Transcript: #47 – How to Inspire Creativity in your Kids?
Today we interview Drew Vernon, an expert in child creativity. Drew is the Marketing Director for Tonies, a storytime company built for kids. Before that, Drew led the US preschool business for a little company called Lego. Drew also started Connecticut’s first state license pay-by-the-hour daycare center!
During the conversation, we discuss:
The importance of using constraints to help your kids build creativity
A simple storytelling formula to help your kids
How your lego collection can be used to help cultivate more creativity
Based on Drew’s experience starting one, how to choose a good daycare!
Will Braunstein, A Dad’s Path:
Hi, and welcome to another episode of A Dad’s Path Podcast. I’m Will Braunstein. Today’s guest, Drew Vernon, is the marketing director for Tonies, which we will tell you about in a little bit. Prior to Tonies, Drew led the US preschool business for a little company called Lego. He created something called Prescription for Play, which helped physicians promote daily play between parents and children. That’s going to be fun to talk about as well since we talk about connecting and playing with our kids all the time. Then drew also started Connecticut’s first state license pay-by-the-hour day care center. We’re going to dive there as well. He’s also an entrepreneur, as you can tell. We have a fun discussion coming up. Welcome, drew.
Drew Vernon, Tonies.com: Thank you for having me, Will. It’s great to be here.
Will: Thanks for joining us. This is going to be fun, like I said. I want to start with that little company Lego because it’s such a cool idea. Can you talk to us about a Prescription for Play what that is, and then, as dads maybe, what we can learn from that, what we should be thinking about?
Drew: Yes. I joined Lego in the preschool business. I was just doing my regular job as a marketer, and I was thinking what’s a better way to reach children at the 18-month mark, which was the first available opportunity to introduce them to the Duplo bricks. I thought, “Well, every child goes to the doctor at 18 months for a wellness checkup, is there a way that we could partner with pediatricians to promote play?”
I created a program called Prescription for Play in which we would send out a little prescription card and a product sample to the doctors, and they would give it to the parents as part of the wellness checkup with the prescription that they should play with their kids for at least 15 minutes a day. It was just an overnight success. I was hoping to get into maybe 100 doctor’s offices. I went down and exhibited at the pediatrician’s conference, and I came away with a network of over 2,500 doctors that wanted to be part of the program.
Will: Wow, that’s amazing. That’s a huge number. Then as a dad or as a parent, I’d get this Lego set, and beyond what the program is. What do you advocate in that realm of playing with your kids? Setting aside, is it daily time? Is it important you’re building every day, or you’re doing the same thing every day? Clinically, not from a health perspective, just from your experience just because you’ve been on the ground at Lego.
Drew: Sure. Yes, my experience is that it doesn’t really matter what you do. It just matters that you spend that time together and that you’re consistent, and I think really what you’re trying to do is cultivate their imagination and teach them the creative process. That’s something that I advocate for because the more repetition and consistency you have with playing with your kids, the more equipped they’re going to be for their childhood and adolescence.
Will: Yes. That’s really interesting, because we think about connection a lot and how you connect with your kids, and we think about teaching. Then when you get into the school mode, you’re not thinking creatively or you’re not thinking about storytelling, you’re obviously thinking more academically. I think now, and especially in the future creativity, and the ability to cultivate that and have that internally is going to be more and more valuable as a job skill, as a life skill.
Drew: Yes, I think so. I don’t know the stats, but they say that a lot of the jobs in the future don’t exist yet, and a lot of them are going to revolve around emotional intelligence. That’s something that I think you develop through thinking creatively, which is something that I believe that schools aren’t always the best at teaching.
Will: Yes. Absolutely. Let’s talk about storytelling for a second then. How do you cultivate it? I guess, I’ll tell my kids stories before bed, not as much anymore when they were really younger, that’s what I would, “Hey, daddy, tell me a story.” I’d make up a story or I’d have a fairy tale, or whatever it was. How do you get them to be creative in that process? Is that important, or they learn from you just by doing
Drew: I firmly believe that creativity loves constraints and creativity loves a framework. The way that I try to promote storytelling is to do it through the hero’s journey, which is quite a complex framework. It was originally proposed by a man named Joseph Campbell. I boil it down to a simpler version which is a great story has a hero that overcomes a challenge to get to a reward, or an end goal. Using that framework, and then once you’re familiar with that simple framework, you can add in additional complexity, that’s the basis from which you can learn to tell a compelling creative story.
