In KidZ’s Dr Zabina Bhasin on creating kits that fuel compassion and communication in kids
Dr Zee, thanks for making time. Let’s start at the beginning! Do you have a background in the play space?
No! I am a physician, a child psychiatrist. I worked in healthcare for over 20 years, not only practising but running hospitals, building cancer centres… It had nothing to do with the toy industry. I come from an immigrant family and was born and raised in southern California. My parents were focused on education. There were three choices in life: doctor, lawyer or engineer. That’s just how we were raised. So, I fell into being an entrepreneur!
Yes, how did you go from healthcare to launching In KidZ?
I got married, had two kids under two and I took a break from healthcare because I wanted to be a parent. And being a child expert is very different to being a parent… As much as you give other people advice about their kids, you rarely use it on your own children.
So, my daughter was about four years old and – she’s third generation American. She knows that she’s Indian, but she’s also American; that’s her world. She came to me one day and said: “Why do people keep asking me where I’m from?” I was like: “What are you talking about?! You’re four, who asked you that?” She said: “People are saying ‘You don’t have an accent. You don’t have a dot on your forehead…’ It triggered something in me because I went through that too as a child. Nothing had changed.
If you’re bullying someone, or mimicking someone, or making fun of someone, they’re all the same thing. And if you’re doing it based on their heritage, culture or colour of their skin, that’s a bias and prejudice – but our children don’t understand that. Adults know it, but they often don’t have the education or tools to teach their children about other cultures and how to create a place of appreciation and belonging.
So that lack of available education provided a spark?
Absolutely. There’s no education about heritage, ethnicity, culture and tradition – and people are repeating the same patterns of behaviour, bias and prejudices. So we launched In KidZ in 2020 and not just because of what’s happening today, but because of what’s been happening throughout history.
You have a range of kits, covering a raft of different cultures. What are some of the things that you wanted each kit to achieve?
We wanted to teach language, heritage and ethnicity, because every story is different. We wanted to also have ambassadors for these products because I don’t know everything, and my creative team doesn’t know everything. We needed changemakers, thought leaders and educators from these communities involved – that’s what makes our kits authentic.
We also needed a variety of different activities to engage with in each kit, because the best way to teach someone is through play. For example, we have a Dia de Los Muertos kit. There we teach the tradition of Dia de Los Muertos and we include Loteria, which is a game played in that culture. It’s about showcasing the best of these communities in one kit.
Diving into that a bit further, could you give us a breakdown of the sorts of things included in each kit?
The essence of each kit is encapsulated in an activity book. We have Hootie, our owl of knowledge, who tells a story through the activity book. They take you through whatever the kit is teaching. For example, our Black American kit tells the story of a young girl and her family from the south – because Black Americans around the country have different traditions. This kit explores areas like food and family trees, and the story culminates at her brother’s HBCU graduation. And there are activities, and also things like recipe cards.
Amazing – and I can imagine a lot of work goes into putting these kits together!
Yes! We sit with our team, including ambassadors and educators, to ensure the materials are educational and fun. It had to foster confidence in the child and that appetite to connect and understand those from other cultures. That can make intercommunity change as children talk about their backgrounds with each other – and want to learn more.
How has the industry reacted to In KidZ and your kits? Have these kits resonated with buyers?
It’s been a difficult journey, but the retailers have recognised that the market is wanting this. The tricky part is that buyers don’t often have the incentive to work out where to place this type of product. It’s on us to give them that incentive and we’re educating them on the market and what consumers want. We’re seeing the change, we’re talking about the change and buyers believe in the change, so I think retailers will change.
And on the toy industry front, these kits tap into MESH learning, which is a focus for the sector. These kits are all about empathy and exploring these emotions felt by children.
You’ve also launched your first licensed kit with Sesame Street. How did that come about?
I was at an event and someone said: “You should meet Sherrie Westin, the President of Sesame Workshop.” I didn’t have an expectation that anything would come from it, but we met, spoke and they wanted to do a deal with us. To be honest, at that time, I didn’t know what licensing meant, but we worked together on what a kit could look like and came up with the cooking kit. That made sense because the number one time that bullying happens in school is during lunchtime in the cafeteria. And cooking centres around family bonding, which is very Sesame Street. And the recipes in the kit come from different communities. It nicely aligns with the In KidZ’s mission and came out so lovely.
Is there a cookie recipe in there?
There is! Of course, led by the Cookie Monster!
Are you looking to do more brand collaborations down the road?
Yes, but it always has to come back to our vision of making change through play. It has to be authentically about making change. Whether it’s a brand that has multicultural, educational or MESH elements, there has to be alignment with In KidZ.
Great. I have one last question – what helps you have ideas?
Children fuel my creativity. We have to create a future with our kids, not just for our kids. They are so powerful, if we just listen to them, change will happen. I wouldn’t have this company without my children and the children around me. They drive me.
Dr Zee, thanks again for making time to chat.
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