I vividly remember my first co-design workshop earlier in my career.
I showed up bright-eyed at our event space that morning, highly caffeinated and toting bags full of scratch paper, markers, sticky notes, and a ton of snacks. I was excited.
As I laid out materials in advance of our co-designers' arrival, I watched my co-planner and co-facilitator, a seasoned designer, unpack his bags. He took out his computer, some notes, and—to my surprise—a bunch of kids’ toys.
“I like the cactus,” I said, as he set up the balancing toy. He added one activity per table.
“I find that having stuff folks can tinker with can get the creative juices flowing,” he said.
While there’s no way to really measure what impact those toys had during the co-design session, I can say that a lot of people did end up playing with them throughout the day as they brainstormed and sketched out ideas. They weren’t a distraction or even a point of conversation. They were simply there to engage with however folks felt moved to use them.
I had always worked in environments where folks keep their hands busy during meetings—I know a lot of knitters and crocheters, in particular, and of course there are the doodlers—to help stay focused. But I hadn’t previously thought about what it meant to invite play into a work session. At least not for adults.
With kids, we know that playing is vital to a child’s social, emotional, and cognitive development. And that it encourages creativity. For most of us adults, we get less playtime in during the day then our kiddos. But it doesn’t mean it’s any less important. And when it comes to getting creative? Play really matters for us grown-ups, too.
These days, I’m a huge proponent of having tinker toys around. As some of my colleagues know, I’ve always got one of my kid’s activities within reach during work sessions. They’re fun and get me in a good head space when brainstorming ideas.
And when it comes to toys, nothing has made me more excited in recent years than those created by this month’s featured interviewee, April Hail. With her company, Keiki Kaukau, April has launched a beautiful line of puzzles, books, and other toys that celebrate the diversity of cuisines and cultures found in Hawai‘i. (You’ve got to check out their website for the full collection, but it includes a Hawaiian Plate, Japanese Bento set, a Vietnamese Pho set, a Dim Sum Set, and a Filipino Food set (!), a Shave Ice Play Set, and a Pineapple Stacking Toy!)
Read on to learn more about Keiki Kaukau and what April hopes to inspire in kids when they can play with toys that represent their cultural foods. Thank you, as always, for joining!
Some thoughts on
[Image description: A bird's eye view of the "Kain Na!" Filipino Delights wooden chunky puzzle for kids. Puzzle pieces include savory adobo, crispy lumpia, and sweet halo halo, all spread out on a banana leaf place mat.]
Welcome to The Magic Word, April! I am beyond excited that you’re joining us for an interview. To kick things off, can you share a bit about who you are, what you do, and what brought you to your work?
In conversation with...
Thank you so much for having me, Lucy! I’m a mom of two (soon to be 3!) young kids, a former high school teacher, and the founder of Keiki Kaukau, a boutique toy company based in Honolulu, Hawai‘i.
I’d love to learn more about Keiki Kaukau, the company you founded in 2019. Your line of beautiful food-inspired toys and books for kiddos includes a variety of chunky puzzles (including a Hawaiian Plate, Japanese Bento set, a Vietnamese Pho set, a Dim Sum Set, and my favorite, a Filipino Food set), a Shave Ice Play Set, and a Pineapple Stacking Toy. What inspired you to create Keiki Kaukau and the products you offer?
Here in Hawai‘i, Keiki Kaukau (pronounced kay-kee cow-cow) means “kid food.” When my firstborn was a toddler, he absolutely loved pretend-playing with food toys, but the ones we used represented things like pizza and ice cream, rather than the foods that were special and unique to our home like shave ice, spam musubi, poi (taro) and papaya. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the cuisine of Hawai‘i was a reflection of our melting-pot culture, which has elements of Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, and other influences integrated with Native Hawaiian heritage. I wanted my own kids and keiki across Hawai‘i to have access to toys that reflected this wonderful diversity as well as the natural beauty of the islands. Once I launched the first play food set, the feedback was encouraging, so I just kept churning out new items that reflected elements of life in Hawai‘i and the multiethnic influences found here. We now offer over 30 original toys, books and games that reflect the local experience in a way that I hope feels accessible and joyful for families.
Obviously, play is a huge part of your job! What role do you think play can have for other designers and creators, even those who don’t work in education or toy-making?
Where can folks go if they want to learn more about you and your work?
Come check out our collection at KeikiKaukau.com, or reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
What do you hope your toys and books inspire in kids?
I know this term feels overused these days, but I really do believe that representation matters - both as a way to validate and celebrate our personal cultural backgrounds, and to invite others in. My mom immigrated to the States from Hong Kong in the 70s, and with that generation of parents the emphasis seems to have been on assimilating into mainstream American society and not drawing attention to oneself. It makes me really sad to realize that she never spoke to my brother and me in Cantonese; now that I have kids of my own, I can’t imagine not being able to communicate with them in my native tongue. I’ve always craved more of a connection to her home culture, but we only learned about her past in bits and pieces and it felt almost taboo. I’m not sure if she restricted that part of herself because she wanted us to feel (and be seen as) 100% American, or if it had more to do with scars from personal trauma, which so many immigrants have because obviously they wouldn’t have come here in the first place if everything was going great in their home countries. The pendulum seems to have swung in the other direction with parents of my generation though, as many of us seek to strengthen those ancestral connections and celebrate our languages, food, and traditions that stand outside the mainstream.
I don’t want to overstate the importance of toys, but playtime is a child’s entry point into understanding the world and provides an arena in which to rehearse for real-life situations. Children are very savvy and pick up quickly on who and what is being counted, which voices matter. There’s a devastating documentary short by Kiri Davis from 2005 called “A Girl Like Me” about mainstream beauty standards and the internalized racism that’s apparent even in very young children. When it comes to a person’s identity, food may seem less significant than, say, skin color, yet many children - and adults! - have gone through the experience of having their culture’s food criticized as strange or gross. Representing diverse API cuisines in our toys is a subtle way of normalizing the existence and enjoyment of foods like poi, kimchi, or turnip cake, and in turn affirming that these cultures and people are a valued part of our country’s fabric.
[Image description: April is smiling at the camera while holding several of her company's food-inspired toys: chunky puzzles, a play food set, a pineapple stacking toy, and a book called "It's Kaukau Time!" She's in front of a light-filled window wearing a short-sleeve pink shirt and orange necklace.]
[Image description: A bird's eye view of the Keiki Kaukau play set. Wooden pieces include a loco moco, poke bowl, musubi, papaya, malasada, guava juice, and shave ice.]
[Image description: A bird's eye view of the Hawaiian Plate Chunky Puzzle, designed in collaboration with Jordann Ares from DesignJord. Wooden pieces include uala, poi, laulau, lomi salmon, kalua pork, chicken long rice, haupia pineapple, guava cake, and lilikoi juice.]
[Image description: A bird's eye view of the Lucky Tummy Chinatown Treats wood play set. Pieces include mooncake, dan taat, gau, tangerine, and red lai see/hong bao (lucky envelope).]
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