KUALA LUMPUR: Many people think of play as childish: a frivolous activity that adults don’t engage in. Why waste your time with toys and games when there are so many pressing things to be done?
Entrepreneur Gwen Soo, however, respectfully disagrees. For her, play is an essential activity for anyone, no matter their age. In fact, she stresses, the older you are, the more important it is to set aside time for play.
“Play is healthy. It helps us to relieve stress, learn, and develop skills. Through play, we connect with others, and even ourselves,” Soo, the founder of Penang-based craft company ChildhoodAtPlay, told FMT.
Established in 2016, ChildhoodAtPlay specialises in traditional games and handicrafts: its products include Batu Seremban tokens, juggling balls and cloth dolls.
The company’s mission is to preserve the legacy of these classic pastimes, while providing opportunities for people to learn, grow and create lasting memories through play.
All of ChildhoodAtPlay’s products are handmade. Soo is a self-taught crafter, who learnt to sew from watching her mother and sisters as a child.
She smiled as she recounted her experiences with the family sewing machine: how she used to make her own pyjamas, and a time she had to be rushed to a clinic after accidentally sewing her own finger.
Early inspirations for her company came in 2007, when Soo’s daughter, Fong Lee Ann, was born.
To bond with her daughter, the young mother shared her memories growing up in a traditional kampung in Sabak Bernam, where she spent her days climbing coconut trees and fishing in the river.
Soo decided to craft her daughter something from those halcyon days of her youth. And since she could sew, the obvious choice was Batu Seremban tokens.
Soon, she started selling them at bazaar events in Penang, and it wasn’t long before they caught on. Today, ChildhoodAtPlay has booths at two locations around the state: Straits Quay and Heritage House 25 at Armenian Street, Georgetown.
Looking at her company’s wares, it is hard not to feel nostalgic. Toys like these, charming in their simplicity, are uncommon nowadays, in this high-tech era of fancy gadgets and electronics.
Many of ChildhoodAtPlay’s items are crafted with a touch of whimsy, whether they be elephant and tapir dolls in long dresses, or Batu Seremban tokens that look like chickens, dinosaurs and even packets of nasi lemak.
Ironically, despite being crafted with children in mind, Soo said adults were particularly fond of buying her products too, as gifts for themselves or others.
“Travellers often visit my booths, and like to buy my dolls to put on their bags. It’s like they become their travel companions. And when they share photos, and I see my dolls have followed them all over the world, it makes me very satisfied,” shared Soo.
These dolls, however, were sometimes challenging to make, and not for the reasons one would think.
“Infusing these dolls with expressions takes time, and also depends on how I’m feeling. When I’m not in a good mood, it comes out on the doll’s face. It doesn’t look nice and I have to start again. It sounds strange but it happens!” Soo laughed.
Asked about possibly expanding ChildhoodAtPlay, Soo said as of now, she was happy with how it was.
Yes, she said, it was possible to start using machines, and maybe even mass produce her toys. That would lead to more output, and more sales and profit. But to do so would completely defeat the purpose of ChildhoodAtPlay, which was built on human connection.
This was the same reason Soo didn’t like selling her products online, as she enjoyed interacting with her customers.
“I’ve always believed that in products made by hand, there’s a feeling in them from the person who creates it. And if you appreciate this kind of thing, you will be able to ‘feel’ it,” said Soo, who also works as a content designer at a multinational electronics company.
Soo and her daughter were in Kuala Lumpur recently, as ChildhoodAtPlay was involved at the Hin On The Move bazaar at the Zhongshan building here.
Soo was in her element, standing at her booth with a smile, gleefully demonstrating to curious passersby how to play Batu Seremban.
Many are invited to try the game for themselves: laughter fills the air as attempts are made to toss and catch these smooth tokens. It’s impressive how much joy can be derived from such simple toys. And for Soo, this is exactly why ChildhoodAtPlay was started.
“I think many people feel happy when they see my toys. It probably brings back memories for them, of carefree times when they were children. And that’s great. It’s what keeps me going,” enthused Soo.