toys are better for our environment,” says Sritha Sandon, mother of a three-year-old in Bangalore. “Moreover, the present wooden toys have an old-world charm and are educational. The colours are as attractive as the plastic ones, and the toys are pleasant too.” She adds, though, that it is near impossible to avoid the plastic. “I don’t think plastic toys are not good. In fact, I have bought plastic toys for my daughter,” she says, adding that they are much more expensive though.
Child’s play, it turns out, actually needs a lot of work.
TOYS THAT TEACH
Five wooden toys for your toddler
Theme puzzles or Identification trays
What they do: Theme puzzles help the child place objects in a specified slot while reinforcing fine motor skills, manipulative skills, hand and eye coordination. They also help the child improve his/her grip since most of the puzzle pieces have a small thumb pin with which the child can lift the piece.
Cost: Start at Rs120
What they do:Building blocks help increase coordination and concentration skills. The child learns to recognize basic shapes, colours and sizes. They help to promote building skills and reinforce cognitive thinking and tactile skills.
Cost: Start at Rs900 (60 pieces)
What they do: Posting boxes help the child recognize basic shapes, colours and sizes while reinforcing fine motor skills, manipulative skills, hand and eye coordination. They also help children to improve their grip.
Cost: Start at Rs300
What they do:Help in muscle development and improve grip. Enhance memory and help the child make connections between related items.
Cost: Start at Rs225
What they do: Bead shuttles enhance hand and eye coordination. Act as a precursor to writing skills since children learn to use their fingers and wrist muscles while moving the beads up and down the spiral wires.
Cost: Start at Rs195