Screen time, data collection, and EdTech have become household descriptors in a world overrun with technology-driven advancement. But after the technology is there, there is a tendency to reflect on the content of past learning methods that are steeped in a tactile world.
Wendy’s, an American fast food establishment, ran ads in the 1980s featuring an adorable older adult woman asking a simple question, “Where’s the beef?” This simplistic yet brilliant slogan focused on the core value proposition of the fast food offering.
Fast forward a few decades and we might say, “Where’s the learning?” Education for all ages quickly migrated to digital landscapes during Covid-19, setting aside previous concerns about the amount of time young people spend on alternative learning experiences defined by pixels, not people.
A Swiss company, QUBS, focuses on the physical benefits of learning by combining pedagogical tactile practices with technology. Combining traditionally designed wooden toys with hidden radio frequency identification (RFID) safe technology, QUBS provides children with the means to explore their imaginations and develop future skills by participating in educational, screen-free fun.
The company’s technology does not use screens or the internet. QUBS combines old and new for education linked to early learner play. The product has received STEAM accreditation from The Toy Association and The Good Play Guide for its innovative screen-free technology for children ages 3 to 12. With The Toy Association’s ‘STEAM Stamp of Approval’ on their product and advertisements, QUBS shows a commitment to the learning aspects of play.
QUBS is the brainchild of founder and CEO Hayri Bulman, a Swiss entrepreneur with over 30 years of IT expertise at General Electric (GE) and Xerox. Bulman translated an early passion for wooden toys into an early learner business.
In 2015, after taking inspiration from the company TEGU, a wooden toy company from Honduras, he started working on concepts that combined RFID technology with wooden blocks, establishing the company in 2019.
The team grew to include numerous designers, engineers and creatives across Europe, and in 2020, at the onset of the global pandemic, QUBS raised CHF 88,887 (~£70,000) from 503 backers during a Kickstarter campaign.
Learning without screen time
According to the Mayo Clinic, too much screen time can be harmful to children physically and mentally. Long-term use can lead to obesity, irregular sleep, behavioral problems, decreased academic performance and less time for active, creative play. The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages screen time for children under two and suggests limiting older children’s use to one or two hours a day.
Active off-the-scenes play is essential to Bulman’s concept and mission. “I’ve wanted to make smart wooden toys for generations,” says Bulman. “An old toy that you can get out of the basement and give to your kid, and they’ll be able to play without installation or an online connection.”
STEM and STEAM developments are a constant concern for education, as skills in science, technology, mathematics and creative arts are necessary for the success of future generations. A recent article in The Washington Post points out that more funding for public education in STEM is just as important in the long term as chip production. Future innovations will rely on children developing the early learning necessary for greater growth in the STEM and STEAM disciplines.
An example of early learning resources is QUBS’ first product, Cody Block, winner of the Monocle Design Award 2022 for ‘Best Aspiring Urbanists’. Cody (the car) moves independently and changes course as children arrange wooden blocks. The task is to plan a path that will lead Cody through town and back home. Cody is shifting in response to the arrangement and rearrangement of wooden blocks containing RFID technology. The activity teaches sequential reasoning, critical thinking, creativity and spatial awareness while introducing the mindset of a programmer.
The reaction to the initial success of QUBS has led to the further development of other smart wooden toys. One such product is Matty Blocks, a soon-to-be-launched math-based product that builds trust one addition at a time.
Sustainability is part of the overall goal of QUBS. Not only in terms of eco-friendly products, but also in the lifespan of leather which outpaces the often shorter ‘gimmicky’ online products. QUBS relies more on the imagination of children than on the imagination of the developer.
“This toy is screen-free and durable, unlike many other non-recyclable products,” Bulman says. “Montessori techniques are applied with a coding methodology and technology that will not become obsolete or dependent on the Internet.”
It’s about simplicity and something solid, says Bulman.
“We have 3% plastic in our entire kit, which is much less than many other companies,” he says. “Some providers may claim that they teach the basics of coding and programming, but in reality it is difficult to measure. We are not making this claim. We want to teach children to think independently. We want to tease the mind by using tactile block placement to explore what is happening externally.”
While many EdTech startups engage with data and prove their worth through statistics, QUBS takes a refreshing approach based on the creative learning and discovery of each individual. “We don’t collect data and we don’t have a screen,” Bulman notes. “We are not hungry for data from children or parents. We are not a data collector but a toy company for children.”
In a rush to bundle compelling learning experiences imbued with or powered by technology, the education industry may have overlooked one undeniable truth about children: they are discovering it for themselves. There’s a reason Amazon boxes are played with more than the content they brought to your door. Kids don’t always want the ending written for them. Exploratory and creative play requires a certain amount of improvisation from the young student.
The kids will play on the floor if someone asks, which is very fitting for Bulman. And if the question is, ‘Where is the learning?’ Bulman and QUBS are ready to play, block by block.
The interviews have been edited and abbreviated for clarity.