Education & Environment

Improving Education Through Toys

Dutch expat Ineke Leferink’s love affair with Cambodia began in 2005. In 2012, she quit her job in the Netherlands and moved to Cambodia with the aim of improving education. Today, she runs Panha Sabay crafting educational toys from recycled materials
Children play with toys
Children play with toys

Ineke Leferink quit her job in the Netherlands to start a business in Cambodia’s Siem Reap province with the aim of improving educational systems by creating and designing recycled plastic toys and games for kids in a sustainable and affordable way.

Leferink, 55, is the founder of Panha Sabay, a social enterprise that creates recycled kids’ toys and designs educational games. The ultimate aim is to improve kids’ education while playing with toys and caring for the environment.

Leferink fell in love with Cambodia after several visits as a tourist and volunteer. During volunteering, she learned about the public education system in Cambodia and saw an unfulfilled need she wanted to meet. Many young students struggled to keep up with learning basic skills, such as reading, understanding Khmer, and math, because of the fast-paced environment of the traditional classroom, which sees students sit and learn from the teacher.

Ineke Leferink
Ineke Leferink

Sometimes this struggle becomes so great that students make the decision to quit school; a decision that has life-impacting consequences. So, an idea was born in her mind.

“The first time I came to Cambodia, I was just like a tourist, like a lot of people and I visited Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. That was in 2005, and I immediately liked the country a lot. I like the people, the atmosphere, so there was a connection from the start."

“I came back as a tourist in 2008 because I wanted to see a little more. But by that time, even though I made a nice trip every year, I was tired of being a tourist because being a tourist means you are visiting and always looking from the outside.”

Her next visit saw her return as a volunteer to carry out work in Cambodia she felt passionate about. She also believed she could do something to develop the education system as her career in the Netherlands was in that sector.

“Since I am originally a primary school teacher in the Netherlands, I think I have some abilities to help the educational system. So, I said let’s go, let's do some volunteer work in 2009. I did it for one month and I loved it so much. When I came back to the Netherlands, I quit my job and I came back here in 2012 for two-and-a-half years,” she said.

After she quit her job, she found it financially challenging to start her ideal business here. So, she decided to go back to her country to save money. Two-and-a-half years later, Panha Sabay was officially created in September 2017.

During the time she was volunteering for one NGO in Cambodia, she discovered she was neglecting the opportunity for kids to go to school. She felt frustrated and wanted to help poor children get more knowledge at a young age. After that, the idea of creating educational toys sparked in her mind.

“I got the idea, if you make good materials that kids can learn from, but it would be nice to be motivated to play them. If you have that, you can practice whatever you want. You need to go to school but you don’t need to take extra lessons,” she said.

Working as a primary school teacher in the Netherlands for many years, she has gained a lot of experience teaching kids. Leferink constantly strives to do something better to improve kids’ knowledge and mental and physical health through playing with toys.

Despite being a foreigner, Leferink still continues to fulfill her dream in Cambodia by creating a kind of toy that can improve the intellect, both physically and mentally, of young Cambodian children in a way that is educational, entertainment and sustainable for the environment.

“Playing is very important for young kids to learn and it’s also important to have good materials, but it doesn’t always need to be expensive,” said Leferink.

During the time that she was in Cambodia, she noticed toys were not fulfilling for kids in play and developing their mind and intellect, and needed to be innovative

“Toys that I see around in a lot of toy shops, they are fancy, they have glitter, they make sounds, but kids do not really have to play with them. It’s more looking at them. I think we should create toys to do something with them to develop their brain; to develop their hands, their eyes. All these things will help when we have good materials. That’s what I’m trying to achieve here, make those materials and inform parents and teachers to use them because I think that is important,” Leferink said.

She added that playing with electronic devices such as smart phones is harmful for kids both physically and mentally. For example, sitting for long hours and not doing much physical activity can cause aching backbones for kids, eye problems, and less productivity in thinking as kids who are addicted to playing on smartphone or screens are less communicative than others.

First, Leferink wanted to produce toys with wood, but later realized it is hard to source woods as a raw material to make toys here, including more expensive ones.

Then she decided to create toys by using wasted products after she found there was a lot of trash around the area.

A total of 80 percent of toys are made of waste, such as recycled plastic, fabric, yarn, shocks, and artificial leather used in the furniture industry, that have been collected from companies that waste things every day.

“When I came here [Cambodia], I noticed again that the amount of trash was everywhere. I was thinking, if I made new products, I am just increasing the amount of trash because at the end, every toy will be thrown out.”

Ineke Leferink says playing with electronic devices is harmful for kids both physically and mentally
Ineke Leferink says playing with electronic devices is harmful for kids both physically and mentally

Katrine Solhaug, a customer of Panha Sabay, buys toys from Panha Sabay to sell in her eco-shop at her guesthouse, Babel. She told Kiripost that her children love to play with the recycling toys, especially those reclaimed from wood, bamboo and rattan.

“We had to buy them to use for the kids in our nursery at our guesthouse, too age one- to three-years-old. And our summer club for our older kids, three- to six-years-old,” she mentioned.

“The baby toys we have given as gifts to our friends with a baby. Brilliant for him. The ball is smart. It’s made to not roll away fast, so the kid has the chance to crawl to reach it. Very good prices for great educational toys. We absolutely love them all,” she added.