Championing Our Children To Learn Through Play

Karen Villard is the Founder of Cubo Toys and a mum of 2 young children, a 4-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son.  She used to work as a media manager for one of the leading media advertising agencies in the Philippines and Singapore handling children’s brands you know and love before venturing to the early years sector as a preschool co-founder and an early years educator then eventually as a toy entrepreneur.  Karen is also a play ambassador and expert contributor to the Genius of Play, a non-profit organisation based in the US, promoting play-based learning to families worldwide.

You’ve recently relocated with your husband and 3 children from Melbourne to Hong Kong, how was the transition like for you socially and culturally?

We were quite excited going back to Asia during the pandemic and to be closer to family and friends.  I wasn’t really prepared for the difference of being a mere tourist on multiple occasions versus actually residing here.  It was a tough period for me without the usual support I had in Melbourne such as full time child care support for both my children.  It was also the heat of the lockdown in most places and masks everywhere, even babies. 

I would say that even being here for 2 years, I don’t feel myself quite fitting in as I do think that I have been greatly influenced by the Melbourne ways.  But I heard stories from other expat mums like me that it took them about 3 or more years to really adjust well in Hong Kong life so I can say that, it’s not so bad and we’ll get there.

Why do you think it’s so important for children to learn through play?

I believe that learning through play is the ONLY approach in ensuring that our children will develop a love for life-long learning.  There has been so much research around play being used as a medium of instruction for kids to absorb information and knowledge.  There isn’t any pressure or stress for children to learn but to let kids just be and learn on their own terms, by following their interests. 

Our play nature is as unique as our fingertips thus we have different ways to play, unlike a sit-down lecture where kids are expected to follow the same outcomes in a standardised test approach.  When children learn through a play-based approach, they get to test their hypothesis with the early learning concepts presented to them and follow those breadcrumbs to scaffold their learning.

What are your perspectives and opinions on the educational systems that our children are going through in this day and age?

My daughter recently attended a Chinese language class in Zoom and she was really excited about it.  After ten minutes, her eyes started to twitch and she wasn’t smiling anymore.  She’s only 4 years old but I can sense that she’s stressed and pressured to answer each time during this class. 

It’s a completely different story with another Chinese language class she shares with her younger 2 year old brother, they both craft, sing, count, and pretend to read Chinese characters even at home.  I do think that the play-based movement is important to our educational systems and I am glad that there are schools who adapt quickly to the benefits of learning through play.  It’s just sad that not everyone is sold to it and is still following the old ways of forcing children to read or having homework at 4 years old.  

If you could turn back time, how would you change/improve the way you were schooled?

I do think that there was a lot of note taking during the early days of my schooling.  In my first primary year, there were just endless words board after board and that fear that stuck to me when the teacher was about to erase the lecture.  I think that it was only from my fourth grade that they started practical arts where we used our hands to learn. 

I just wished they had started all these from my kindergarten years because by 4th grade, I had a lot of childhood fears that had built up and those fears had prevented me from learning.  I do wish that if practical lessons were introduced early on in my life, I would have been more passionate for each and every lesson that followed.  That’s why at home, I make sure that children are exposed to relevant and age-appropriate learning experiences so that they can build on those skills as they grow older.

What impact are you looking to make with Cubo Toys?

While I was working for an MNC as a medical representative, I went to the deep provincial areas of my region and have witnessed the long wait families have to endure to get medical attention.  Sometimes it takes half a day for a newborn to get vaccinated and their young children have nothing else to do but wait.  They travel far and will take only public transport so there’s nothing much they can bring to edutain their kids. 

Our libraries, even those in the main city, aren’t equipped to cater to children as what I’ve seen in other countries where I lived like Melbourne, Singapore, and Hong Kong.  These rich cities have aisles of board books, picture books, and new media for every age, language, and culture.  They even have a space where children can play or attend baby and toddler classes hosted by their local communities.  

My dream is to partner with local councils and establish toy libraries in these in-need communities: a play corner with a mini library of books in rural and urban health centres, local libraries, and government hospitals where young children can play and read while waiting.  

I want to create a toy library system that consists of our modular toys and books so that we don’t take up much space even in small corners but have the ability to offer so much choice of learning to children and their parents.  

Ultimately, our goal is to reduce our impact on the planet by offering modular and multi-usable toys that can last years of usage and that will grow with the child’s learning needs.  With our toys, we hope to impact not only the current families but for these toys to serve families of the next generation.

What are 3 tips that you would share with parents to help them be more involved in their children’s play?

I do think that parents should move away from screens when they are around their children so that they get to be present with them.  Our kids don’t need fancy toys nor luxury trips to have fun as all they need are their mums and dads to play with them.

Parents should also dress down when out with their children.  It will be easier to jump into puddles or try the slide and seesaw with appropriate clothes for play.  As we say, there’s no bad weather but only bad clothes so the same thing applies to having fun with kids. 

The last one I want to leave is to channel their inner kid again.  I think that our play nature comes from our very core when we were growing up and accessing it again will match our children’s energy to play.

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