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Interview with Marcia Haut, the founder of SmartNoggin Toys

SmartNoggin Toys is an innovative company that produces playthings that amuse children whilst strengthening cognitive skills. The startup company presently has three items on the market–the “NogginStik Developmental Light Up Rattle” and “NogginRings Reaching and Grasping Rings”–both of which were designed for babies and both of which won esteemed Oppenheim Platinum Toy Awards, and their third product, “NogginSeek Peek & Seek Rattle.”

The NogginStik Developmental Light-up Rattle lights up red, blue, and green. These colors help to stimulate a baby’s eyes and encourage visual tracking. Moreover, the base of the NogginStik makes a soft rattling sound that is audibly pleasing and it has a handle that helps babies master grasping, thereby strengthening basic motor skills. The toy also has many textures to interest babies. The NogginRings Reaching & Grasping Rings were designed to encourage movements such as grasping, reaching and interaction. Colored black, white and red, it appeals to even very small children. The company’s third offering, the NogginSeek was designed to encourage learning the concept of object permanence, rattle play and wrist rotation since every shake produces movement and sounds via rotating beads. Every toy in the SmartNoggin line includes “A Parent Guide To Baby’s Milestones” which discusses how the first three years of a baby’s life are a period of incredible growth and development which are critical to achieving milestones. The guide aims to inform parents of monthly achievements.

Play has a hugely positive effect on brain development. The American Academy of Pediatrics and The National Institute of Play both have conducted studies that find toys and games to be essential components for healthy mental and emotional growth and development. IMG_8841SmartNoggin’s Founder, Marcia Haut, holds a teaching degree in special education and became an early intervention therapist in Indiana for children aged from babies to three years old. In the course of her work, Marcia worked with families who were not sure precisely how to encourage their baby’s cognitive development and she frequently used various toys and objects to help evaluate and encourage milestones. However, she was frustrated that she was unable to find toys on the market to encourage critical early milestones in her tiniest clients and so she decided to launch her own brand.

In 2012, after thirty years of working with children, Marcia decided to use her expertise to invent toys that double as learning tools and subsequently help parents. Her company, SmartNoggin, is now four years old and has three award-winning products to showcase at the ABC Kids Expo in October of 2017, with additional products expected by the end of this year. From her professional perch, Haut values that parents are a child’s most important teacher and SmartNoggin is ready to help children begin their learning journey, beginning at birth.

In an exclusive interview, Marcia discussed her company, inventions and plans for the future.

Meagan Meehan (MM) of Entertainment Vine: When and how did you get interested in early childhood development and what most appealed to you about that field of study?

Marcia Haut (MH): I have always loved teaching children and my first experience was in High School. I did a practicum in a classroom for children with special needs. I went on to graduate from Purdue University with a degree in special education and began a thirty-year career teaching children with learning differences. In 2002, I went from the public-school setting to home based early intervention, working with babies’ birth to age three. I love working with babies and new parents and helping them learn how they can help their littles begin their learning journey starting day one.

MM: Do you believe that young children are actually far cleverer than most people believe?

MH: Babies are extremely intelligent! Their brains have the ability to make over 1,000,000 new neural connections every second! What babies achieve in their first year alone is miraculous. Check out this study to see what I mean:

MM: What prompted you to start designing toys and how many models have you created to date?

IMG_8843bMH: As an early intervention therapist in my home state of Indiana, I was assessing babies and was observing babies beginning to show delays as early as three months of age. I wasn’t able to find a toy on the market to help parents begin to encourage their baby’s early milestones, so in 2012 I designed “that toy” and the NogginStik was born. We currently have three award-winning products on the market. The NogginStik, NogginRings and NogginSeek. We also have six more toys in the development phase!

MM: How did you come to work with SmartNoggin and what about its mission is most appealing to you?

MH: I founded SmartNoggin Toys in 2012 and launched the NogginStik in November of 2012. Our mission is to provide parents and caregivers toys “learning tools” and information to help them encourage their baby’s critical early milestones, with the hope of helping all children achieving their full potential.

This mission is not only the mission I chose for SmartNoggin, it has also been my personal mission throughout my career working with children of all abilities. Helping all children learn to their fullest capacity is tremendously rewarding and has been my passion for over 30 years.

MM: How much impact do you think toys and games can have on the development of small children?

IMG_8842bMH: I think toys and games have a huge impact on children’s development. As a teacher I have used many amazing toys in my therapy and as teaching strategies. As an educator I am thrilled that SmartNoggin’s toys are having such a great impact. They are being used by parents, caregivers, early childhood teachers, therapists, healthcare providers and in hospital NICU’s across the nation. Toys have the power to help children learn and practice emerging skills.

MM: Have you heard of Entertainment-Education and gamification and do you believe in these concepts?

