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Take a peek inside Peekapak, the new monthly learning box for kids

Crowdfunding gets a lot of attention these days, but few people realize what it takes to turn a fledging idea into a startup that can stand on its own two feet.

The founders of Peekapak, Ami Shah and Angie Chan, understood this very early on. They knew they had an idea for a unique product that was lacking in the world of early childhood education, a solution for busy parents and crafty kids alike. Peekapak is the monthly delivery of a shoebox-sized package of curated arts and crafts supplies combined with an element of storytelling.

Shah and Chan recognized they were facing an oversaturated market, so before they took Peekapak to Kickstarter they carefully created a backbench of researchers, psychologists, regular kids and their parents as well as highly critical advisory boards. They streamlined their prototype based on feedback, all while creating an early network of supporters that would prove pivotal in getting the word out when the Kickstarter campaign began. When it did, they soared past their initial $7,500 goal to over 10k in a week. 

Shah and Chan have been best friends since fourth grade. Both of their careers have taken them around the world, Chan's to Hong Kong, while Shah's led her to Vietnam, France, Singapore, India and eventually back to Toronto. Throughout, Chan, who won a short story contest put on by the Toronto Star when she was nine, was writing stories. It sparked an idea. 

"She was writing a kids storybook about how two children find a little red box that when they open it, takes them on adventures," says Shah. "So we wondered, could we create our own box of adventures and take kids on an adventure each month?" 

Just like that, Peekapak was born. 

Most children today are supervised 24/7. Gone are the days where kids played outside until the streetlights came on. In many cases, adults are now the closest companions to kids at play, making today's children the first generation that will learn about play in the company of their educators. Children are also learning cultural messages from a very young age, not just from an observational standpoint, but as consumers and participants. Contemporary children's toys are often sexualized, with amplified messages that play up gender stereotypes. In other words, play is changing. 

"Our toy stores are woefully lacking in positive, authentic, true to life images. Ami and Angie are very thoughtfully and purposefully adding a counter-narrative," says Dr. Kimberly Bezaire, an early researcher-turned-supporter of Peekapak. She became involved with the startup when Peekapak enlisted George George Brown College's School of Early Childhood—where Bezaire is a professor—to assist in their initial research stages after Shah and Chan received a government grant. 

Bezaire agrees we're in an era of play dominated by "gender stereotypes, racial stereotypes, playthings that can only be used in one way." Devices for play are made to be disposable or, in the case of handheld electronics or gaming systems, they relegate children to the backseat of their own learning and development. For the most part interaction is secondary. 

Asked how the Paks offer up something different, Dr. Bezaire says, "[Peekapak] builds fundamentally on children's natural play, children's emergent literacy. In a lot of wonderful ways it's a child's natural toy, but it's also innovative. The materials they put into the Paks are not standard craft materials, not cookie cutter materials, they give a lot of thought to the creative potential. There's a really wonderful connection between the material and the storytelling happening in the book."

And she's right. Arts and crafts can conjure up imagery of white glue, Popsicle sticks and crayons. And while the crayons – fresh, unspoiled packs in each Pak – are still there, so too are a beautiful array of thoughtfully sourced materials from bells to literal whistles to beautiful beads and beeswax. And the range of characters in each story, some repeating and others unique to each Pak's theme, show just as much thoughtful and purposeful planning, while remaining fun and untroubled by this distinctively important role they are playing. 

The wide cross-section of racial representation in the Peekapak stories by no means feels arbitrary. These diverse characters navigate creativity as well as real life dilemmas and reflect it in their dialogue and expressions, allowing real kids to see themselves and their friends in the stories, something crucial to a child's cultural and social development. 

"It's unquestionably important," Dr. Bezaire says. "And the research has been really clear about that. Children are learning cultural messages from very young early ages.  Through play, through the media, through the stories they read and very much through the images they see.  That's how children come to print literacy, through their visual literacy."

Moreover, children learn from role models and for girls these can often prove sorely lacking, something that Shah and Chan were aware of and wanted to put at the forefront of their stories. The female lead in the Peekapak adventures is in every way that. She takes independent problem solving head on, asks for help when she needs it, and is essential to the group. She is also privy to roles not often found in children's books. 

Shah felt it was important to "show our female character as a strong leader in science, engineering, and technology." 

Dr. Bezaire says open-ended materials, like those that Peekapak provides, are crucial in play as they require children to use their imaginations as the main means to get started. The onus is not on passive entertainment, as is the apparent trend through handheld devices such as smartphones or personal gaming gadgets. She also says something like Peekapak could eventually replace traditional homework, which by nature is traditionally frustrating rather than fun for children, being that it's the work that was the hardest to finish in class hours.

In the meantime though, Peekapak is pressing on. Shah and Chan have hired on new staff to facilitate their acceptance into the MaRS accelerator program and move into the company's affiliated Discovery District in downtown Toronto. They have also been accepted into the San Francisco-based Imagine K12. While Peekapaks initial concept might seem simple, it shows what can happen when you think outside the shoebox.

In early 2015, the Peekapak team decided to discontinue their subscription boxes and pivot their business. to bring their stories and lessons to schools, delivered through an online platform. Working with over 300 teachers from across North America, Peekapak has designed a curriculum using it's stories and learning materials to engage children on social-emotional learning. 
To learn more about the new direction and to hear stories about their impact, you can watch this video

Katie Heindl is a Toronto-based writer. 
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