Ivy Cubs: “We want to reinvent playtime at home and in schools”

Image credits: Ivy Cubs

Don’t dismiss play as just that – play. Your child is learning new skills and discovering things about themselves and the world, whether they’re tinkering with objects or interacting with other kids. That’s the mindset that Ivy Cubs founder Natalya Twohill, and Head of School Programmes Charlene Shepherdson, want parents to have.

Specialising in play-based curriculum, the nine-month-old education startup aims to show that leaving children to their own devices instead of enrolling them in yet another enrichment lesson, can indeed be educational. We caught up with Natalya and Charlene to find out just how their programmes benefit children, and why you should consider letting your child play without rules or structure.

What inspired you to start Ivy Cubs?
Natalya Twohill: Ivy Cubs is the sister company of Kiddet, which is an app for parents to find classes, activities and events for their kids. Ivy Cubs came out of that project. We track everything that parents are searching for. We are very data-driven and research-based. We realised that a lot of the activities that parents were searching for in Singapore weren’t available. That was why we started Ivy Cubs, because we had access to products and services from around the world and we felt it was a great way to connect them with parents.

With Ivy Cubs, we want to reinvent playtime at home and in schools. We bring in products from around the world that are skill-based and play-based, and we introduce them to the local market. We’re a very young company, we’re just approaching our ninth month now. We’re still very new, and we operate mainly in schools and homes. Our main customers are homeschooling mums and Kiddet users. We’re researching and looking into new ways, looking at price points and doing testings.

Charlene Shepherdson: For us and for the team, the mission is really, the kids are learning but they don’t know they’re learning. They need to have fun first, but they’re learning at the same time. All the products that we incubate, we make sure they have an element of fun so they don’t realise they’re learning, say, physics in the process.

For example, in coding and engineering, the focus is always on “This is what you must learn”, but they don’t learn about how to apply it in real life. But when they play, they remember stuff. When they play, they don’t freak out about it and the subject becomes more accessible. It’s less about being right or wrong and more about being exploratory.

Our main objective is to equip parents with the skills they need to conduct a playdate with their child. A lot of parents are so busy and they’re trying to plan for the weekend but things get in the way. So most of the time they just end up going out. But with a box, it’s easy to pick up and there are ways to process. That’s another aspect we want to encourage, which is family bonding.

You mention the bulk of your customers are mums who homeschool their kids. How do you plan to get your products to a mass audience?
NT: We’re going to add a marketplace function on the website so parents can buy online. Currently, they email us and we fulfil their order. We’re also going to be working a lot with schools. A lot of schools are bringing us in as an enrichment partner. We like that because the school is a familiar environment and children are more willing to learn and try new things. We’ve been working with pre-schools and primary schools to get our products out there. Parents can learn more about our products on the website as well.

What programmes does Ivy Cubs offer?
CS: We have four main programmes. One of them is ‘Be An Engineer’. One is ‘Be An Urban Planner’ where kids work together to create their own town. They do this through first learning about different structures and buildings, as well as town amenities. At the end, they have a huge town map. We also have the ‘Kidpreneur’ programme, which is based on a book, that teaches kids how to develop an entrepreneurial mindset, gain confidence, and learn about product-market fit. It’s a really fun activity that I like, because it’s really about learning to fail.

Each session starts with them being tasked to complete a mission, which we’ve made really hard to do. For example, they have to empty a container filled with marbles using chopsticks, which they can’t do yet at that age. What we want the kids to do is to look at the chopsticks and find new ways of using it. Some kids will try to scoop the marbles, some kids will use the tapered ends by positioning the chopsticks a certain way, some work with their friends to join their chopsticks together to move the marbles. But they only have two minutes to do this, which is impossible. The classroom basically devolves into chaos. When the two minutes are up, we ask them what worked and what didn’t.

