Why is it so hard to find quality Arabic learning toys?
At ThinkerNation we hear this question all the time. Parents and educators alike breathe a universal sigh of 'YES finally', when they see our products. We feel your pain. My husband and I had exactly the same struggle. We spent years trying to find a Melissa and Doug quality puzzle for Arabic but couldn't find one. Everything was flimsy, poorly constructed or not well thought out. With so many high tech well funded toy companies in the world, I wondered why no one had made something for Arabic. With such a large global Muslim population, why was no one addressing the needs of this market?
When we started this journey of making it ourselves though, I quickly realized why. The reason no one makes high quality Arabic puzzles is because the complexity of the script makes it extremely difficult to fashion something out of wood that is aesthetically pleasing and durable. Our first Arabic Alphabet puzzle prototypes took over an hour just to cut the pieces for one puzzle. Once you add in sanding and painting, total time per puzzle was approx. one day. When we moved into mass manufacturing (these puzzles for sale now are our first manufacturing run) we tried several manufacturers including Hape, but even they were unable to meet our specifications.
There are some Arabic alphabet puzzles on the market already. How are ThinkerNation puzzles any different?
First of all as a mom i wanted an end product that was sturdy and appealing to look at. Something that could withstand my children and possibly a small earth quake.
So we knew we needed something chunky and large. You'll note our pieces are at least 3/4 inch thick, literally 1/2 an inch thicker than anything else available. To hold them in your hand you can feel they have substance, but are still light enough for a child to handle. As some of our reviews have noted, many of the letters can stand up on their own.
As an educator I wanted the forms to be as clearly cut as possible. ThinkerNation products have no blobby stickered forms, no weirdly placed pegs. ( Why does everyone put pegs right in the center of a kids learning product. How are they supposed to get a sense of the letter?? Sorry pet peeve, peg rant over) It was important to us that the dots be attached to the letters and be well defined. To give definition to the dots and maximize sensory engagement, the dots have to be carved into the piece and the area around the dots has to be smooth to achieve a proper splinter free finish. In practice this is difficult to achieve and currently requires hand sanding of every piece. We also wanted this product to be more open ended than the typical Melissa and Doug alphabet puzzle. Thus, we made the back into a chalkboard to encourage pre-writing skills, made the pieces thick enough to build and stack with, and color coded the letters to enable sorting, grouping, counting and early math skills.
How can the Arabic Alphabet puzzle be used to bolster early math skills?
Puzzles by their very nature contribute to the development of visual spatial skills which become very important when you progress to higher level math and geometry. Our Arabic alphabet puzzle goes a bit beyond that. Most people don't notice it at first pass, but there are 7 colors used in the puzzle and their use is actually sequential. Meaning there are 7 green pieces, 6 blue pieces, 5 red pieces and so on. So kids can sort them and group them by color, and use them for counting. Once they have been sorted and grouped they can be used for estimating which group has the most pieces. We have also heard from educators who have used them as pieces to weigh and measure. The learning guide included with the puzzle covers the names of each Arabic letter, the seven included color names in Arabic as well as the numbers 1 through 7. Once a child has mastered counting to 7 you can mix the letters up and use them as counters up to 28.
The ThinkerNation spell and learn is the world's first Arabic puzzle of its kind. What was it like trying to make this, with no engineering or product design background yourself?
The Spell and Learn, for a long time was just an idea in my head. Seeing it come to life in classrooms and playrooms around the world has been amazing. Getting it to this point though, came with its own complexities. What I lacked in design experience, I think I made up for in pure enthusiasm which luckily pushed us forward through many, many failed attempts!
What sort of difficulties did you encounter?
Some of the letters in the Arabic script, when transformed into wood, have points of weaker tensile strength. Particularly the stems of the Jeem, Ha, Meem, etc. if not engineered properly can break off very easily because of the form of the letter. Although the spell and learn is designed for an older child, we made them with the awareness that it may fall into the hands of a younger sibling. As a pediatrician I wanted to be sure that our products were as safe as possible. In order for the Spell and Learn letters to be strong enough to withstand dropping from large heights or being chewed, the pieces had to be made quite thick and the wood had to be strong. We went through several periods of prototyping, drop testing and torque testing before arriving at our final version. Each piece of the Spell and Learn is about 9mm thick, approx 2 times the thickness of a comparable English product. The Arabic Spell and Learn has 12 double sided plates, 90 letter pieces (not including the dots) spanning 24 words for a total weight of approx 5 pounds.
Poor quality graphics are something we came across far too frequently in Islamic oriented products and at ThinkerNation we feel strongly that our children deserve better. All of our graphics are designed by professional artists and transferred directly onto the wood using non toxic ink.
Your puzzles are definitely the best quality Arabic puzzles currently on the market but they are also more expensive then what was previously available. Why not lower the quality and make the product more accessible?
We have thought about and discussed lowering the quality in order to lower the price but there are already so many low quality items out there. After years of sifting through Islamic toys that seem to have been created as an after thought, we felt It was time for something better. We wanted our kids to feel proud of their Muslim identity. We feel creating high quality, engaging Islamic teaching tools helps normalize their experience in a world increasingly harsh towards practicing Muslims.
It has been a journey of over two years of research, development, prototyping, high hopes, and mountains of saw dust. The end result is a pricey but high quality, well designed, well thought out line of products with a surprisingly slim profit margin. It has been more a labor of love than a money maker at this point.
How can high quality teaching tools make a difference in how children feel about their Muslim background?
Our children are constantly surrounded by high quality English toys. They play with $50 lego sets and appealing English Alphabet learning aids. Islamic oriented toys by comparison are visibly less appealing. Less time and effort seems to have gone into making them. People are less willing to invest in them then say a video game or a light saber. It contributes to a sense of their Muslim identity being "less than": less fun, less important, less valued, less worth the effort etc. Bi'Idhnillah, we pray with more publicity and awareness of our products we will be able to manufacture larger quantities at a time and thus lower the per unit prices, without compromising our quality.
Do you have plans for future products?
We have lots of amazing ideas in the making and we are hoping to reinvest any proceeds from our current line into expanding our product offerings.
* Photo credits: TheMuslimahGuide