Will: That’s great. I like that a lot. Big fan of Joseph Campbell as well, by the way, so familiar with the hero’s journey. You’re right. You can make that as simple as you made it, and that can be easily understood, and then add layers as appropriate. That’s great. I love storytelling in that whole creativity proces. If we switch gears and talk about the opposite, maybe not the opposite, but screen time, something that’s on a lot of dad’s minds, it’s on my mind because some screen time seems inevitable.
It seems okay actually it seems helpful for the kids to relax maybe, but by that same token, I quickly can see how it gets out of hand and becomes the goal of every day when the screen time, what’s screen time. What would you suggest in terms of limiting screen time, do you do it every day, every other day? How did you approach that? How do you think about screen time?
Drew: Yes, I think about a lot has to do with my job, which I think we’ll probably get into. I’m amazed how much the sentiment or the behavior has changed in the last two years since COVID because, believe it or not, the recommendation from different medical experts, pediatricians is that you don’t give your kids screen time for ages zero to two, no screen time, which I don’t know if anyone adheres to that, but then an hour a day for kids two to five. You’d be hard pressed to find a family unless it’s a conscious effort they’re giving less than an hour a day to their child.
The reason for that in large part is because COVID changed things with shutting down schools disrupting childcare system and then a lot of the schools pivoted to digital or remote content, which now kids a lot of times are looking at screens for school and after school for entertainment. That’s what’s on my mind. I think that it does require looking now that COVID is winding down, hopefully, to take a look at some of our behaviors and to see if we’re really giving our kids too much screen time.
Will: I think that’s right on in the midst of the pandemic. I mean a lot of us speaking personally watching our kids on the screen and then them wanting their screen time was just, “Oh, man. This is what daddy does all day.” I’m in front of a computer. “You shouldn’t be in front of a computer. You’re four.” It was good to have that extreme because I think that also helps seeing what you don’t want and you can see how it affects their energy too. I think energy levels. That’s also what I think about, or what I like to think about with screen time is it’s not all equal. When your kids get a little older, maybe they can be playing video games or playing educational games on an iPad or something like that.
Watching TV, even there’s Cocoa Mellon show where kids like a lot, but their eyes are glazed. Then there’s an educational show where the last questions the kid’s supposed to answer and it’s more interactive. That’s the other side I think as parents we can do a better job of being active with the content they’re consuming and say, “Hey, you can have screen time, but here are the confines for which you have to choose it from that sort of thing.”
Drew: Yes, I agree. I think there are more passive and more active forms of TV and screen time. One insight that was interesting to me is that most parents don’t really know what their kids are watching. You might know what shows they watch and things like that, but most parents aren’t watching these programs with their kids. It’s really important to be mindful of that and to choose programming and content that it really is on the more active side of things.
Will: Absolutely. We did a reading program on an iPad and that was a game for them and was helpful in that process versus, “Hey, they also want to just play a game where they click a button over and over and over again and plant trees or whatever, where there’s no education there.” Again, being a little more active there. Screen time, I think, absolutely needs to be limited in our society, especially with young kids. We use it so much as a crutch and it can serve kids to maybe some level, but very quickly can get out of hand. I want to talk about the Toniebox. I want to talk about your job. Like you said, you have a job that’s around screen time or rather not screen time. Can you talk about what the Toniebox is and how we can use it with our kids?
Drew: Yes. The Toniebox is a screen-free entertainment system for kids that uses figures to play different types of content be it songs, stories. We do meditation content, mindfulness non-fiction content, things like that. It was actually started by a couple of dads who met on the board of a preschool together. They saw that their children’s teacher was using CD players to play different types of content and they thought, that’s great. All CDs are old at this point, they scratch and they break, and most importantly, young children can’t operate it without an adult.
They wanted to create something that a young child, as young as two or three, could operate on their own. It is screen-free and one of the reasons for that is that when you have a screen in front of you, you’re seeing the whole story. When you remove that visualization, you actually put the creative responsibility upon the listener. This is helping children flex their creative muscles and their imagination muscles. As they follow along with these stories, they’re able to picture what’s going on in their own mind.