There’s a lot of social interaction that we try to address as well. Sometimes the kids go “He’s not sharing” or “He’s pushing all the way”. The idea is that they think it’s all about others. The second time they try, what we’ve realised is that kids are very competitive in groups and what we try to teach them is it’s not really about you competing with another group, but to get better than your previous attempt. It’s not competition with other groups, but with yourself. We have an escape room-style activity where they try and figure out the combination codes to unlock the product, and when they finally solve that, all of them yell. And then they try the mission again and finish in one-and-half minutes and they’re so happy.

That’s the lesson, and then we read a story and try to connect it with the activity that they just did. We teach them a little bit about products and markets, but most of the learning comes from reflecting on the activity.

We also have an astronaut training camp and it’s one of our more popular programmes, and the kids get really, really excited. A lot of times, the kids come in and go, “Oh, it’s a space camp!” and then they realise it’s not just a space camp. It’s a mix of physical movement, science and art, and they go through team-building exercises. For example, they form a human knot and try to untangle themselves without speaking, which is really hard for pre-schoolers! They learn how to control their body and types of non-verbal communication. We also have activities that train dexterity, communication and hand-eye coordination, which happen to be the same activities NASA uses to train their astronauts. We adapt them to pre-school level. We train primary school to ‘O’ Level students as well.

Ivy Cubs

How do your programmes complement the existing MOE curriculum?
NT: We try not to have anything to do with the MOE curriculum because the school system here is incredibly efficient. Everything from the admissions criteria to what you have to achieve are very clearly laid out. What we hope to do is impart the necessary skill sets to kids so they can handle the curriculum. So I guess that’s how you could say we complement it even though we’re actually very different.

For example, one thing we’ve learnt from our partners is that sometimes it’s not that a child isn’t academically inclined, but that they just don’t have the focus or attention. Our products help to nurture these skills so that they can perform better in school. The closest our programmes resemble the curriculum are the co-curricular modules such as character building and leadership. What we’re doing is helping children practise these skills outside the classroom.

How do you decide what programmes to offer?
NT: We do a lot of testing and we listen to our partners. First, we identify a trend and look at our pool of products. We test a product in different schools and gauge the response from parents, kids and teachers to make sure it’s effective.

Are the products created by Kiddet and Ivy Cubs?
NT: The products are developed by Ivy Cubs along with our partners from Finland, the United Kingdom, India and from all over the world. We tailor them to the local markets. For example, the K-Nex helicopter is meant for five-year-olds in the US, but they’re targeted at seven to nine-year-olds here. That’s because the problem solving and resilience skills of children in the US are much higher. According to research we conducted, the toy is beyond the abilities of five-year-olds here, hence we offer this toy to older kids.

The lead time for a product from testing to market is approximately three months. It’s really important that we get the right fit, because we want to make sure the products are efficient and effective.

What programmes can parents and children expect in the Ivy Apprentice series?
NT: We’re still in the planning stage, but basically we want to give children real-world experiences. We took inspiration from Germany’s dual education programme which offers internships and apprenticeships. We’re working with different industry partners to match kids with jobs. The jobs all the kids want are either zookeepers or train drivers. A lot of them want to be Elsa as well, which is kind of hard!

CS: There’s a management skill to be taught, because at the end of the day, she manages a kingdom.

NT: Our initial plan was for the kids to spend a day on the job, but that’s not enough. If you really want it to have an impact, it needs to be more immersive.

CS: We’re also looking at the skill sets of each job. For example, if a kid likes films, they might be interested in becoming a film conservator. What are the skills sets you need? Colour knowledge and the ability to identify clothes of a certain era in order to date the film.

NT: For girls who love makeup, there’s a science behind creating makeup. It’s about showing them different aspects of a career. For journalism, it’s about knowing how to craft a story and communicating well. All this is really time-consuming and we’re trying to coordinate schedules so it doesn’t disrupt the businesses. We want it to be sustainable so we’re holding back until the June holidays to roll it out.

We’re also toying with the idea of having the kids sign something so they understand what they’re getting into, but we’re not sure how to go about it. We don’t want to scare them. It teaches the kids responsibility and commitment. They might not get paid though!

