Published: 30th June 2021
Give your heart away to these open-ended and modern wooden toys, just like we did
LOYORA, Bloon and Birch and Bug — these brands are offering wooden toys like you've never seen before. Incorporating traditional techniques with minimalistic aesthetics, you just have to have a look
Play with them today, dump them tomorrow, that's the nature of most plastic-y toys because not only do they become outdated as the years go by, they also hold no one's attention for a sustained amount of time. So why not go old school, back to the days of wooden toys? They are open-ended, stimulate imagination in ways that only a few things can, plus they can engage children's goldfish-like attention.
It was about a year ago, in August, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi went vocal for wooden toys. It certainly drew a lot of attention and rightly so. Those ventures that have been mushrooming in the direction of wooden toys have seen light at the end of the tunnel and so have a few artisans who work in the field. Lasting impact is far away but at least it's got people talking. We check out three brands that have been playing the wooden-toy field to know directly from the horse's mouth why these toys are better.
Love for LOYORA
Wooden toys may not give the impression that they offer value for money, but instead, what they offer a child is imagination. "Wooden toys are open-ended, the child leads the play. It makes them more creative and encourages problem-solving skills," says Namrata Rai who started LOYORA Design with her husband Rajesh Narasimha. LOYORA, a design-led furniture company that creates interior design solutions, has been creating wooden toys since they launched in 2018.
Snoopy, The Pull Toy is a toy that will accompany your child everywhere. We also quite love Rio, Ring Stacker
With all respect to traditional techniques, which are used to make these toys, what LOYORA does is give toys a modern twist. They've got tetris, miniature tractors and aircrafts, stacking blocks and - what currently has our attention — a range of magnetic animal puzzles. It's inspired by origami and tangrams, and it's quite a fascinating pull-apart puzzle that begs to be explored. No wonder it was shortlisted for the Lexus Design Award as well. "Good design is for everyone, then why not kids?" asks Namrata poignantly. The designs are surely their USP. And we aren't surprised, after all, Rajesh pursued his Master's in Furniture and Interior Design from Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, while Namrata pursued her graduation in Textile Design from National Institute of Design. They've clearly got some pretty strong design aesthetic game!
Plus, they use wood like neem and use non-toxic paints and water-based finishes as well. "Most wooden toy manufacturers claim that the material is sustainable, but their finishes are actually not. They use PU (polyurethane) polish. We ensure that even our packaging is environment-friendly," says the 37-year-old who works along with a team of 15 to make these toys happen. "Our technical inspirations have been from traditional toys, but we also lend it a modern and minimalist twist. Our craftsmen work very hard to make this happen," says the design pro. Apart from them, the duo's two kids serve as "in-house product inspectors" and offer hoards of inspiration as well. "For six months, my li'l ones begged me for a plastic excavator toy and when I gave in and bought it for them, they played with it for half a day and that was it. Wooden toys give children space to really flex their imagination," she states.
Magnetic animals | (Pic: LOYORA Design)
LOYORA's latest offering is the ridiculously adorable Tilly, The Teapot, an ideal companion for pretend-play games. "Pretend-play has always been a way for children to bond with others over endless cups of tea," Namrata shares and laughs. Coming up next are more magnetic wooden toys like a chameleon, koala and squirrel. Namrata believes that the truth about the other toys we see in the market is that they are not only cheap and ‘Made in China’ but also that the best ones are actually en route to the West. LOYORA stands in the way as a strong alternative that is not only reminiscent of our own traditional wooden toys, but are also as modern as they can get.
Not only do plastic toys come with huge operating manuals, but there is also the battery cost to consider. So why not simplify playtime? "At the same time, I understand why wooden toys are a hard sell. But honestly, plastic toys are actually very limiting," she establishes. She believes that the market has indeed opened up for them and the possibilities are boundless now, especially with new-age parents and their awareness about the kind of materials that are good for their children. At the hands of a discerning parent, these wooden toys can be learning tools and can actually be passed on from one child to another, just like precious heirlooms.
Rajesh and Namrata | (Pic: LOYORA Design)
For more on them check out loyoraplay.com
It's playtime with Bloon
In early 2017, Isha Gopal quit the corporate rat race and started using Waldorf techniques to teach in public schools. "That's when I understood the idea of self-directed education. I would watch children learn by themselves and that became the crux of Bloon Toys — toys with no user manuals, but embedded with a deep meaning," explains the Mumbaikar. She adds, "The current method of teaching is not the best way to educate children. The AI revolution is upon us and what has been traditionally taught in schools will soon become redundant. We need more focus on human skills like empathy, imagination, grit and perseverance. Since these are not skills one can learn in a classroom, they must learn it through play."
Irregular zen blocks, inspired by Tumi Ishi or Japanese zen blocks, are made from different wood and have a finishing of tung oil (a wood finish and preservative)
Bloon Toys, started in July 2018, has products that are perfect for unsupervised play as wood (birch, oak, maple and neem), wool and beeswax (for polish) are used. The point is that parents should have so much confidence in the product that they just let their kids be with it. Right now, their catalogue might have only six toys, but every toy is sure to catch the eye. The first one that does is Curvy Board 2.0. With the power to withstand over 300 kg, this rocker board can transform into a bridge, rainbow or even a tunnel in the eyes of a curious child. "All you have to do is hand it over to a child with no explanation and then sit back and watch. Intuitively, a few will sit on it and others will jump," explains the 35-year-old who works with a team of five to execute her designs. We are told that it indeed does catch the eye of a lot of people who end up asking, 'What do we do with this?'. "But that's the point, a child would never ask that question. They would just start playing," she points out.
