How toyland is changing
Dense jungles, tiny nurseries, math that merges with chemistry and magic — India’s newest toy startups are succeeding at learning made fun, and they’ve seen a boom in the pandemic.
The mystery of the box is something parents have witnessed and experienced, usually to their amusement and frustration, for generations. It can be phrased as a simple statement. You can spend all you can (and sometimes more than that) on a gift for a child, only to find they are more interested in the box.
The truth is, few games and toys offer a creative child the blank slate that the cardboard box affords. Is it a fort? Can I climb in? Draw on it? Turn it upside down to make a drum?
“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,” is how Arvind Gupta, a Padma Shri awardee, toy scientist and inventor, puts it.
Of course, no child wants a room full of cardboard boxes. The kingdom of toys, in fact, follows a Linnaean taxonomy -- kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. For instance, here’s how Scrabble would break up. Kingdom: games; phlyum: physical games; class: multiplayer; order: board games; family: games of skill; genus: word games; species: scrabble. You can do the same for anything -- from drones to dolls.
It’s a market valued at $1.23 billion in India as of 2020, according to the Indian Toys Market 2021-26 report by market research group IMARC. Within that market, a rash of new startups has set up shop, aiming to bridge the gap between cardboard box and jungle gym, textbook and card game, wildlife safari and board game. In a time of no jungle gyms, no friends to play cards with and no possibility of a wildlife safari, these companies have seen demand boom.
Because what do you do when you have to work from home, your child’s bored of their dolls and cars and Ludo? You get them a board game that lets them roll the dice and land in 13th century medieval India, to strategise with kings as Muhammad Ghori prepares to invade. (That’s toy startup Kitki’s Rise of the Delhi Sultanate). Or order Bengaluru-based startup Kaadoo’s wildlife safari games, where cards help you proceed through sightings or rain keeps you from spotting the rhino.
If your child’s a bit younger, you might try Chennai-based Ariro’s all-wood play furniture that helps develop motor skills and keeps tots under 8 busy. There are also DIY model kits to keep children under 15 busy, made by Pune-based Funvention. And general knowledge-based card games by Skillmatics that the whole family can play together, while they find out what they know (and don’t) about cities, animals, sports.
“Both my children have grown up discovering play with open-ended toys such as stackers, blocks and Lego pieces that allowed them to play imaginatively,” says Moushmi Prakasham, a mother of two from Mumbai. As her children grew older — they’re now seven and four — she says she had to look harder for toys that kept them imagining, creating and guessing. That’s when she came upon Kitki online. Her boys love their game Three Sticks, where players must keep building on an existing shape to make new shapes with the sticks they’re given.
To them, it’s a puzzle. But they’re learning while they play and they don’t even know it. “Learning then becomes an exercise you look forward to,” says Devanshi Kejriwal, co-founder of Skillmatics.
That way, when the kids do look inside the box, they could find that its contents hold out the same kind of promise of excitement and possibility that the box once did..
KITKI: Board games for kids 8 and over
Bestselling item: Three Sticks; for two or more players
It’s like Scrabble for shapes. Each player gets three sticks per round. The game starts with players putting their sticks together to form a triangle. As each player’s turn comes up, they must then add more sticks and form other shapes around that first triangle. There are wild cards, bonuses and deterrents along the way. (Price: ₹1,200)
The founders of Kitki rolled the dice in 2013, when they set up an experiential learning company. It led them up a ladder and along a bit of a tangent.
“We got to a point where we realised that what we were interested in as kids had nothing to do with what we were doing for a living,” says Pramod Ponnaluri, 35, a former management consultant who set up the company with his wife, Rohini Deepthi, 35, then a business consultant.
They both quit their jobs to try and influence and infuse fun into how kids learn. They partnered with schools to conduct workshops, field visits and experiments primarily around maths and science. “The idea was to get kids to think, ask questions and have fun along the way,” Ponnaluri says.
