Putting Plush Toys To Work For Learning
Talking with Kayle Concepts, LLC founder and CEO Laura Jiencke was a whirlwind conversation about not only discovering and developing an educational tool but being emotionally inspired to help students with special needs. Her fast-paced energy spoke of her passion for developing a cute, cuddly tech buddy for kids called Bluebee Pals. These new products are set to take over the currently empty space of social-emotional support tools crossing the hardware/software space with soft toys for all kinds of curriculum.
Throughout our conversation, she repeated many times the word “donate,” referring to the company’s Bluebee Pals Project. She cares more about helping students learn than making money. She continually donates Bluebee Pals to teachers and speech and occupational therapists.
She spoke of the talented people on her team. How they worked together developing a product that enables students with autism to learn with relative ease (https://www.bluebeepals.com/autism/). “We are focusing on kids that are three to seven, four to eight, and special needs. Pretty much any age, depending on the spectrum. Teachers are using iPads, mobile phones, and tablets in the classroom, and they're incorporating a robotic stuffed animal to their lesson plans.”
In 1997, Kayle Concepts started as a small premium plush toy supplier for KB Toys and large retail stores throughout US and Canada until 2010. Their principal customer, KB Toys, went out of business, so Jiencke decided to take a break from the industry. Two years later, Jiencke came up with the idea of Bluebee Pals, an iPad embedded in a cute, cuddly plush toy – a child’s stuffed animal as their tech buddy. “I was in an Apple store, looking at all the technology: How do we introduce technology into plush toys? How do we put an iPad into a stuffed animal? That's how the whole thing evolved. I went overseas and started working on it,” explained Jiencke.
The first Bluebee Pals arrived on the market in 2014 as a toy for kids. A year later, Jiencke received a phone call that would change her company’s direction. On the phone was a speech therapist at an elementary school in Alabama. She asked Jiencke if she would donate some Bluebee Pals to the school. The therapist wanted see if she could use it as a speech therapy tool. “She was the first one to really think outside the box. I thought that's an interesting concept,” adds Jiencke.
Jiencke continued to donate the company’s old inventory to other schools. Word spread, and she received more calls for more donations. Then, she received an invitation to visit the Jesse Baker School for special needs students located in California to observe how the school used the Bluebee Pals by connecting them to educational apps.
Jiencke recalls walking into the first class. The teacher’s Bluebee Pal was set up in front of the class instructing 12 to 14 students with their own Bluebee Pals. Resting on the podium was the teacher’s plush toy connected to a microphone, connected to an app, connected to an iPad, and connected to an overhead screen. “I went to a different classroom, and they were doing speech therapy with Bluebee Pals. I went to another classroom, and they were doing circle time reading with Bluebee Pals. I was so inspired by these teachers and what they were doing. Not only was it emotional for me, but it was emotional for the people who invited me.”
Jiencke realized Bluebee Pals can be a student’s teacher or a teacher’s aide, providing more personalized learning compared to using straight technology. She came back to New York and told her team, “I want to regroup and rebrand my product as an educational toy tool.”
The company spent 18 months researching, upgrading, and branding the product. In 2016, they introduced a new Bluebee Pals as a Bluetooth huggable stuffed animal that connects to all devices and pairs with any app. “And that was a big deal because, if you think about it, that's a wide spectrum of education and entertainment,” explained Jiencke.
Jiencke stayed in touch with the teachers and schools working with them to make the Bluebee Pals even better and easier to use while winning several teaching and parenting awards along the way https://www.bluebeepals.com/awards/. “It didn't matter that I wasn’t in the educational field. Getting confirmation from them really pushed us to keep moving with the Bluebee Pals and bring them to where they are right now.”
Right now, the company’s final version is called 4.0 Bluebee Pals. They upgraded the Bluetooth, the speaker, and introduced their own companion app. “We did it together. I had teachers and parents involved in the content. It was exciting to see it come to fruition and know that the team did it.”
She speaks highly of her team. “No one is getting rich, right now. The bottom line is they are super talented. They're all brilliant. They are passionate about Bluebee Pals. They use Bluebee Pals in their own practices. They're the ones that kept me going and have faith and believe in the product.”
As we ended our conversation, Jiencke spoke of her husband’s support. He works in a different industry but knows her company’s effort to help kids will pay off in the long run. “It's like my husband will say, “’I know you're donating. It would be nice to break even. I’d like to retire,’” laughs Jiencke.