MH: For many children seeing a concept visually on video or through computer screen manipulation helps them to better grasp many concepts. So yes, I do believe Entertainment-Education can be useful, but with that said, it must be used in moderation. Too much screen time can also hinder a child’s academic and social progress, so a parent and teacher must find that perfect balance.
Gamification also can be useful. By incorporating game elements to tasks as incentives for children to participate and improve learning, gamification can be beneficial. At a very simplistic level the NogginStik could fall into the gamification category, it is an example of providing a fun toy that babies love, but at the same time it has a powerful agenda…to encourage critical early milestones (which it does simply by baby and parents playing with it) with the hope of lessening or preventing developmental delays.

As with Entertainment-Education, gamification, especially when referring to “new technologies” should be monitored to make sure that what it is teaching is relevant and does not become the dominate strategy being used to learn or teach.

MM: What initially gave you the idea for the NogginStik and why did you decide to make it light up?

IMG_8839bMH: Because I was unable to find a toy “learning tool” to use with my tiniest babies to help encourage early milestones, I began creating my own “homemade” learning tools. As a graduate of Purdue University, a top Engineering school in the nation, even Education majors were encouraged to think outside the box and create what we needed if it didn’t exist. One of my many homemade learning tools was a golf ball that lit up. Because it was not “baby safe” it was always used under close supervision. I found that babies absolutely loved it and it helped develop their visual tracking skills, among many other milestones. When I designed the NogginStik, the light was the first feature that I focused on. With a gentle tap or shake the NogginStik’s soft glowing light changes from red, to green and then to blue. There is a slight delay between changes, so there is no blinking or strobing of light. This color change helps to encourage many milestones such as visual tracking, cause and effect, color awareness and fine motor skills. We even have a utility patent on this light feature!

MM: Why did you select red, green, and blue as the featured colors and so do children typically have different reactions to the colors?

MH: Beginning at birth, it is difficult for babies to distinguish color, but they are able to see high contrast patterns. The light on the NogginStik creates a bright contrast between light and dark that captures even a new baby’s visual interest. This is one of the reasons the NogginStik is being used in NICU’s across the country. For the first few months, baby’s brains are working on learning to distinguish colors. Usually showing a preference for bright primary colors, this is why red, blue and green was chosen for the NogginStik’s color sequence.

MM: How important is it for parents to play with children and how can toys like the NogginStik help?

MH: It is extremely important for parents to play and interact with their children beginning at birth. Babies depend on parent/child play and interaction to help stimulate their senses and help their brains develop in a healthy way. SmartNoggin’s toys are designed to encourage parent/child interaction. The NogginStik gives parents a cute toy “learning tool” to begin these interactions in a positive way, starting day one. With their NogginStik parents can begin encouraging language development, visual tracking skills, cause and effect, tummy time, reaching, grasping and color recognition, all through play and interaction.

MM: What sorts of cool experiences has your career provided you?

MH: The experiences I have had the privilege to have over the last five years have been many! SmartNoggin has given me the opportunity to travel across the United States and meet thousands of wonderful parents, retailers, early intervention therapists, home visitors, health care providers and celebrities. We have had the honor to partner with non-profits and Hollywood celebrities to help raise funds for children in need and have donated product to therapists and home visitors to help encourage beginning milestones of at risk children. The NogginStik was even featured on “The Today Show!”

MM: Are you currently working on any new designs?

IMG_8840bMH: Yes, our design team is working on several new designs and hope to introduce two new products at Toy Fair in NYC in 2018. Our new products will also help encourage specific early milestones. While we will be introducing new original designs, some of our products may look a little reminiscent, they harken back to what’s old is new again! SmartNoggin has been chosen to update an iconic line of developmental toys originally introduced in the 1970’s and 80’s by the late Dr. Richard Chase, founder of Child Growth and Development Corporation. In collaboration with Child Growth and Development’s design team, we are honored to reintroduce updated toys from this iconic line. The “NogginSeek” and the “NogginRings” are part of this “Classic Developmental Milestone Makers” line.

MM: As a child development expert, what sorts of toys and games do you hope to see in the market more in the coming years?

MH: I hope to see more toys and games that encourage the skills that children will need when they enter kindergarten. Statistics from the Brookings Early Childhood Longitudinal Study show that the likelihood of a child in the United States NOT having the skills needed for school at age five is almost 40%. Toys and games that involve parent participation and guidance are needed and it is my hope that more family games, pretend and creative play, toys and games that encourage language development and cooperation, will become more popular in the coming years.

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To learn more about SmartNoggin Toys, visit its official website, Facebook, and Twitter.

Meagan Meehan

Meagan J. Meehan is a published author, poet, cartoonist and produced playwright. She pens columns for the Great South Bay Magazine, Examiner and AXS. She is also a stop motion animator and an award-winning abstract artist. Meagan holds a Bachelors in English Literature and a Masters of Communication. She is an animal advocate and a fledging toy and game designer.
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