Will: I like that a lot. I was looking at the product and the types of stories would resonate with my family, for example, there’s Peppa Pig, there’s like Disney Ones and is not meant to be an ad for you, for the Toniebox, but it does look like a really cool idea. Again, if you don’t want the Toniebox, you can do a CD. I think the principle is there though this is unique in that a child can easily use it on their own.
Talking about the benefits I think are really important just getting rid of that screen. What we were talking about earlier, how do you build creativity? How do you build that storytelling muscle? I think that might be part of it, where you’re listening to a story, you’re not seeing it, so your brain has to be working differently versus when you’re just seeing it or versus when someone else is telling you a story. Mixing it up seems helpful. I’d be curious, your thoughts, is that how I should look at it or–?
Drew: Yes, I would say so. One thing that we really like to incorporate it’s an audio-first experience. There is no screen but it’s also tactile play experience. This is designed for young kids starting ages 2,3,4. This is when they’re still developing their verbal skills. They’re developing their fine motor skills, cognitive, emotional, social skills. This system incorporates all of that by using the figures by placing it on top of the box. The child is in control so they’re able to decide when the content plays, when it stops. They can navigate by giving the box a little bit of a whack that’ll advance to the next track. It’s very much a tactile play experience.
Then just your point about storytelling, I think it’s really important to give our kids a lot of different stories, a lot of different reference points. That’s what we do through our content Tonies. We also have different figures. We call creative Tonies that come blank and this allows children to write their own songs, their own stories, their own poems. They can record that onto the figure and then they can play that back at any time. It’s really a combination of a consumer experience of listening and producer or creator experience with being the author of your own story.
Will: That’s super cool. I didn’t know you could do the creative one. I like that idea a lot. Each one’s, I think you were saying 25, 30 minutes up to an hour and that was about right in terms of each Tonie?
Drew: Yes, it depends on the different content. Our pre-school titles will usually be closer to half an hour. Then we have content. We actually did a partnership with National Geographic has non-fiction content that’s up to an hour or longer.
Will: Very cool. I’m going to check that out. I like this. Let me ask another question about the Toniebox and then we’ll go to the creativity. I like that. Should parents be involved or how could parents be involved to get a Toniebox to your kids, or is it really a self-play thing which is quite valuable obviously as well?
Drew: Based on my experience with Prescription for Play, that was all about coplay, a parent and child playing together. I think that’s important to do. Parents can definitely participate along with Toniebox but it’s also an independent play device and that’s one of the core benefits why parents really love it is because it is something that they can give to their child to wind down before bed or they can give it to them in the car. They plug in the headphones, they can listen to a story while they drive or on a road trip. I would say it’s both but to have it be an independent play device is really one of its key features.
Will: Yes, that’s fantastic. I think both is what you want in those sort of things. Let’s talk more about creativity. I know that’s an area you’ve done some deep thinking on and have a lot of experience with. Can you talk about what works or in terms of cultivating the creative process with your kids? Help us out there. How do we strengthen that muscle for our kids?
Drew: It’s a great question. Something I think about a lot and it was during my time at Lego really where this clicked for me. I like to use a Lego analogy which is that if you go to the toy aisle and you go to the Lego section, most of what you’ll see is going to be boxes of different sets that it’s a rocket ship or a castle or a pirate ship or star wars or something like that. You’re going to take it home. You’re going to dump out the bricks and it’s going to have a set of instructions. Here’s what you do for step 1.
Here’s what you do for step 2, 3 to 100. If you follow those, you’re going to have whatever you set out to create. That’s fun type of play, it’s construction play. It’s something that is very structured. Then on the other end of things, they do offer a few sets of the yellow classic buckets of bricks where you can make anything you want. You take one of those home and you build your own little ship or your own little house. Unless you’re a master builder, it’s probably not going to look like the instruction-based sets.
The key to creativity as I understand it is bridging the gap between the two, which is a completely structured and rule-based experience versus the completely open-ended experience. In order to do that, I think we need creative prompts and I think we need to learn the stepping stones or the skills to get to the masterpiece. I call it the guided masterpiece because it’s something that takes some constraints or some guidelines. When we think about storytelling, instead of telling my child to tell me a story, I’ll tell them to tell me a story about a raccoon that became friends with a hedgehog. Even that is just– I’m making that up, but I’ll try to think of prompts sometimes I’ll introduce this should be the hero or this could be a key event and it’s really building a round a prompt. That’s going to give you a more robust and creative story rather than just saying, “Tell me a story.”