Paleontoy | (Pic: Bloon Toys)
Looking at all their products like the slingshot and felt balls, paleontoys and zen blocks, we can surely tell that Isha is fussy about her designs and ensures that simplicity is the driving factor. "Toys are seen as use-and-throw, which promotes a certain wastefulness in the minds of children. We aim at creating products that stand the test of time," shares the founder. Wee Folk are wooden forms depicting no features or mood, hence, it's fluid in its rigidity and completely open to interpretation. The Bloon Book for ages seven and above is worth a special mention because it tries to subvert all that we know about art. An open-ended drawing book, every page has a starting point, for example, a huge peach-coloured dot, and children need to interpret it in ways that are natural to them. "When we are confronted with a blank page, we often go back to what we are taught, like landscapes. But there is no right way of drawing. Kids need to let their imagination take over completely," says Isha, who has an MBA from ISB, Hyderabad. She recalls that, "As an English teacher to six and seven-year-olds in a South Bombay government school, I would frequently start the year by sharing my story, giving them my background and asking them to put my story into art."
Isha Gopal | (Pic: Bloon Toys)
The pandemic has been both good and bad for Bloon. Good because children are looking to play differently and bad because production has been very hard. The supply chain seems to have dried up with their people unable to turn up for work on most days. And yet, a lot of curiosity around their products is keeping the ball rolling for them.
For more on them check out bloontoys.com
Back to Birch and Bugs
How many is too many when it comes to toys? Moreover, what kind of toys should they be? These are the questions Vicky Bamrah was confronted with when her son Angad (now four years old) was starting to grow more and more curious. The 43-year-old was looking for a toy with no rules, zero plastic, gender neutral and something that helps him discover his own creativity. So, she made them herself, with a lot of help from craftsmen, of course. That's how the idea behind Birch and Bug took birth in her head in December 2020 and was launched in February this year. She just drove down to Channapatna, the town famous for toys, and engaged an artisan who was open to working with her. "When I saw the artisan and his brother for the first time, they were working in a small shed. We agreed upon the wood — beech and ivory — and just like that, we chose to work with them and other artisans with no middlemen," she says. Once made, Vicky goes on to paint the toys with non-toxic Annie Sloan paints and polishes them with coconut oil and beeswax.
The Birch Folk Natural is an adorable set of six figurines made of beechwood that gives children ample scope to exercise their imagination
Their Birch Evergreen Trees, a set of six handcrafted trees, is something we are besotted with especially because they come in colour and plain as well. But it seems like it is the Birst Wild Animals set that is flying off the shelves. "What we really pay attention to is keeping it to scale. From the set, the giraffe is the tallest animal (seven inches) and the smallest is the monkey. This is to ensure that even the children are aware of the proportions," says the NIFT, Chennai graduate. She hand sketches all the shapes first and once it's final, only then do the artisans start working on it.
Set of animals | (Pic: Birch and Bug)
Vicky does her best to work on at least 15 pieces a day and since she hand-paints and polishes all the toys herself, it's quite a feat and sometimes, a long process as well. "It takes at least two days for the paint and then the polish to dry, only then can the toy be packed," she points out. But the heart-warming compliments they are receiving for their products is more than making up for all the gruelling work she has been pouring into them. "We have people buying these toys as showpieces and paper weights as well," she shares, laughing.
Pricing has been the bone of contention and a constant worry. "We always wonder if it's too expensive. But the time and effort that goes into them is a lot. There are no joints and no glue is used, so it's heartening to see that people are appreciative of this and are even coming back to buy second sets," says Vicky. She strongly believes that the sustainability factor is seeping in deep within the consciousness of the people. They know that plastic toys will eventually end up in landfills because of wear and tear, while wooden toys can actually be passed on from one kid to another.
Vicky Bamrah | (Pic: Birch and Bug)
And if you are looking for a specific toy, you better follow them on Instagram as they keep doing a lot of polls on what their next offering should be. "No one is making mystical creatures in the wooden toys space, so that is what we are directing our energy towards now. Dragons, mermaids, unicorns and more, expect them all. We are also working on a set of aquatic animals. We are at the research stage," she adds. Clearly, a lot of ideas are just waiting to be executed by the house of Birch and Bug.
For more on them check out birchandbug.com
What PM Modi said about wooden toys:
Not so long ago, our Prime Minister's Mann Ki Baat implored us to support wooden toys in various ways. This is what he said:
- We were asked to "team up for toys" and be more "vocal" for local toys
"There has been a rich tradition of local toys in our country"
"There are many talented and skilled artisans who possess expertise in making good toys"
"Toys are very important for the development of children"
"Even Rabindranath Tagore has spoken about the importance of toys. India has the talent and the ability to become a toy hub by making toys for the entire world"
A few toys of South India
- Channapatna: Starts with lacquering the 'soft' ivory wood, shaping it and using vegetable dyes to make it colourful
- Kondapalli: Made from Tella Poniki (white sander wood) and a paste of tamarind seed powder and sawdust is used to join the separate pieces
- Thanjavur: Called bobblehead or roly-poly toy, these are made of terracotta. They are occasionally made of brass too
- Vilachery: These dolls are made with moulds and glazing is done on clay obtained from a tank near Vilachery