Why we created shumee toys — celebrating 8 years of the joy of free play
If you are familiar with shumee, you probably recognize our toys by their well-finished, wooden structure, bright colours, and adorable characters like Bozo Bear and Mello the Monkey. In fact, there are many similar open-ended wooden toys available in India today. But this was not the case when we began.
When shumee first entered India’s toy market, our philosophy of open-ended free play was far from popular! The market was filled with shiny, battery-operated plastic toys, besides which simple wooden toys were a tough sell.
But we stood for our values, pushed boundaries with innovation, and worked tirelessly for the joy of play. With eight years in the bag, thousands of happy customers, and countless stories to tell, we’re excited to have found a way to become a part of India’s rich and storied playscape. We like to believe that we may even have shifted it a little!
On this birthday month, we’re looking back at the journey so far. Here’s how we got to where we’re at, what we’ve learnt over the years, and some surprising decisions that went into building the toy company you know and love today.
How it all began
When our founder Meeta Sharma Gupta returned to India from the US in 2014, she ran into an unexpected, odd problem – her toddler and infant sons, Aarush and Ishaan, were not enjoying their playtime the way they used to in America.
Most toys she found in India were made of cheap plastic, had only one way to play, and would bore her children after a few days. Meeta wondered what was different in these toys compared to the ones her sons used to spend months with. How could she bring play back into their lives?
Know what toys Albert Einstein used to play with as a child? You might be surprised to find out!
She soon discovered what was missing – the room for her children to think and interact with a toy in their own ways. Toys that created space for this type of play had to be simple and open-ended. Think rattles, blocks, or peg dolls.
Although such toys were not bestsellers in India at the time, they weren’t exactly foreign in our country either. Upon doing some research, Meeta learnt that India has a rich tradition of handcrafted wooden toys. Armed with degrees from IIT and Harvard, she instantly spotted the excellent business opportunity before her. But her idea was not just to bridge a gap in the market. She wanted to make sure that Indian children got a chance to enjoy the fantastic traditions of play that were rightfully passed down to them.
Creating shumee’s first toys
After 15 months of research and speaking to local craftsmen, Meeta decided to experiment with creating a toy. She partnered with an artisan, picked a traditional toy structure, and tried to rethink it for today’s children – a wooden stacker, but with bright, rainbow colours.
The Rainbow Wooden Stacker was launched on the children’s products marketplace, Hopscotch. To Meeta’s surprise, it went on to become an instant hit!
The next few years were a flurry of activity. With a small team and a few vendors in place, we launched a website with some classic wooden toys like the Activity Triangle, Wooden Rocking Horse, Activity Walker, and rattles for babies.
Curious about how we design our toys? Watch this conversation with out founder and in-house designers to know more.
We believed that play should be 90% child and only 10% toy. So while creating, we asked ourselves if a child could enjoy a toy in multiple ways and drive their own play with it. This steered us to make toys that were eco-friendly and open-ended without too many instructions.
Going down an unexplored path
While our toys were slowly becoming better known in India, it was not easy to pioneer a whole new way of play. Since many of our toys were the only ones of its kind in the market, parents had a lot of understandable questions and concerns – were wooden toys safe to chew? What sort of paints were we using? Were the toys going to be too heavy?
Meeta saw that having a constant line of communication open with customers was essential to ease their concerns and give them the support they needed. While our team got busy fielding these questions regularly, something wonderful began to happen.
Parents started becoming an active part of shumee’s journey. Based on both play testing with children and feedback from parents, we were able to tailor our offerings to be just right for different age groups. For instance, some of our rattles were made lighter, we modified the age groups on our DIY Activity Boxes, and carefully designed our Organic Ajwain Seed Bib to be the perfect weight for babies.
A pandemic pivot
A lot changed during the pandemic. Since children were unable to go to preschool and kindergarten, parents started looking for toys that they could homeschool their little ones with. Similarly, with kids stuck indoors through the day, toys that encourage movement became an urgent need.
Meeta, along with our team of in-house designers, began to brainstorm. Our philosophy has always been – let children play, learning will happen along the way. So while we made development-friendly toys, shumee toys have been ‘play-centered’ and never ‘learning-centered’. We wondered how we could stay true to our ideology of free play while catering to this rising need in the community during a tough time.
Our answer was a Montessori-inspired range of toys. While shumee toys aren’t strictly Montessori, we discovered a lot of synergy in the reality-based, exploration style philosophy that was used in many classrooms across the world.
When we saw children make some inspired art during the pandemic, we invited them to design a few of our toys! Here's how it went.
So with toys like the Rainbow Spinner, Peg Puzzles, Pikler Triangle, and Wooden Stepping Stones, we began designing a range to help hone specific skills and give children a chance to move about and explore the world at their own pace.
India’s changing playscape
Eight years in, Meeta often notes how much things have changed. With all kinds of sustainable childcare products now readily available, we are thrilled to see more parents making holistic choices these days.
Over the past year alone, we’ve had two huge moments that we will never forget!
The first was when actor and UN Ambassador Dia Mirza excitedly agreed to become our strategic investor and brand ambassador. Her faith in what we’ve built felt like a testament to the work we’ve put in over the years.
shumee toys aren't just for kids! Some toys our team has been getting for ourselves and our friends are Ninjaki, Spin Tops, Butterfly Balance Board, & Collector's Chess Set.
The second was a few weeks ago, when we were given a surprise shoutout by our prime minister, Narendra Modi on his show, Mann Ki Baat. With almost a decade’s worth of research, creativity, and immense heart work, our team celebrated having made a mark in what we set out to do – bringing the joy of Indian toys to Indian children!
We still have ways to go and countless ideas brewing every moment. At shumee, we are just getting started. As we figure out how to bring our brightest and most ambitious ideas to fruition, here’s hoping you join in for this sustainable and joyful journey of play!