Pumpkin Projects’ Valeria Miglioli: “Too long we’ve been flooded with toys for a quick sale and no longevity”

Having spent 16 years heading up product development at Fiesta Crafts, Valeria Miglioli has made her return to the scene with a clear cut and defined message to present to the market; that this is an industry that should always strive to be better than what it was before.

It’s in her latest reincarnation within the toy space that Miglioli now heads up the design consultancy she founded in recent months, Pumpkin Projects, to present the very messages that she believes are important for the improvement of not only the industry itself, but the way in which children learn and develop through play. It’s why, under Pumpkin Projects, Miglioli’s time is now divided between not only designing and consulting on product design, but research into new ways of play.

“After 16 years working at Fiesta, it was time to start something on my own where I could solely concentrate on developing toys with purpose, seeking out like-minded companies and individuals, nationally and internationally, that have the same passion as me for making toys that matter; that enrich, stimulate, and educate,” she tells ToyNews.

“I want to explore the use of a different perspective to design, one that cares about how things are made and why. One that values individuals and resources, and one that is dedicated to the longevity of the toy market.”

Miglioli officially launched Pumpkin Projects at the end of 2019, and has in that time tackled topics ranging from the promotion of outdoor play and the furthering of the industry’s knowledge and recognition of it’s potential role to play within it, to the circular economy, and its intrinsic link with the concept of imaginative, free play. Then, Covid-19 struck, and the product designer and researcher was forced to think out her strategies all over again.

Here, ToyNews catches up with Miglioli to discuss Pumpkin Projects and the many causes she is fighting for in the progression and improvement of the international toy industry.

Hello Valeria, many in the industry will know you from Fiesta Crafts. So, why is now the right time for you to be taking Pumpkin Projects to the next level?

At Fiesta I was in charge of all aspects of product development; I managed the research, analysis and idea generation, I sourced, liaised and negotiated with manufacturers, dealt with the safety aspects as well as inventing and designing the products. The knowledge I gained over the years has been invaluable, so I felt it was time for me to utilise my expertise and skills for what I consider meaningful and considered designs.

I want to explore the use of a different perspective to design, one that cares about how things are made and why. One that values individuals and resources, and one that is dedicated to the longevity of the toy market.

I officially launched Pumpkin Projects at the end of 2019 and have been involved with a variety of very exciting and diverse projects since the beginning, which has been fantastic. Fast forward a few months, and due to the coronavirus, I have had to reassess my original plans, but where there are challenges, there are also real positives and some amazing opportunities.

When we caught up, some of the topics you highlighted as areas of passion for you were free play, the circular economy, and outdoor learning. All of these no doubt resonate with many in the industry looking to innovate and incite change. What is it about these topics in particular that excite you? 

Imaginative and free play have been at the core of my practice since the beginning. I have always believed this way of play is one of the most significant contributors to child development and wellbeing.

In my opinion, for too long the toy market has been flooded with toys made for a quick sale with no longevity. They are designed to grab the attention but engage children for just a short time before becoming inevitable landfill. We cannot continue like this.

Toys should be designed to allow children to build confidence, explore ideas and be creative. To take curiosity as far as it goes.

Children need the freedom to express themselves, they need the opportunity to make mistakes, get things wrong and then, of course, to discover a solution. I strongly believe in facilitating the development of essential skills through play. Toys can be made to help build resilience, learn about social skills, boost creativity, promote innovation and learn decision-making skills; all of this while having fun.

When it comes to the circular economy, I can say that I have been keen to implement a sustainable approach to toy design for quite some time; I think this is the responsible way to go, in fact, the only way to go. The more I research, the more passionately I feel about this and increasingly, I can see many possibilities for the toy industry.

Circular products, materials and businesses are taking shape more and more, disrupting business as usual with future-fit solutions that are better for people, the planet and profits. We need to make meaningful changes to the way we do things; this is the time to move forward and encourage a positive change across the whole network – suppliers, manufacturers, customers and end consumers.