Two years in, they found they were having difficulty scaling up. They did have some experience in game-based learning by now, and decided to deviate from the original path a bit, with the same goal. “We decided to make games that were fun and would stand alone but where learning also happened in the background, without anyone thinking about it,” Ponnaluri says.
Kitki means window in Telugu. “We all like looking out of a window — in a classroom, on a bus, in the balcony,” Deepthi says. “That’s because we are curious to know, to learn about what happens outside. We are that Kitki for kids.”
The first game they released, in 2015, was Three Sticks. “Rohini loves geometry. Me not so much. This game is supposed to bridge that gap,” Ponnaluri says. A crowdfunding campaign on Indigogo raised $10,000 (about ₹6.2 lakh then) in one month, and a user base looking forward to playing the game. “The success of that campaign gave us a boost,” Ponnaluri says.
Among the buyers of Three Sticks is Moushmi Prakasham, a mother of two from Mumbai who found it online in August 2020, while looking for games that would spur her sons’ imagination. “I was excited to see how my seven-year-old Vidyut would respond to imagination within some constraints,” she says. “He thoroughly enjoyed it, as did I.”
Vidyut says he now knows more shapes than his mom. “For me it’s interesting to see what shapes I can make with the sticks I get. I once made an eight-sided figure and it was awesome,” he adds. “Another time I wanted more points so I decided to make many-sided shapes but realised it wasn’t easy.”
Kitki now has five other games on offer , including Samrat: Rise of the Delhi Sultanate, a strategy game; Fossil Wars, a trivia card game; and Space Pirates, a cops-and-robbers type of game that plays out on four of Jupiter’s moons. The team has grown to include four others, who work with the founders on ideation, production, design and testing.
“We have two more games in the pipeline,” Deepthi says. “One is a strategy war game based on Indian mythology. The other is a fun number-deducing game based on algebra.”
ARIRO: Wooden toys for kids under 8
Bestselling item: Pikler triangle
A climbing structure based on one first designed a century ago by Hungarian paediatrician Dr Emmi Pikler, it keeps children aged six months to six years occupied while exercising their limbs. It’s essentially an inverted V fitted with a ramp with ridges. The structure lets children, climb, crawl, hang and twist about. (Price: ₹14,000)
It’s been a great year for Ariro toys, says Vasanth Tamilselvan. The Chennai-based startup was two years old and growing slowly when the pandemic hit. A few months in, business began to soar. Sales have gone up by a factor of five over the past year.
“People were looking for toys and tools to keep their kids engaged and away from electronics while they worked from home. We hit our ten-thousandth sale in October,” Tamilselvan says.
Tamilselvan, 36, an entrepreneur, co-founded Ariro with his wife Nisha Vasanth, 30, a Montessori teacher, two years after their daughter Nakshatra was born. She was their inspiration. When Nakshatra developed a reaction to plastic toys as a baby, the couple tried to find wooden alternatives, but few were locally available. “So we decided to make some,” Tamilselvan says.
Vasanth researched designs and Tamilselvan got to work sourcing the wood. They decided to use neem, known to have anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties, and reached out to a carpenter on simple teethers and rattles for their daughter. “Friends began to ask where they could get some too,” Tamilselvan says. That’s when his entrepreneur’s brain kicked in. This could be a business, he thought.
The couple spent the next two years touring Europe and attending toy fairs in China to learn everything they could about materials and the market, sometimes taking little Nakshatra with them. Ariro Wooden Toys was born in 2018, with two lines of products, rattles and teethers, sold online.
“Ariro is the first lullaby sung to babies in Tamil,” says Vasanth. “We wanted to name our company something Indian to represent quality toys that are made by an Indian brand, in India.”
In the early months, mothers acted as evangelists, posting about the products on social media, and that helped immensely. The Ariro team slowly expanded to include more Montessori teachers to brainstorm and come up with designs based on the needs of different children. The company has since expanded to a staff of 24 — including product and sales managers. Mothers are approached for feedback at every stage of development.
