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Q&A with Kate Olden of La Luciernaga Toys and Games: Part II

We finally reconnect with Kate Olden of La Luciernaga Toys and Games, who was kind enough to wait for the second part of our interview while I was quite indelicately expelling my extraneous internal organs.  Thanks, Kate!  🙂  Read on to learn about Kate’s thought process as she develops her products.  This business owner means business: every item is purposeful and backed by #science–and of course they are fun to play with and beautifully made.  Move over, evil foam dart gun with “ultra-cool styling!”.

Kate, tell us a little bit about the developmental needs met by a few of of your toys (i.e. the high-contrast matching game, the peg board game that your Etsy reviewers rave about, etc.).

La Luciernaga Toys and Games is NOT about letters and numbers. I know it’s what a lot of parents want, and as a teacher I often found myself falling into the seductive trap of rigorous standards at earlier and earlier ages, but I know from study and experience that it isn’t what young kids really NEED. Instead, kids need more opportunities to develop their imaginations, their language skills and vocabularies, and the integration of their senses. I want each of my products to address multiple parts of and levels of development while being something that will hold a child’s interest and attention.

I chose animals for the Matching Memory Game because I have yet to meet a child who isn’t interested in animals, and I represent them in black silhouette to encourage children to think about the animal in general rather than fixate on details. I chose particular animals to encourage children’s use of categories to organize their knowledge. The categories they can use will change over time: it might start with where the animals live or how they move. Later children can talk about how many feet each animal has or classify them (i.e. mammal v. bird). Memory games help kids practice learning how to learn. How do they keep track of where the different tiles are? Do they choose tiles randomly or systematically? And parents will often model more advanced strategies and vocabularies without even realizing it, all while having fun with their child.

I started to develop “Who’s Coming to Dinner?” as a counting game for my Pre-K classroom a couple of years ago. I needed a board game that even my youngest students could start to play, even if they were just playing on their own or with only me. So, it needed to be a situation with which any child would be familiar. That’s how I settled on people sitting to eat at a table. And, as I used it with my diverse class (the ages ranged from 3 to 5 and there were five different languages spoken) I found that the children were showing me all the ways this game could support their development. They counted, added, and subtracted. They started to recognize numerals. They created patterns by size. They also talked about their own experiences at home and in restaurants. And I talked with them about how to handle new situations, like sitting next to someone they don’t know well or being served a food they’ve never tried before. Some of my craftiest kids even made tiny play dough food to serve their people!

How do your parenting, educational, and design philosophies align, or how does one inform the other?

I teach and parent and design my products developmentally–meaning that I base decisions on where a child is at and where they are going. Development happens in fairly predictable steps and cycles. You can encourage a child to take some steps, but others just have to wait for the child to be developmentally ready. Infants can’t grasp easily, but you can design a toy so that it is easier for them to grasp it successfully. A toddler can’t lace small beads with a flimsy lace but can put large beads onto a stick. (Yadda yadda yadda. I find the way children develop and learn fascinating, can you tell?)

As a teacher, I’m a backwards planner. Instead of working from the activity idea (“Wouldn’t it be fun to use tissue paper for an art project?”), I work from the learning goal (“My students need to be able to sort based on color.”). I do the same thing with my toy designs. They come from first thinking about what engages a child at a particular developmental level, what skills or knowledge they need to be forming, and then the design of the toy or game flows from that. I’ve thrown out more than one idea that didn’t work. I’m proud of that. It means I’m staying focused on my real client: the child.

Have any of your ideas come from unexpected places?

Of course a lot of my ideas for infant items come from interacting with my son. Most of my ideas for older kids come from the skills I have seen children struggle with over the years. Elementary students who struggle to hold crayons and pencils because they didn’t get to form those fine muscles of the fingers while they were toddlers and preschoolers. Children who struggle with literacy and math because they don’t have much experience with recognizing, extending, and creating patterns in general. I’ve worked with a lot of kids who don’t know how to play because their parents don’t know how to play with them. As I keep building my product line, I want to create items that encourage social interaction, meaningful pretend play, hands-on learning, and sensory integration.

I am also purposefully avoiding anything that is too “school-like.” At this time, I don’t make toys that involve learning letters or numbers. Those toys exist (maybe a little too much, in fact). I want my products to go deeper and address the underlying skills that so many students need—things like vocabulary, patterning, shape manipulation, fine motor skills, categorization, etc. I know that parents want letters and numbers, and I’m not saying that I know better than other parents. But I don’t want to fall into the trap of doing only what the customer wants. I want to make what my customers need, and do so in a way that makes them want it.

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