Will: That’s awesome. Super simple, easy to implement, and I just haven’t done it, but you giving that idea is something that I can now try. I will try and hope other dads who are listening will also try. That’s a great way to help cultivate that creativity instead of just, “Hey, tell me a story,” or I’ve like switched off where I’ll tell part of a story and say, “Now it’s your turn,” which also might is fun. I like this idea of, like you’re saying, constraints, Drew, I think is really powerful. Then also the hero’s journey where you just have that real simple structure of, okay, something bad happens and has a challenge and then gets to the other side. What does that look like? then again, you can overlay different layers on it, but really smart.
Drew: You can make a game out of it too. Sometimes it’s like a Mad Libs kind of thing, but you write a bunch of words down on a piece of paper, gear all your nouns, your verbs, whatever, and put them in a hat and pull them out. You can make different games out of it or deal with the prompts in different ways. The key is just to give them the prompt and there’s no wrong answers and there’s no wrong stories and it’s really just about being silly and making it up as you go.
Will: Yes, those are great ideas. I’ll have my dad try some of those out, and if we can get some feedback, I’ll let you know what worked there.
Drew: Yes. I’d love to hear it.
Will: These are really fun ideas. The one last area I wanted to pick your brain about a little bit is daycare. You started a daycare center, so you have some experience there. That’s something that a lot of us dads have trepidation about in some ways. Just bringing your kids somewhere unknown and we know the research to do but the fear is taking your kid to a school that looks amazing and then isn’t basically. As we look at daycares or other types of schools, what are some things we should be looking for? How would you approach that may be lesser known or more of a hack?
Drew: I don’t know if I have any hidden gem. I think for me, I’m speaking as an entrepreneur having started daycare as well as just a dad. I think the main thing is just the people. What are the staff like? Are they well trained, are they caring? Things like that. Then you can look at the curriculum. I think I’d rather have an A-plus staff and B-curriculum than the other way around. The other thing is just to talk to other parents. I think a lot of these are going to come through referrals and just hearing from other parents who have been, or whose children have been there. You probably won’t go wrong if it comes well recommended.
Will: Yes. I think that’s right on. That’s something that I think moms do a little bit better of a job generally than dads is not to stereotype, but something that we can improve on is that referral idea. That’s probably the most powerful ways. If you find another family who’s had a kid who went there and now, of course, schools change, et cetera, but if they had success and chances aren’t bad that it’s going to be good for your child too. I think reaching out to your network is a really great idea.
Then to your point, it’s teachers, it’s always the people. If the teachers aren’t happy if you get a weird feeling from them, then listen to your gut. It’s not about the education, especially at that age. You’re not preparing them for prep school tests or anything. These are young kids we’re talking about here and the skills they need to cultivate are much less on the academic side. There’s more motor skills and there’s skills that need to be developed certainly, but different than the later academic years.
Those are good ideas, Drew. I appreciate that. The Toniebox seems really cool. I am going to check that out. If it sounds cool to you guys, you should check it out too. My listeners, it’s basically like a CD player. It’s just audio, but it’s one that kids can use and it’s built-in content that seems really compelling. I don’t know if I described it quite as you would Drew, but that’s that was my takeaway. I’m excited by it. [laughs]
Drew: Yes. Sounds good. Yes. If anybody’s interested, I would definitely recommend checking it out.
Will: What’s the website we should go to then?
Drew: Yes. It’s available at tonies.com. It’s T-O-N-I-E-S.com. You can also find it on Amazon, Target, Best Buy, Barnes & Noble, and Pottery Barn Kids.
Will: Awesome. We will check that out. Drew, thanks again for joining us. This was really an interesting discussion. We went over a couple of different areas, but the creativity lens that you shown the way you look at things is really fascinating. I think really important and we’ll continue to be more and more important is the years go by. That’s awesome that you’re spending your time and helping other people cultivate that. Again, thanks for joining us here today.
Drew: Thank you. I appreciate it. Thank you for the work that you’re doing. I’m a huge advocate for childhood and fatherhood. That’s my big thing as it matters. Your child is only going to have one childhood and the better we can prepare them as fathers, the better equipped our children will be.
Will: Love it. Yes, that’s why I’m here too. We have that in common. Thank you, Drew. Thanks again for joining us. Until next time, we’ll see you guys soon.