Friday, February 29, 2008

Rockytoys Again: Teaching Aids and Educational Resources

Rockytoys Again: Teaching Aids and Educational Resources
Image 01: Big Wheeler Jeep that was an instant success with both schools and homes.
After the instant success of the Big Wheeler series I got to look at the full range of educational toys that addressed the school market in South India. March and April were the period for the annual pilgrimage that school teachers from a great number of schools came to our retail shop as well as our factory to select items for their annual procurement programme. Some came with big budgets and in their school bus and after an afternoon of selection and billing took back the items that were in ready stock on their bus and thereby saved on packing transportation costs. Others came with long wish lists and placed orders that would be passed on to the factory for implementation. March to May of 1975 was as exciting as it comes since we had so many new items and a whole fresh new colour scheme that surprised the teachers who were veterans when it came to visiting our shop, since the quality had improved substantially and so had the prices, but they did not seem to mind at all. One lesson from this experience is that customers know when they are getting a good deal and they then do not mind paying a premium for quality.

Image 02: Educational items, Child’s Furniture and Classroom accessories.
In anticipation of the deluge of visitors from the schools we had already geared up our production with a special focus on the needs of the sector and the stocks in our shop and godown at the back were substantial. The range of products that had a new look included the rocking horses and the school furniture range for the primary school level. I had simplified the form and structure of the child’s chair and table as part of one large order from a local school in Madras. The first batch of 100 sets were made in the existing design while I had a grandstand view while observing the various stages of production which lasted all of one month. When the next school order for 400 sets came in soon thereafter I decided to redesign the table and chair by rationalizing the members and in simplifying the shape of the components so that these could be made easily using the machines and in the process I eliminated the complex shaping of the chair which used to be done by making the back legs by cutting these to shape on a jig-saw cutter. The shape of the seat was further changed from a trapezoidal one to a square with rounded corners and these two design decisions saved a huge amount in labour and the order was completed in record time while providing a better finish and structural quality. These new design offerings had the same effect as the changes effected in the wheeled toy range. There was a dramatic improvement in quality as well as a very strong growth in price perception although there were very good savings in the cost of labour and production. These new tables and chairs were in continuous production for many years till our factory was finally closed down in the mid 90’s.

Image 03: Modular Building Blocks offered in various market modules
Another product for the school market got a boost just by rationalizing the marketing module and by offering an existing product in smaller sized packaging, something that the MNC’s are trying to do to reach the “Bottom of the Pyramid” market in India particularly in the cosmetics and FMCG products. The product in question here was a great set of building blocks that was primarily intended for the school market and it was offered in a huge set of several hundred pieces containing many modular sized painted blocks, all packed into a big strong play box made of wood. This was also offered in an unpainted version but few schools showed interest in these although in my view these were superior in finish and quality. When I studied the sales data for these building block sets I found that an average of six to ten sets were sold each year to the school market since the whole set was quite expensive and would represent a large part of any schools annual budget. I designed a built a range of boxes that could hold a limited number of blocks and I selected these blocks based on the possibilities that each set offered a child to make meaningful structural configurations. For instance even the smallest set had two diagonally cut squares which could be used to make the sloping roofs and one arch shaped block so that the child’s imagination could convert these into semantic structures that would bring in the fantasy that play with these blocks entailed. Besides providing the child with manual dexterity while arranging and balancing the blocks one on top of the other it also supported imaginative play with flexibility and helped creative exploration just as the Lego blocks now provide our kids at home. However these large sized blocks could be used to build child scale houses in team play and this was an advantage that the school teachers saw and cherished. My new offering in small sets suddenly made the blocks attractive and affordable for the home market as well and by the end of the year an equivalent of a hundred large sets was sold to both the school and the home market, once again showing that design works at many levels, if only we tried.

Image 04: Educational kits and Classroom accessories for schools.
During this period I started participating in conferences and meetings organized by the toy industry as well as by voluntary groups of educators and industry members and this was a great source of learning and exposure about the changing ideas in education at the primary and pre-school levels. I met some very interesting people who were committed to the idea of education and the role that teaching aids played in this process. This exposure also led me to innovate my own offerings and many new items were introduced in our own list of offerings that drew on the learning from these interactions in the field.

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