We meet the founder of Ollies’ Blocks to find out why he left a digital start-up to make wooden blocks for children.
You might expect an app designer from Silicon Valley to find wooden blocks under stimulating but, for Haran Yaffe, rediscovering the blocks he played with in his own childhood was the start of a new venture, one which harnesses precision engineering to encourage limitless critical thinking and fine motor skills in kids. We caught up with him to find out more about Ollies’ Blocks and the Kickstarter campaign to get his childhood blocks back into production.
What inspired Ollies?
About a year ago I was running a startup in Silicon Valley and I was working from home in order to spend as much time as possible with my little girl Olivia. You could say that I was living my dream life but something just didn’t click. I would sit and play with her flashy, noisy, poorly made plastic toys and I would go out of my mind. I couldn’t play with her for more than a few minutes before my mind would drift away and she would sense that immediately. I felt like a bad dad for not being able to be present while I was playing with her. And than it hit me.
I called my dad and asked him if he still had some blocks from back in the day when he used to run his wooden toy company. He found some in the attic and in March 2015 my parents came to visit us in California for my daughter’s birthday. From that moment on everything changed. I was playing with blocks and building whatever came to mind. They were the blocks that I played with as a child and I was reconnected with my childhood.
It wasn’t just me who noticed the difference in my demeanour – my daughter noticed as well. Friends asked where I got them. When I told them that my dad made them when I was a kid they asked if he would make some more. At first he didn’t take it seriously but as more friends asked for blocks he was finally convinced to reopen his toy factory – on the condition that we would do it together via crowdfunding.
What do you feel kids gain from toys that don’t over-stimulate?
Kids nowadays are always attached to a screen. They are always being entertained by a toy rather than entertaining themselves with a toy. They don’t have to think – the games or screens they are attached to do the thinking for them. Ollies bring kids back to a simpler time and parents are able to engage in imaginative play. Kids and adults are able to create together. Our goal is to let young imaginations run wild while developing spatial recognition by using three of the four types of child learning: visual, tactile, and kinesthetic.
Your father’s original blocks are on display at the Nurnberg Toy Museum in Germany. Why are they so innovative?
The blocks are innovative on a few levels. It starts with their simplicity. A toddler can connect blocks to one another without any difficulty or frustration. The blocks can hold their place on a single peg allowing almost 360 degree in movement in mid-play. The design of the pegs allows for the blocks to interlock with slight pressure and thus allowing sturdiness and prevents the structures from easily collapsing. The latter enables construction of more complex structures, making the blocks an enjoyable game even for adults.
The precision that is required for manufacturing the blocks is unparalleled in woodworking – a precision of 2 hundredths of a millimeter is required.
What makes them more educational than LEGO, K’nex or other building blocks?
We believe Ollies have a different learning and creative approach to other building blocks on the market. Traditional building blocks can generally only form straight lines or a child can build horizontally or vertically. Ollies precision-made interlocking blocks fit perfectly into each other, while the angles and positions can be changed mid-play. Ollies truly offer endless possibilities with nothing to limit their imagination so kids can create anything they want
You use surplus oak. What is the reasoning behind that?
In the process of woodworking and carpentry a lot of wood is being wasted. Usually the excess wood is turned into sawdust or simply thrown away. In order to be environmentally cautious we decided to collect the surplus wood from local wood shops even though the process is tedious and more costly than simply ordering wood from a supplier.
Ollies encourage critical thinking as well as strengthening children’s fine motor skills. Why is that important to you?
Critical thinking is necessary for problem solving and, putting it bluntly, without such ability a child will be left behind, they will rely on tablets and computers to think for them. Fine motor skills are necessary in everything we do. Painters, sculptures, musicians and even surgeons are nothing without fine motor skills.
You are offering backers the chance to donate sets of blocks to children’s hospitals while matching those donations. Tell us about this?
As a military veteran I suffered life-threatening injuries during my time in service. I felt that I needed to do something bigger than me. After my injury I lost motor function in my right hand and, being a musician, my hands are everything to me. More and more doctors are prescribing victims of traumatic brain injuries cognitive toys and games t play with as a rehabilitation tool. Ollies have been described by some doctors as a great instrument to incorporate in helping patients get back on their feet.
Our decision to offer donations to hospitals is based on our desire to give back and not based on research or statistics. A backer can choose which hospital they want to donate blocks to and we will ship it there and add our donation. We don’t work with any specific hospital and it is not limited to the US.
You were in Silicon Valley before you started Ollies. Do you see the value of tech in children’s toys?
I believe that our society is very tech driven and there is no doubt that kids now have a deeper understanding of gadgets than we did at their age. Tech in children’s toys has value but for me it can be introduced at a later age. A child needs to build imagination and to have thoughts that are not computer generated.
My daughter Olivia will be 2 years old next month and while she does watch the occasional cartoon she does not have an iPad or tablet or another screen to entertain her. We encourage her to play outside, to draw, colour and be imaginative: and she loves her blocks of course.Ollies’ Blocks can be pre-ordered on their Kickstarter page.