Jenna Winter and Alesha Capewell are Waikato sisters who understand the benefits of a wooden toy.
The pair have young families, they work as early childhood education (ECE) teachers, and they’re also the owners of a ‘wee business’ called Expressions of Winter.
Together, Jenna and Alesha make a range of wooden toys and resources that encourage inclusivity and open up endless opportunities for play-based learning.
Here, Jenna recommends different toys for different ages, and explains how timber can be used to teach key skills and deepen youngsters’ understandings of language and culture.
You’ve been an ECE teacher for 12 years, Jenna. How did you and your sister become toy-makers as well?
Alesha and I are both really hands-on, creative people with a love of DIY.
We have been surrounded by builders and creators throughout our lives, so when we saw a lack of inclusive, bicultural and natural resources within the ECE sector, we thought, surely, we could make them ourselves!
We started Expressions of Winter back in 2017, with the aim of creating toys and resources that would represent the cultures of Māori, Tauiwi/Pakeha and other Kiwi children.
The early childhood curriculum, Te Whāriki, states that children are more likely to feel at home if they regularly see their own culture, language and world views valued in the ECE setting, and we create wooden toys that help under fives to reflect on their heritage at home and in ECE, while learning important physical, social and emotional skills.
Wooden toys offer different learning experiences, depending on a child’s age. What toys do you recommend for under threes and under fives?
We find that younger children benefit greatly from wooden blocks and books, because they introduce basic numeracy and literacy skills, through adults scaffolding their play (e.g. when a mum counts out three blocks, or reads the letter ‘A’ aloud).
These toys are great for promoting hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills as babies and toddlers learn to grasp, transfer and stack. There’s also an added sensory element when little ones tap blocks together to make a sound or look at bright colours painted onto wood.
As the months and years go by, tracing and puzzle boards are great for older children. In preparation for writing, our tracing boards are designed to help children understand the different movements and angles that are formed within letters.
Tamariki can also use their finger to trace and feel the curves and angles of the shapes, and can use the dowel to begin to make the movements with a pencil-like tool, which also helps to develop their pencil grip. Another hands-on way to explore with this board is to use materials such as seeds, petals and beads to fill in the letters and create a piece of art.
Puzzle boards teach special awareness and problem-solving, and they keep developing young children’s fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.
Different kinds of wooden play sets help under fives to think in creative ways, and they open up opportunities for siblings or ECE groups to practice important social skills, such as turn-taking, sharing and negotiation.
And last but not least, routine boards are a great way to teach life skills to toddlers and preschoolers, with wooden pieces reminding them to clean teeth, get dressed and so on.
There’s a strong focus on language and culture in your toys. How do your designs help young Kiwis to learn about different languages and cultures?
All of our products are open-ended, which means they provide a base for parents, whānau and friends to be able to extend on our resources with their own knowledge.
We provide basic tools in the way of alphabet blocks, numeracy blocks and books in English, Māori, NZ Sign Language and any other language you would like (including Samoan, Tongan, French, German, Gujarati, Hindi, Niuean, Portuguese, Welsh and Turkish) to bring basic language into your everyday practices.
Our resources have been created with the knowledge and respect that culture cannot be taught through toys or resources, but that the use of such things, through play with elders who hold knowledge about the culture, can aid in deepening understandings.
How do you make your toys eco-friendly and child-safe?
We aim to provide natural resources to do our part in reducing plastic and waste in our environment. Our range is made predominantly from untreated pine, sourced in New Zealand, and recycled native woods when possible.
All paints and oils are from the New Zealand business, the Natural Paint Company, and these finishes are made from natural products that are safe for toys.
Our resources are made without small parts and are safe for all ages of children. They comply with New Zealand’s safety standards, and we make our toys with care to ensure they’re durable and safe, as well as being engaging.
What’s the most fulfilling thing about being a wooden toy-maker?
We love what we do, and we love the amazing feedback and support that we receive from parents, whānau and the ECE community!
We thank everyone for helping us to continue on with our wee business, and it’s always a great feeling to see a child playing with, and learning from, one of our toys.
My sister and I feel strongly that all tamariki should feel included and equal, and it’s a true joy to be encouraging positive early learning experiences across the country.