For the actual moulding of many of their toys, Ariro works with traditional toy-making communities in Channapatna in Karnataka and Etikoppaka in Andhra Pradesh. Bestselling items now include a wooden indoor jungle gym (above); a learning tower that lets little children do small counter activities like brushing their teeth or washing small utensils, next to an adult as they are working or doing chores (which can also be converted into a table and chair for a meal).
Its 16 categories of products include stackers and nesters that help children learn shapes and develop spatial awareness. “We are now looking to expand our manufacturing to other traditional toy clusters across India,” says Tamilselvan. “Each one has its own strengths and great potential.”
FUNVENTION: DIY kits for kids aged 3 to 14
Bestselling item: DIY Garden Drip Irrigation Kit
This kit lets kids set up a seed germination stand, with small valves and pipes that form a mechanical drip irrigation system, and growing material. You can plant seeds for peas and mustard, among other easy-to-grow plants, and monitor activity as the plants germinate and grow. (Price: ₹892)
Funvention was meant to be a YouTube channel. As kids, brothers Milind Vadnere and Kamlesh Vadnere loved to build complex models of buildings and structures that they saw around them, using Thermocol, cardboard, bits of wood and other scrap.
In 2016, Milind, then a software engineer, and Kamlesh, then a graphic designer, decided to revive that passion by posting DIY or do-it-yourself tutorials on YouTube for kids. “We never started it, because procuring the materials for what we wanted to build was not very easy,” says Milind, now 39. “And if we were having a tough time, we figured kids might just watch, but wouldn’t get to replicate.”
That gave the brothers the idea for their toy company. Funvention now ships kits complete with instructions that allow kids to make their own catapults, drip irrigation systems, models of vehicles and more.
The DIY Garden Drip Irrigation Kit, launched in 2017, was one of their first products. Within months, they had eight DIY model kits for planes, bikes, chariots, etc. You can now also get kits to make your own toy robot or tiny rocket launcher (above). Some of these kits have mechanical moving parts such as levers and axles.
For the first two years, they worked out of Kamlesh’s home in Pune, while keeping their day jobs. They hired sales representatives in Bengaluru, Mumbai and Chennai to liaise with distributors, local toy sellers and customers. Then, in 2018, Kamlesh lost his battle with cancer. Determined to nurture their company, Milind quit his job.
Funvention now has more than 100 DIY products in its portfolio. “Sales have doubled in the last six months,” Milind says. “Parents were looking for ways to occupy their kids, and our products do that for hours at a time.” The models, in fibreboard, ply and paper, also offer a great surface for painting and decoration.
Anuja Rajput, 29, has taken to buying Funvention kits for her six-year-old niece Preet. “I found this concept of smart activities very interesting,” she says. “Her mother tells me Preet really enjoyed building and playing with the drip irrigation kit. It gave her such a sense of responsibility, she would sometimes interrupt TV time so she could take care of her plants.”.
SKILLMATICS: Learning games for kids over 3 (and their parents)
Bestselling item: Guess in 10
A modified version of 21 Questions, it aims to teach players a little about different animals, cities, sports and countries, among various other themes. Each player takes turns trying to get the other players to guess what is on the card they’re holding. The other players can ask up to 10 questions that will be answered with a yes or a no. There are wild cards and clue cards too, to help carry the game forward. (Price: ₹350)
Five years ago, Dhvanil Sheth, then 26, was spending some time with his nephews when he was struck by how early children were taking to screens. His younger nephew, just three years old, even tried to use his finger to scroll up the page of a physical book. “That’s when we realised that this sector had great potential,” says his business partner Devanshi Kejriwal, 24.
She had a degree in finance and operations, he was a management consultant. They put their heads together and after a year of brainstorming and setting up of operations, launched Skillmatics in 2017. Their first products were a series of wipe-and-write activity mats on different themes — space, animals, languages.
“These are like textbook exercises, but they don’t feel like homework,” says Kejriwal. “The interface is like a tablet screen, it’s colourful and fun. The learning becomes an experience to look forward to.”
Skillmatics’ products are the result of intense market research. “We don’t go with intuition,” says Kejriwal. A data analysis team studies what consumers are looking for and how that is changing.
