Ambessa Play, a social enterprise creating educational STEM products for children has launched its first kit for a DIY flashlight, which is also designed as a usable product for displaced children.
The distinctive blue and orange kit was designed with Pentagram industrial designer Jon Marshall and his team, but children were also involved throughout as co-designers. Partnering with charities the Refugee Council, Care4Calais, and Project Play France, the teams were able to visit displaced children in Calais to test and develop prototypes.
Ambessa Play founder Sara Berkai says that the idea came about in 2019, when she was running STEM workshops and volunteering with children in Eritrea. “A bunch of kids asked if we could come back with more useful toys to build”, she says.
A number of kits were proposed including a radio and a walkie-talkie, but the children said “if we don’t have light, it’s more helpful to actually learn how to make a light”, she explains.
Starting a master’s in child development in 2020, Berkai began work on figuring out “how children learn science best”. She reached out to Marshall, “because Jon’s tied to every amazing STEM kit out there”, she says. The pair kept in touch, coming together to work on this project after she completed the course.
“It’s not unusual that clients come to us with fully formed ideas. Sara had a prototype, and really our role was to add another layer of design on top”, Marshall says. He explains that his team’s role involved giving the product a “compelling and recognisable look”. According to Marshall, the hardest part “was to solve the build stages in the simplest way possible”.
With nine different potential forms that the design team modelled, they went out to the children that Ambessa Play was working with. After “playing and testing them”, they chose a particular route for the kits. The children continued to be involved in the refining process, he adds.
The chosen form of the flashlight is versatile and suited for use in the conditions displaced children are living in. It can be held in your hand, worn around the neck with a lanyard or placed upright to act as a reading light. While 3D printing was used to model the prototypes, the final kits will be produced using injection-moulded plastic.
Berkai adds that with projects such as this, “it’s not our place to decide what works”. She adds that while she had her “own personal favourite”, the kids “did not like it at all”.
“They had completely valid reasons that we would never think of because we’re not children in that particular setting”.
Details developed through this process included having the flashlight small enough to fit in a pocket, and creating buttons that used as little energy as possible, according to Berkai.
Marshall adds that they discovered the rectangular shape chosen “is really nice for building because you get this nice tray to assemble the components”.
He adds that it was fantastic for his team to have the rare opportunity to “test on a fortnightly basis with the intended users”.
“That was a real treat and I think it shows in the final design”, he says.
The product has been launched on a Kickstarter running until the end of April, when order numbers will be collected. Ambessa Play also has a one-to-one business model meaning that for every kit purchased, a displaced child receives one for free. Berkai comments that while necessary for funding, this is also a “responsible” way to work out “how many people actually want this”, she says.
Berkai explains that she has had feedback from parents looking for “screen-free” toys for their own children.
She adds that the Kickstarter will also allow her team to see where backers are located, but can also help the social enterprise refine its purpose.
“If we find that 90% of people are donating the flashlight, that tells me maybe we should become a charity, whereas if everyone is buying it for their own children, then that [works for] the one-for-one model”.
The Ambessa Play DIY Flashlight Kickstarter is live until the end of April.