Bloon Toys: Built at the intersection of Design and Learning


The following is the transcript of a talk given at the Kala Ghoda Festival of Arts, Mumbai as a part of the Godrej Design Labs Fellowship in early 2020. 

Hello

My name is Isha, and I’m the founder of bloon toys.
At its core, Bloon Toys is an education company. What is education? It’s that set of skills or things the next generation needs to learn to be prepared for the future.
Right now, we’re at the cusp of what a lot of people are calling the fourth industrial revolution – driven by technological advancements in artificial intelligence, ‘smart’ systems, robotics and automation. The World Economic Forum published a report a couple of years ago calling for a re- skilling revolution and listing out the ‘skills’ that would be increasingly important in the future.
Amongst these were skills like –
  • Analytical thinking and innovation
  • Learning strategies, and
  • Initiative
  • Design and programming
  • Critical thinking and analysis
  • Complex problem-solving
  • Leadership, and
  • Reasoning, problem-solving and ideation
  • Systems analysis and evaluation...
 Mostly ‘human’ skills.

Just before Bloon Toys was launched, I was teaching a few primary classes in a school. One of the first exercises I did with the class was to draw a picture of myself with my family as a means of introduction to the class. I held up the paper briefly, introducing them to my drawing and then asked them to do the same, as I walked around to be introduced to them and their families.
More than half the class of 5 and 6 year olds had their hands go up... they said they didn’t know how to draw and asked me to ‘teach them’ how to... so they could copy it from me...
...Already by this age had they somehow come to the understanding that there was one right way of doing things and that they didn’t know the way but needed to learn this from the teacher... In such a scenario, how are we teaching our kids creativity? Human skills? To take their own initiative, and perhaps above everything, to believe in themselves?

Simultaneously, I was doing a teacher training course in Waldorf education which believed that there was another way.
Play.

All animals play – dolphins play, lions play, monkeys play, rats play. Cheetahs play catch, goat kids run on steep cliff slopes chasing each other, puppies play fight, monkeys climb on higher and higher branches swinging from trees. Play is an instinct – evolution’s way of making sure they learn the skills essential to their survival. Through their play – the cheetahs learn how to manoeuvre during a chase, the goats learn to escape on difficult terrain, puppies learn to empathise with each other – differentiating between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ biting etc.

Human beings also learn naturally through play. Free play. This is the sort of play which comes to children naturally when they’re left alone with a bit of unscheduled time. It’s when they build their imaginations with Lego, when they pretend their cushion is a car and drive around the house, when they make up a language of their own and when they edit the rules of a game to allow a "kacha nimbu" to play too!
Through this – they have demonstrated their own self-direction, practiced creativity and sometimes creative problem solving and empathised with other players.
Peter Gray – an evolutionary psychologist and educator defines Free play as being self chosen and directed, where the means are more valuable than the ends, accompanied by an alert, active, but un-stressed frame of mind where you’re in a state of ‘flow’ and thoroughly joyful!

So we, at Bloon Toys, set out to design for free play. Our first line of toys, inspired by Waldorf education, was built to facilitate imaginative play. For example, our wee family, have no features, so that children can imagine them to be whoever they want, in different moods on different days, awake, sleeping – all open to their own interpretation. Our curvy board – is used and played with in many many different ways by children.

We've turned our focus now to another vector – another sort of play...
Risky play. All animals play in ways to challenge themselves further and further –
  • Monkeys swing from higher and higher up in trees... even if it means that falling could mean getting hurt
  • They play fight with each other
  • Goat kids play ‘catch’ on steep slopes they do this in order to learn the skills they need for survival, to become resilient and to gain a sense of confidence.
In an experiment, they deprived young rats and monkeys of risky play, whilst allowing them other sorts of play and experiences. The rats and monkeys that were deprived of risky play grew up to be emotionally crippled. Later in life, when placed in a novel environment, they failed to explore and adapt as a normal rat would. When placed with an unfamiliar peer, they'd alternate between freezing in fear and lashing out with inappropriate aggression... 
Children also instinctively play ‘riskily’. Climbing is one such type of risky play. All children instinctively climb – trees, poles, and other seemingly ‘impossible’ structures. They climb so that they can get higher than they thought they could, to achieve a birds’ eye view, to gain mastery over their environment and to push their physical development to the limit – fast tracking their growth. Climbing gives them a sense of confidence, achievement, develops their internal locus of control and boosts muscular development. But children aren’t getting enough of it these days... 

There's:
Diminished play in parks, as:
    • Time for outdoor play has reduced with an increase in structured activities – classes, work- shops, extra tuition... in addition to school
    • Outdoor spaces themselves are shrinking with rapid urbanisation
    • Fear for their safety makes parents reluctant to send children down to play
    Diminished in-home climbing, as:
      • Children are restricted from climbing on things at home (homes/furniture are not built to support climbing)
      • Increased screen time, makes children increasingly sedentary in their ‘free time’
      • Dedicated climber structures such as Pikler and RIE triangles for homes are not easily available and not well suited to the Indian home
      Our task is to develop an indoor climber structure built for the Indian home, to allow children to climb, at their own pace, exploring their own boundaries, feeling and overcoming their own fear and becoming more resilient, confident, adaptive kids. We’re currently in prototyping, and you’ll see the results soon! :)

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