What makes you different from other educators offering play-based courses?
NT: I think what differentiates us is our focus on research. We’re very focused on the efficiency and effectiveness of our products. We also have a heavy emphasis on skills and the programme themes. The ‘Space Camp’ and ‘Kidpreneur’ programmes are very unique.

CS: We also factor in things like quiet play where the kids play by themselves, as well as directed play. It’s not just a child playing by themselves for an hour, because you do need to unpack what they learn after. We provide parents with reflection questions that they can use to engage their child.

NT: Because it’s not a formal class, we encourage parent-child bonding and I think that sets us apart from other providers. The point is for parents to be more involved and we focus on family time. Parents spend a lot of time shuttling their kids around and at the end of the day, they don’t really know their child. We’re hoping that our programmes provide some sort of play time infrastructure for them and their kids. We’re definitely not there yet because our community is very small but we’re hoping to change that as we progress.

What has the response been like from children and parents?
NT: The response from the children has been great and they enjoy our programmes. Initially we were quite worried because our programmes deal with big topics, but their ability to grasp the concepts took us by surprise.

CS: For the ‘Be An Urban Planner’ course, the kids have an hour to create a town map but the class usually goes on for longer because they keep adding more features.

NT: Kids are very creative and you just have to give them the right opportunities. In the ‘Kidpreneur’ programme, we had a five-year-old who understood supply and demand. For one of the early versions of the programme, the final lesson was a market where the children had to sell a product. This five-year-old decided to price her last product piece at $3 instead of $1. I was trying to reason with her and she went, ‘Well, there’s only one piece left.’ She completely understood the concept and it was amazing.

I’d say the main barrier we face are parents. We’re very academically-driven in Singapore and we’re trying to educate parents on the skill sets and why they’re important for academic excellence. We’ve also learnt to be clear about what the learning objectives are and what exactly your child is doing in class. Your child isn’t just playing with marbles; there’s a learning opportunity there. We tend to bring up our children the way we were brought up. Having gone through the school system here, parents look at our concepts and go “Huh?”, and we’re trying to bridge that gap. That has been the hardest part. So we’re working on communicating better to parents and making sure they understand.

The kids on the other hand, love it. In fact, they’ve helped us make the programmes better by giving us ideas.

It’s interesting that you need to convince parents that your products are beneficial to their kids, since MOE has been moving away from the emphasis on grades to a focus on 21st century skills. I would think younger parents are more open to these concepts.
NT: I think they’re definitely more open and they like the idea of 21st century skills and play-based learning. But there isn’t a lot of information about what that is. They know it’s good; it’s like the Montessori concept, they know Montessori is good but what is it? It’s very opaque. We attract parents because they know play-based learning is good for their kids. But they don’t recognise it in application. We’ve been taught a certain way so when you bring in this concept of a child being able to freely run about, they say that’s not learning. They’re relating it to their own experiences as a student. Because play-based learning is so different, that’s where the miscommunication arises.

We look at a lot of products from around the world and there’s a heavy emphasis on startup learning and using startups to teach business school. You shouldn’t go to business school to get an MBA, just start your own company. There are entire universities that focus on startups; you go in with an idea and you graduate with a business. Your entire learning journey is documented and you get a degree at the end.

We were at an ed-tech conference in Vietnam recently and the whole conversation was that the concept of formal education is going to change. There won’t be such a heavy emphasis on schools like before. But for us, we were like, “Hmm, not in Asia yet. Not in Singapore.” Culturally, we have a lot to catch up on. It’s still, “Yeah, create your startup but get a degree first.”

It’s an interesting time, judging from what we see parents searching for on the Kiddet app. We’re using the information gaps and the search results to identify products and to figure out the best way to bridge that. We localise our products and make sure they fit the Singapore market. We test everything and we make sure that at the end of the day, the kids are learning.


Find out more about Ivy Cubs and their programmes here.