Janene Russell, Senior Product Development Manager at Educational Insights, on having and pitching ideas
Janene, you’ve been at Educational Insights for a little over eight years… Had enough?!
Ha! Never! I make toys for a living and I’m surrounded by creative people all day. I don’t think I could ever have enough of working in a real-world Santa’s workshop!
Fair enough – just thought I’d check! So, how did you come to be there? What did you do before?
Before landing my position here, I was an elementary school teacher. I reached a point in my career where I needed change, and wanted to inspire kids from a different space. I created a ‘dream-job checklist’ and used that in my career search.
Good Lord, is that right? That’s very surefooted…
Well, my biggest worry was how I could apply my experience as an educator to another field. And the truth is that the influence of education extends beyond the classroom, so I wanted to find a role that valued education and cultivated children’s curiosity. I feel incredibly fortunate to find a company that is meaningful about creating products for every child at every stage.
What kind of thing did you learn as an educator that you directly apply to what you do now?
Great question! As an educator, I learned how to celebrate the whole child. I think when most people hear the word ‘education’, it’s innate to immediately think of ABCs and 123s, or the academic skills needed to succeed in school.
Yes – times tables, reading and writing…
Right. But a child needs more than that to reach their full potential. In addition to their academic needs, celebrating the whole child means creating opportunities to supporting their mental well-being, physical health, social emotional development, cognitive skills, and identity. And this framework is what I always turn to when developing new products. A child can’t achieve their academic goals without feeling confident and safe first.
And in your opinion, how much does real-life observation and experience take over from any theories you learn about teaching?
Well, I think you can learn a LOT about a child just from watching how they play and interact with others. It’s common to rely on rubrics and assessments to determine the level at which a child is, but this is just a small piece of their development. I believe that observing how children problem solve, communicate, and resolve conflicts are equally important as the core academic skills that they tend to be assessed on. It’s worth getting to know children and all the things that make each one unique.
Interesting. I always think I’d make a wonderful teacher if it weren’t for the fact that there are children! I don’t have the patience. What do you most love about what you do now, Janene?
I love the product-ideation process. In every brainstorming session, people feel empowered to tap into past experiences and unique real-world connections, and that opens the floor for healthy conversation! It’s refreshing to hear how other people solve problems, and I always learn something new about my colleagues in the process.
Great! It’s been a while since I caught up with anyone at Educational Insights. Tell us about a couple of new lines…
We were thrilled to expand our learning compound brand, Playfoam, this year with Playfoam Sand and Playfoam Naturals. We take a very thoughtful and playful approach to sensory experiences by centring Playfoam sets around skill-building and learning. Here’s that whole-child approach I talked about earlier…
We know that worksheets and pencils aren’t the only way a child can learn. Our Playfoam Sand ABC Cookies set and Ice Cream Sundae set support the basic skills preschoolers need for school confidence, while activating the senses. Another incredible program we’re expanding is Spark More Play…
Spark More Play?
Yes! We know how challenging it can be for parents to find and implement simple activities that kids can do independently… So our Spark More Play content provides thoughtfully crafted activities to extend the play with our products.
So this is a website with free learning activities?
Exactly. If you visit www.sparkmoreplay.com, you’ll see all sorts of great new content… And you’ll notice we’ve added a QR code on our packaging to take you there. We also have some great examples of added-value activities on our Instagram and TikTok channels.
When you’re looking to develop a product, how important is the balance between education and fun?
I would rate finding a balance between education and fun very high on my list when developing new products. It’s so important to stop and ask myself “Would I enjoy playing this?” Or, “Is there repeat play value?” As a team, we always prioritize fun first and then weave in the educational skills with the experience.
I did wonder if you were going to something like that. And how do you find that balance?
We find that balance by integrating more than one way to play with our products and games. A great example of this is my newly launched preschool game, Teacup Pile-Up. This is a relay-race, pattern-matching stacking game that can also be used for pretend play. It’s almost like making a club sandwich! The more ingredients – or learning benefits – and extended play we can add to a product, the better.
And as a mum yourself, Janene, you must’ve played countless games with your own children. Which is your favourite? Favourite game, I mean – not child…
My favourite child changes daily!
Ha! My mum used to say that… And I’m an only child!
Ha! Like that, was it? Well… To address your other question, I’d have to say the very traditional Hide and Seek is a household favourite.
Oh! Really? Interesting answer. What is it about that, particularly, that ticks the boxes?
Hide and Seek requires very little direction and can be played anywhere. I’m also noticing how savvy my kiddos are becoming at finding new places to hide! I also love how the game doesn’t require players to be a certain age… It can grow with you, and you don’t need a whole lot to initiate the game.
Great answer. We need to wrap this up shortly, I fear, but I have two more questions if you don’t mind?
No; go for it!
Educational Insights is part of the Mojo Pitch event again this year. What advice would you give inventors showing their ideas to the team?
Oh, yes! We’re so excited for this year’s event! I would say take the time to truly understand our brand. Notice that while education is top of mind, we have a unique approach to learning academic skills and building self-confidence that go beyond traditional learning tools. Step into the shoes of a child, consider how they authentically play – and the questions a preschooler or kindergartener might ask. Lastly, simple with a creative twist is what our team appreciates the most.
That was a VERY densely packed answer! Great stuff! Thank you! Finally, then: what’s the most interesting object in your office or on your desk?
Besides pictures of my favourite child of the day…
Ha! Hahaha! Yes?!
I have my favourite childhood toy from the 80s, My Little Pony, resting on my bookshelf. It’s Fizzy. Fizzy is a reminder of how play can unlock endless possibilities.
Wonderful! What fantastic answers, Janene; thank you. It’s also been a real pleasure. Take the rest of the day off!
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