My consultancy’s foundation is based on solid research. One area of particular interest is studying different approaches to learning. Our education system, for obvious reasons, teaches in one way and everyone has to fit within that mould. I can see even from my own two boys that they learn in very different ways. Working with education specialists I can see there are some fantastic opportunities here to make a real difference.

I have become increasingly interested in the idea of outdoor learning. Denmark is a prime example of ‘Uderskol’. They have embraced outdoor activity in its schools for decades, several schools have even made it compulsory for outdoor learning to take place. Other pioneering countries such as Finland and New Zealand are also good examples. In the UK things are moving in the same direction, slowly, but at least it is a start. I am excited to see more of this as a standard way to teach/learn/experience as it has such positive implications across the board.

So let’s explore the idea of outdoor learning some more. How has this area developed – or hit upon a need to develop – in the past year or so? Have the past three months sped things up a bit at all? 

Outdoor learning has been around for at least 20 years in some countries. Over recent years, we have also seen some examples of outdoor learning in the UK. Unfortunately, it is not consistently practised in mainstream schools. ‘Forest school’ is a good example, my children were able to attend a few days of forest school with their classes during last school year and they absolutely loved the experience. I know of schools which integrate woodlands/beach based learning weekly; but still, a very small percentage of children are fortunate enough to be able to take part in these activities.

It is important to note that it is not necessary to have large outdoor areas available – even small spaces can help to bring learning alive, allowing exploration and creativity to take place in new ways.

Outdoor learning is not exclusively a way to connect with nature or being physically active. Research shows the benefits of learning in the outdoors, of how it can support the development of self-confidence, social skills, motivation and concentration, not to mention an improvement in language and communication skills.

It is increasingly being shown to be beneficial to the development of the “whole child”. Actually, Monica Guerra, professor of Human Sciences at the University of Milano-Bicocca sums it up beautifully. She says: ‘Doing school outdoors amplifies the positive effects on learning and stimulates the cognitive and emotional processes that favour it. Children improve attention and concentration, improve their behaviour and the passion for learning is stimulated. Being outdoors is not a simple outlet, but a true ally for concentration.’

Following lockdown and recent press coverage, there is probably a more mainstream knowledge of outdoor learning, although most people probably think the positive effects are limited to the open air (safer as opposed to being inside a classroom) and this being an easier way to practice social distancing between children; but there is so much more to it than that.

I am developing ideas for resources, toys, equipment and activities which can support all kinds of learning, but also encourage teamwork and be mentally stimulating. I’m researching how the concept of outdoor learning can be applied to everyday life, especially for children living in cities.

The circular economy is a massive topic and one we’ve seen some of the biggest names attempt to tackle in their own ways. From the ground level – how do you start to design this idea into products? How receptive to the message do you think the toy industry is at the moment? 

As designers, we need to take a lead. Product design is front and centre of this; innovative design solutions need to consider the entire lifecycle of a product, from raw materials, through production, distribution and use, all the way to end-of-use recycling, ‘repair-ability’ and disposal. This is something I am passionate about and I have undertaken extensive research into eco-design and looked at how this applies to my design process by asking: where are the main environmental impacts of specific products? What can be done at the design stage to minimise these impacts?

The toy industry is increasingly receptive to the sustainability message, as we have seen in recent years, but the circular economy goes far beyond recycling or the use of recycled materials. As well as the design of the products, we need to consider the design of the business model too. I am well aware this can be hard for smaller companies, but I am also seeing this as a great opportunity to engage with the end consumer in a new and positive way – “doing well by doing good”.

There are also challenges because of the nature of the toy industry, with safety requirements being one of the main aspects, as well as the way mainstream toys are made and sold.

If the fashion industry (possibly the most seasonal industry of all) can make meaningful changes I have total trust in the toy industry as a whole going forward. Our best chance is with collaboration and change across the whole network from the suppliers and manufacturers, customers and end consumers.

Many companies will likely have to start by using an incremental approach and learning from each project to build their confidence, but I am positive we can get very close to a complete circular economy over time. Ultimately we will have even more new materials, technology developments and more knowledge of the processes which will mean circular business will be more resilient, competitive and successful.

