Being an only child with both my parents working in high-power corporate jobs, I spent a lot of time alone. Whatever learning happened till the age of 12 was because of my loving aunt, who used to teach junior classes in a convent school and who took it upon herself to teach me numbers and the alphabet. Today, when I look at the creative tools available to children, I can't help but ask for another chance to be 10 and learn about the Seven Wonders of the World.
Start-ups are offering children a more creative, fruitful alternative to television and PlayStation games. Some have been co-founded by parents frustrated by the amount of time their child was spending in front of the television for lack of better alternatives, and others by those exasperated by normative pedagogy. Filntobox, a Chennai-based start-up, began as a father's vision to make smarter toys available to his five-year-old son. Vijaybabu Gandhi, the troubled father, tied up with two friends, Arunprasad Durairaj and Shreenidhi S P, to put together creative boxes that are based on a monthly subscription model. Each month, the subscriber gets a box for his three- to seven-year-old. This box contains learning tools like puzzles and toys that a child has to assemble. Most psychologists believe that 90 per cent of a child's brain develops till the age of six. "But in these busy times with nuclear families, parents can't fully ensure that their children are engaged effectively. And this constraint makes children resort to the easy way of watching TV," says Durairaj. For children who cannot peel their eyes away from tablets and smartphones, Flintobox also has a story reading application.
For Deepanshu Arora, co-founder of New Delhi-based Wonderboxx, the problem went beyond home and into school. "There has been too much focus on information and knowledge. Rather, the process of learning should be skill-based," he says. Arora and his business partner, Parita Parekh, started Wonderboxx in November last year. This, too, is based on a monthly subscription model, where each month, a different theme is delivered at the subscriber's doorstep. "The boxes are based on what a child should be learning and what she can at her age," explains Arora. The boxes are divided into three age groups - Toddlo (one to three years), Kiddo (three to five years) and Ginomo (five to eight years). This month's Incredible Art box for Kiddos and the Wonders of the World one for Ginomos caught my fancy. The latter teaches kids about the Seven Wonders of the World with unique puzzles, cut-out models and DIY masks, which made me almost reach for my credit card and order one for myself. The monthly box has a video explaining its contents and "learning intentions" on Wonderboxx's website. The boxes themselves come with proper instructions and a newsletter for parents.
While they encourage a monthly subscription, these boxes can be bought separately, too, and cost abour ~1,500. Each box at both companies takes about three to four months to be developed. The companies have roped in psychologists, education experts, design experts and even authors of children's literature to ideate and create unique boxes for each month. Flintobox has a tie-up with International Institute of Information Technology in Hyderabad to design developmental games that can help with a child's motor skills, creative thought process and overall psychological development. Wonderboxx also has "toy labs" at its office in New Delhi, where it invites children to come and test their creative tools and installations, such as the revolving solar system.
But psychologists are not fully convinced and want parents to err on the side of caution. "The very definition of 'play' is a process of discovery. If you hand a child a pre-created box, its novelty is over as soon as the box is opened," says Achal Bhagat, senior psychiatric consultant at Indraprastha Apollo Hospital and chairman at Saarthak. After working with under-privileged children who have no access to toys and games, he says that the process of creating toys out of mundane things like spoons and plastic bottles is an enthralling process. The other important aspect of pedagogy, he adds, is interaction. "Be it adults or peers, children learn through interactions. This is why playing out games from their imagination is important." This, Bhagat believes, can be helped if products like Wonderboxx and Flintobox can teach teachers and parents how to interact with children. Currently, these start-ups do have a focus group with parents on their advisory panel, who test out the product before it is rolled out. "In my opinion, spaces for children to play after school need to be created rather than boxes," Bhagat says. While that may still be a while, I am going to the next best thing to going back to school - solving a jigsaw puzzle from one of the boxes.