TSEM: Bhutanese Toys for Today’s Children

With the onset of countless imported plastic toys in the market and children’s unsupervised time on phones, ipads and TV – there is a general concern about how children are growing up at this day and age. Gyaltshen K Dorji and his wife Uygen Wangmo created TSEM: locally-made toys with an objective to make playtime for children more educational on Bhutanese culture. The young couple, who are also parents, talk about the story behind TSEM and how their four year old inspired them to create the business in the first place.

Interview by Sonam Pelden

How did the idea of TSEM come about?

The idea to start an educational toy manufacturing firm came about after the birth of our son in 2014. As he grew, we experienced a common dilemma most working parents in Bhutan face and that was finding and devoting enough time to our child. Many times, after a long day, we took the easy way out and simply placed our son in front of a TV, or handed him a mobile phone. We saw how addictive these devices can become and we read enough stories about how a child’s development is impaired and affected when exposure to such technology is not controlled. We saw how the internet and games, even educational apps, simply relegated the user to a passive consumer. So we began looking for educational toys in the market, which we thought would serve as a more healthy activity for our son, but found that such toys were not easily available and the few that were, were expensive, at least at that time.

In contrast, the availability of commercially oriented toys was abundant but personally, we read that such toys are designed for a specific purpose or environment and limits the imagination. Of course, we still buy commercial toys for our son but we wanted to balance it with educational toys as well. So since there weren’t many around, we decided to make a few ourselves which eventually led to the idea of setting up a business. We liked the idea of making educational toys within Bhutan itself given the abundance of wood and it really appealed to us that we would be running a business that would also help other parents like us. It was important to us that we run a business that would have a socially positive impact and one in which we took part in our community’s development.

The Four Friends

What will TSEM’s toys help children learn?

The first educational toys we created were our Dzongkha tshuyig and joyig alphabet boards. The idea behind the boards are obvious in that it is to help a child learn the alphabets of our national language and to be able to form some words. It was also to expose children to the written form of the national language at an earlier age. But besides that, we also designed each alphabet block with a unique shape so that it fits into only the corresponding aperture on the board. So the alphabet boards also double as a puzzle and this is to allow a toddler to learn how to problem solve. It’s the same idea with our number boards.

We also want to concentrate on creating toys that focus on our own culture. For example, we’ve a great story about interdependence and helping each other in the Four Friends. So we thought a stacking toy, that would not only help in hand-eye coordination and problem solving but also allow a parent or caregiver to narrate the story behind the Four Friends in a more engaging and interactive way, was worth pursuing.

Our most popular puzzle so far has been a map of our country. The idea behind it was simple, to help a child learn where the dzongkhags are geographically located and also to be able to tackle a more complex puzzle. Surprisingly, it’s proven popular both among children and adults and this has encouraged us to work on more variations.

A stacking toy set of a family of Brokpas in Merak Sakteng, Trashigang.

Would you say toys are as important as books?

We would say that toys are as important as books, or even more so in a child’s life, especially during the early years. Exposure to pictorial books and reading to children from an early age definitely will have significant benefits because these are the years they learn so fast. So it would only make sense that balancing the learning experience is as important, through toys, music, the outdoors, and so on. We’re aware that the first few years directly impact a child’s learning, and social and emotional abilities later. Toys play a fundamental role in how a child develops cognitive and motor skills, and even their socio-emotional abilities. For instance, it’s through play with other children, and parents or caregivers that a child learns how to interact socially, to share, to cooperate, to help others, or to learn to respect others. That’s why it’s important that parents also take the time to play with their child or children, so that they can impart values and important lessons through play, while at the same time have a little fun as well.

For more details go to TSEM on facebook and order today.

The Creators of TSEM with their son.

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