We’d be really interested to get your thoughts on free play. How do you tackle this topic from a design point of view? How are consumer mind-sets changing when it comes to free-play? 

I have always believed this is the kind of play children get the most from. Since my time at university and my first experiences with toy design, and my many years with Fiesta, I have always focused on open-ended toys, toys that encourage the use of imagination and facilitate learning through play.

From a design point of view, my idea is to develop toys which have the potential of being “tools” that aid free play. Simpler toys allow for the highest creativity as these can be used in more than one way to encourage imagination, but this doesn’t necessarily mean boring toys. But there are challenges, primarily getting the message across to parents. A branded, advertised easy to understand box on a shelf is much more readily picked up than a toy that requires explanation.

It is difficult to change consumer behaviour, although these ways of play and the toys used are ideal products for the children, it is difficult, at times, for adults to easily understand the real benefits. Will the ever-increasing online sales make this less of an issue? Is the new generation of parents/carers more aware and actively looking to support their children with this kind of play?

During lockdown, children have had more free time to experiment with free play and parents have had the chance of spending more time observing their children while playing. This, together with the opportunity of interacting together more as a family and discovering which toys or activities were a success or not, may well have established a deeper appreciation of the positives of free-play for the wider public. Parents are more likely to seek out “new” kinds of toys for learning and entertainment.

So how have the past three months have influenced change over the kind of toys children are looking for? 

This is very hard to tell as this is completely dependent on the different experiences during the lockdown, the relationships within each family and personal circumstances. The market at the moment is in a very fluid state, things are changing quickly and, in this current climate, what is ‘right’ boils down to how people are feeling ‘right now’ so it is hard to predict what will be in the following months or next year.

But I can try to speculate on what I hope the future may bring: I think there will be a sense of nostalgia for old favourite toys and games and classic brands. New passions and experiences formed during lockdown will not disappear once the restrictions are eased. I want to believe family games and activities will still be seen with positivity. The rediscovery of the outdoors and exploring nature, regardless of the seasons, will be necessary for children’s physical and mental health. I also think that, despite the economic situation, consumers will be looking at better quality products and won’t be scared off by higher prices if the value is there.

I am currently working on a research project titled ‘The Changing Nature of Play during Lockdown – what can we learn?’ with a leading social and cultural research studio. We want to gain insight into what families nationwide have learnt about how their children play and how the experience has changed the way they view toys. This will be a well-informed tool for creating better playing experiences for families hereafter.

What’s the next step for Pumpkin Projects? Who will you be looking to lead innovation and change in this sense from here? 

I will be working on more research and implementation of the core areas I am passionate about with my designs. I hope to further collaborate with international brands looking at a different approach to design following this vision.

I hope to be instrumental for smaller manufacturers and individuals who may find the idea of making major changes to their current business and product design models overwhelming, or too disruptive.

I also aim to circulate the report on the research project we are undertaking about the changing nature of play, this will be key for insight-led product development for other companies in the toy industry, not only for my design practice.

I believe toys are a vital part of our society and toy companies help shape culture through what they choose to represent. As we progress, we should always strive to be better than we were before; we have the opportunity to be defined by what we do. I have complete trust the toy industry will be up for the challenge!

If you are interested in knowing more details about my design consultancy Pumpkin Projects, my services and expertise, or if you want to know more about my research project and any of the aspects discussed, you can find more information at www.pumpkinprojects.com or can email me directly val@pumpkinprojects.com.


About Robert Hutchins

Robert Hutchins is the editor of Licensing.biz and ToyNews. Hutchins has worked his way up from Staff Writer to the position of Editor across the two titles, having spent almost eight years with both ToyNews and Licensing.biz, and what now seems like a lifetime surrounded by toys. You can contact him by emailing robert.hutchins@biz-media.co.uk or calling him on 0203 143 8780 You can even follow him on Twitter @RobGHutchins if ranting is your thing...

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