Once a prototype for a product has been developed, it is run through three stages of testing, with at least 60 children participating in each stage. The testing is monitored by a team that includes consulting child psychologists, teachers and product developers.
“Guess in 10 was developed when we picked up on insight that consumers were looking for travel-friendly games that were compact and easy to store,” says Kejriwal. “What we also noticed was that the action of guessing is very popular, like the action of buying and selling (which we see in Monopoly) and balancing games (such as Jenga).”
Skillmatics often uses algorithms to name and position games. The games are also check against market opportunity, and developed to solve consumer pain points in existing games.
In 2019, Skillmatics became the first Indian company to be stocked globally by Hamleys, the iconic toy store company that is now owned by Reliance Industries.
“Guess in 10 has over 10,000 reviews on Amazon,” says Kejriwal.
Their latest game, launched in January, is called Train of Thought and was developed to help children and adults communicate better. This goes beyond chitchat about food, homework and chores, says Kejriwal. It’s an attempt to get children and parents to dig deep, together.
“It’s very rare that a parent gets to answer questions like, if I had a superpower, what would it be, or a kid gets to think about what is something I am good that I could teach someone else,” she says. Skillmatics currently has a portfolio of 45 games.
KAADOO: Wildlife-themed board games for kids 6 and older
Bestselling item: The Big Game: Nilgiri Biosphere
You roll the dice to proceed on your tour of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve and encounter some of its most popular and rarest inhabitants. The objective is to “sight” as many wild animals as possible — a leopard on a hunt, a Bengal tiger with her cubs, a Malabar giant squirrel perched in a tree or the majestic Malabar pied hornbill. There are 52 “sighting” cards, and wild cards that hinder or advance your ride. (Price: ₹899)
The wild forests of the world are packed with so many plants and animals that if you want to learn the names of even a small fraction, you had better start young. That’s the logic behind Kaadoo’s Big Game series of board games. From the Western Ghats and Gir forest to the African Savannah and Arctic Circle, they help children explore wild ecosystems around the world.
Kaadoo (Kannada for Forest) is the brainchild of Bengaluru-based wildlife photographer and entrepreneur Diinesh Kumble. He launched it in 2016, with his partners Raviraj Joshi, who drives conceptualisation and design, and Ganesh Subramaniam, who heads the business end.
Kumble was driven by an interest in wildlife conservation. “He figured a good way to communicate and build curiosity about wildlife would be through board games,” says Subramaniam. “His subject-matter expertise was the spark. We looked at a few traditional board games to figure how to build something that could incorporate the characteristics of game mechanics — a board, dice and something to make players move around the board.”
A wildlife safari was seen as an interesting way to introduce children, and adults, to the beauties of the wild.
Kaadoo was launched with two games: Niligiri Biosphere and African Savannah. “We positioned them as family games, where parents and kids could spend time together, away from the screen, for half an hour or more,” Subramaniam says. The safari pawns are made in Karnataka’s traditional wooden-toy-making cluster of Channapatna.
More recently, Kaadoo has also introduced card games, jigsaw puzzles and cooperative games such as Night Hire, where one player is a poacher and must dodge the other players, who represent rangers.
Since Kaadoo sells mainly through brick-and-mortar toy stores in major cities, business has been hit hard in the pandemic. “We haven’t launched any new games in the last year,” says Subramaniam. And they’ve had to downsize a bit. “But we should be back up by November, with new gamest that explore new ecosystems.”
Tasneem Siddique, 34, a businesswoman from Tiruchirappalli, has been buying Kaadoo’s games for her nine-year-old son and her five-year-old nephew Farhan, who loves dinosaurs, during the pandemic. The Dino Kingdom board game has been a particular hit with Farhan.
“When there’s a dangerous eater coming, the card with tell you to walk backwards and hide in the bushes,” he says. “Everybody plays this game with me.”
The games claim to help attention span, concentration and goal orientation in children and I have found what they claim to be true, says Siddiqui.
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