A good toy is one that can be taken apart, says toy scientist Arvind Gupta
He’s the sort of toymaker you read about in children’s tales. Except he’s real. Arvind Gupta, 67, is a toy scientist whose life’s work has been to introduce students and teachers across the country to do-it-yourself toys and science models fashioned out of discarded or low-cost material. Gupta was awarded the Padma Shri in 2018, for his unique contribution to education.
“The best thing a child can do with a toy is break it,” he says. Because that satiates a child’s curiosity about what’s going on inside it, and they’re bound to learn a few things along the way.
On his website, arvindguptatoys.com, there are thousands of free “recipes” for making toys from scrap. Some, Gupta has collected from his work and travel across the country, others he has made up himself. Anything around the house — from broken CDs to used cartons, straws, cardboard and matchsticks — can be fashioned into a game, puzzle or even a little technological marvel such as a pump, sundial or turbine, he says.
Gupta’s YouTube videos are used in classrooms around the world to teach principles of science through simple experiments that children can enjoy and relate to. So what makes a “good” toy, what should game creators be aiming for, and what’s his own personal favourite? Excerpts from an interview:
What are the things a good toy must do?
Toys should be dynamic — fly, spin, jump, roll, make a sound. Dynamic toys interest children much more that static toys. Some of the best and most successful toys are not “blackboxes” where you press a button and some LED lights glow and something shrieks and makes a loud din. A good toy is one that is simple, can be taken apart and put back together… It’s no wonder that the most successful toy in the world is the LEGO brick, which opens up immense possibilities for a child for further exploration.
In an age of such digital infiltration, can physical toys and games compete with the screen?
There are two cardinal principles of education – from the concrete to the abstract, and from the near to the far. Before children can understand a concept, they need a lot of experience — touching, smelling, listening, putting things together, pulling them apart, working with different materials and learning to manipulate them. All evidence and studies show that digital games will after a point numb the intelligence and good old wooden blocks and build-it-yourself sets are still the best ways to learn.
What were your toys like growing up?
I grew up in the town of Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh. My parents never went to school. My mother was enlightened and she sent us to the best school in our town. We were poor and could not afford to buy toys, so we tried to make them ourselves with whatever was at hand — old matchboxes, cigarette packs, newspapers, bottle crown caps. I would later study electrical engineering at IIT-Kanpur. I gave up a career in that field in 1978, to work with toys and science.
You’ve said your wife made it possible for you to do this…
People talk about life insurance, but I had wife insurance. My wife Sunita taught in a college and she earned enough for the family. She never made demands of me. I guess I was very lucky to be able to passionately pursue what I wanted to do.
What should we be aiming for as a nation when it comes to the making of toys?
India is a huge country and there should be a much huger demand for toys. Unfortunately, because of uneven development and poverty, toys remain out of the reach of millions.
India has a great tradition of people making toys with scrap. This tradition of folk toys has almost disappeared because of factory-made mass-produced toys. We need to make good quality, low-cost toys to cater to our children. Not these second-hand dies and moulds from Taiwan and Korea that are devoid of any cultural or social context.
What is your advice to startups in India that are focusing on toys and games for children?
Concentrate on your core strengths. Some of the ones that are doing well are not competing with China but rather making toys from recycled material and designing toys for Indian children. More startups must get into such products. To tap a vast market their products have to be very affordable.
As a child, did your daughter have a favourite toy that you made?
Being a rebel she tells me she did not like any of the toys that I made!
What is your favourite toy?
My favorite toy is a Flapping Ear Rabbit made from a square piece of paper in less than 30 seconds! It always brings a smile to a child’s face!