Rick Woldenberg is CEO of Learning Resources, Inc., a 150-employee manufacturer of educational materials and educational toys based in Vernon Hills, Illinois with offices in Gardena, California and Kings Lynn, England. Rick joined the company in 1990 as a member of the third generation in his family business, and has served as CEO for nearly 20 years.
- What kinds of companies are Educational Insights and Learning Resources? Are they educational companies or toy companies and what is the difference?
RW: Our companies are educational companies. We create products that help children learn basic skills or concepts such as math, science, reading or language. Many of our products are used by children in their homes so we make our products with consumers in mind, as well as teachers and schools. The difference between toy and education can be blurry in the consumer market. Our focus on education first and foremost makes us an educational company. The way we do it is through play – so we help create moments where learning and play become one.
- I don’t have to tell you that STEM is a term that has become ubiquitous. Is there a difference between a STEM product and an educational product and if so what is it?
RW: STEM (which stands for “Science, Technology, Engineering and Math”) is a cross-curricular subject which tackles more complex “real world” problems that can only be solved by thinking “out of the box”. STEM products embrace the engineering design process, essentially an iterative approach to problem solving. Changing the thinking from “right answer versus wrong answer” to “let’s try it this way” is at the heart of STEM and is very educational in nature. STEM products are certainly educational and can make a big difference in a child’s life – there are expected to be more than two million unfilled STEM-related jobs in the United States alone by 2018.
- Some of your products are directed at teachers and some at parents. Is there a difference in how you approach each group and if so what is it?
RW: Our products are often suitable for use in schools as well as homes. We need to help teachers meet their district’s requirements on teaching standards as well as contribute to their students’ success on standardized tests. Parents don’t generally have the technical background of teachers, but are just as enthusiastic about teaching and learning. They want to instill a love of learning in their children. We have learned to develop our products to make them easy to use in both settings – and importantly, fun to use.
- How are Educational Insights and Learning Resources different from each other and from other companies in the educational and toy space?
RW: EI and LR have a lot in common certainly, but have somewhat different emphases. Learning Resources has a strong heritage in developing products for schools, and leverages that know-how by bringing academic learning into the home in a fun way. Educational Insights focuses more on the consumer market, and creates products that focus on creativity, discovery and exploration. Both brands are driven to make a difference in the world by helping children learn and grow, which we think are defining values at our companies. You always get the best quality educational materials from either company.
- What is the future of educational play? Will there be more technology products, more apps, more AI, VR or AR?
RW: We focus on experiential learning (hands-on play) and have not turned our attention to developing play experiences for mobile devices. We make some electronic products like the Code & Go™ Robot Mouse to help kids learn the concept of coding at an early age, but most of our products are traditional in nature. We know that young children learn best by doing. I am sure that the market for education on mobile devices will continue to grow but I am equally certain that our products will remain relevant and valuable.
- And what will we be teaching? Will we need to be teaching children ideas and skills that are not currently part of the 3 R’s?
RW: I think future job requirements will include a deeper understanding of machines and data. In addition to helping children learn the basics, we will also help children prepare for that world by teaching the basic concept of coding. New learning-by-doing products may be needed to help kids learn to think conceptually about data and how to analyze data. Companies like ours thrive on problems to solve, so this kind of change is a great challenge for us!
- Finally, some people wring their hands and worry that physical toys are going to become obsolete…replaced by apps. What do you see as the future of toys?
RW: We think there is a strong future for traditional play, and even more importantly, we think there is a strong need for traditional play. Among other things, traditional play is social and involves playing with other children or adults with children. This is critical to our development as people, and is part of the value we deliver in our traditional toys. We in the toy industry make great products that bring people together. We think that’s critical and will never go out of fashion.