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Interview: Tan Mui Jin on creating a space for kids to be kids

Image credits: Tan Mui Jin

In Mumpreneur Series, we speak to mum entrepreneurs to find out the trials and tribulations of juggling family while running a business.

You could say that play runs in Tan Mui Jin’s blood. The entrepreneur and founder of indoor kids playground Kaboodle grew up enjoying play time and always had friends over, so opening a kids play space felt like a natural thing to do. Jin strongly believes in the concept of unstructured play where there are no rules and constraints; ultimately, her goal is to let children be children. At Kaboodle, children are free to let their creativity and imagination run wild, using the blue and green foam blocks to construct fantastic creations ranging from robots and buildings, to fortresses and slides.

Bubbly and warm, the mother of three children aged 16, 14 and eight has her work cut out for her with workshops, play sessions and parties to run, as well as a team of staff to oversee. But no matter how busy her schedule gets, she never lets it dim her enthusiasm for what she does. We dropped by Kaboodle’s cosy space in Katong Square recently to find out what drives Jin and in the process, discovered that play has no age limit.

What’s the story behind Kaboodle?
I always have friends coming over to my place. Sometimes, they bring their children over after school. A lot of my friends said I should turn it into a playground. And in a sense that’s what I do, play, and the children always have a lot of opportunities for open-ended play, tools, art supplies, anything and everything so this is like an extension of my home.

You were previously an interior designer. Did your skills come in handy when designing the look of the playground?
I also studied fine arts before interior design, and for Kaboodle, I worked very closely with my brand strategist. We rebranded from Big Splash and now we have this new space and new surfaces.

How does Kaboodle encourage kids to be creative?
We encourage them to be creative by giving them the space and the tools. Actually a lot of times, the children are also lacking time. When the parent brings their child in to play, they are actually giving the children time and space and all the tools to let their imagination run free. There’s no right or wrong [way to play], they are free to experiment and do their job, which is play.

What makes Kaboodle different from other indoor playgrounds?
We’re the first indoor creative playground and we specialise in open-ended play which hones children’s creative intelligence. By letting their imagination run free and just experimenting, and knowing that it’s okay to experiment. A lot of children are afraid of making mistakes so the only thing they have to learn is to try again. It’s not even wrong to start with, it’s just learning what not to do. Try and try again.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen children build?
There is a family who comes in and builds costumes and they look like Transformers, then they have fights. The children can hardly walk, so can you imagine fights? That’s funny!

Tan Mui Jin's son Caden

What has running a business taught you?
It’s taught me that I’ve always got to be on my toes. Actually I’ve learnt that there’s so much that I don’t know. Every day is a learning experience, you have to be ready to learn. Anything I don’t know, I just have to learn or find somebody that knows. Having that somebody that knows how to help me is really, really important.

What challenges did you face?
I’m really bad at admin work. I had a simple project to do, which was to send a letter out to schools. I was just sitting on it for weeks, and I told a part-time staff what to do and she did it in five minutes. I learnt to delegate! Learning to delegate is very, very important.

What do you think should be done to encourage more female entrepreneurs?
You need to form a community and when everyone feels you have the support, then you’re willing to go out and do it. It is lonely being an entrepreneur, so you need that family support, someone who understands how lonely you feel. Even though people say they’re there to support you, it doesn’t feel like they’re really able to understand your pain and troubles, especially being a mother. You always feel torn, you never know where you’re needed to be. It is hard.

How do you make time for yourself outside of work?
I don’t really make time for myself because it seems like mission impossible. But small blocks of time, like having lunch or having a nice drink, or if I’m craving a particular meal, just taking that little bit of time to get it makes me happier, and it’s easier to go about my day.

What have you learnt since becoming a parent?
You can’t force a child to do something they don’t want to, especially if they don’t see the sense in it. But if you make it fun, you can trick them into doing anything you want them to. Make everything fun and your life will be better.

Are there any parenting rules you swear by?
Consistency is key. That’s actually my biggest struggle, because I’m very much a fly by the seat of my pants kind of person. Even keeping to a regular schedule of wake up, eat, clean up then eat, sometimes I eat first then I clean up. Not quite consistent but when I do get it right, it is better for the kids and they seem healthier. Not everything has to be scheduled but most things do.

From left to right: Chloe, Caelin and Caden

What’s the hardest thing about being a mum?
You want to do everything for your kids, but you can’t. You have to let them go. My eldest complains that I don’t love her quite the same as my youngest. It’s just different the way you treat a child as they age. I was a bit cheeky, I treated the eldest the same way I treated the youngest. There is a huge age gap between both; one was born in 2003 and the other was born in 2010, so that’s eight years. For a 15-year-old to be treated the same as the youngest, they don’t like it. When you praise them and say “good job”, they feel embarrassed. It’s not that I love the youngest one more, it’s just different.

Do you hope your kids will follow in your footsteps and start their own business?
Probably not for the first two, they’re not big risk-takers. Maybe my youngest might like it.

What advice do you have for fellow mumpreneurs?
Do what you want and follow through on it, don’t let any doubters sway you.

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