The Toronto-based EdTech startup is the company behind Pok Pok Playroom, an award-winning, play-based learning mobile iOS game for kids aged two to six designed to both entertain and encourage children to become “creative, out of the box thinkers.”
In Pok Pok Playroom, “there is no right or wrong, no menus, and no language.”
In an interview with BetaKit, Pok Pok co-founder and CEO Melissa Cash claimed that current mobile gaming options don’t cater to the way most children learn. “Kids under five learn best through play,” she said.
Pok Pok is led by a pair of mothers and former Snowman employees in Cash—who also has a background developing products at Disney for babies and toddlers—and chief creative officer Esther Huybreghts. The startup launched Pok Pok Playroom in May 2021, nabbing an Apple Design Award shortly thereafter for “Delight and Fun.”
After spending the last year “fine-tuning” Pok Pok Playroom, Pok Pok has secured $3.9 million CAD ($3 million USD) in seed funding from gaming-focused VCs to ramp up its sales and marketing efforts. The startup also plans to invest some of the capital in research and development, as the company looks to add more toys to the Pok Pok Playroom and grow into serving other age groups.
Pok Pok’s all-equity seed round was led by Colorado’s Konvoy, which targets gaming platforms and tech, with support from games-focused Initial Capital and undisclosed angel investors from the adtech, gaming, and consumer products spaces.
The company previously raised a $1.2 million CAD ($925,000 USD) pre-seed round last year from Andrew Wilkinson’s Tiny Capital, Lightspeed founder Dax Dasilva, Mastermind Toys co-founder John Levy, and Ustwo Games co-founder Matt Miller.
In Pok Pok Playroom, which contains an array of digital toys for children to choose from, “there is no right or wrong, no menus, and no language,” enabling young users to explore, learn, and experiment at their own pace without parental guidance. The app is available in Canada on a subscription basis for $11.49 per month or $74.99 annually. The startup also offers a free seven-day trial.
Cash credited Pok Pok’s initial launch to Huybreghts, who had then recently given birth to her second son with her husband, Mathijs Demaeght (another former Snowman employee who co-founded Pok Pok and now serves as the startup’s VP of design).
According to Cash, Huybreghts and Demaeght were tech-savvy, working millennial parents who wanted to help their child develop a healthy relationship with technology, but soon realized that existing options were limited.
“They were really finding either fairly overstimulating video games that were not designed for young children, or highly pedagogical apps that were really just focused on memorizing and regurgitating information,” said Cash.
According to Cash, the current landscape of apps for children ranges from basic pedagogical apps to big, IP-branded experiences based that parents trust but “aren’t as sticky or educational as they could be,” to win-lose-based adult video games with child-like artwork.
“This win-lose mechanic is really interesting and it does teach kids a lot about strategy and problem-solving and a lot of other things, but it can also be really detrimental to their self-esteem [and] their cognitive development,” argued Cash. She also acknowledged the value of pedagogical apps, but expressed a belief that there is room in the market for another kind of experience altogether.
After meeting Huybreghts and Demaeght, Cash began to explore the idea of building an age-appropriate app that gives children the chance to learn through play—which has become more important during the pandemic as studies found screen time rose when children were forced to study from home.
Sensing how urgent the need for an alternative was during COVID-19, Pok Pok decided to raise capital to accelerate its growth, closing its seed round four days after Cash gave birth to her son.
“The need for trusted, educational, and creative digital experiences has never been stronger, especially with such widespread access to screen time among children,” said Cash.
Cash said Pok Pok thinks about the impact of screen time “every day,” adding that the startup believes screen time “should not run the world.”
“It shouldn’t be the only thing a child does in a day,” said Cash. “Pok Pok should not be the only tool in a parent’s toolkit for their child’s learning and development. We would much prefer kids to go outside and play in the mud, frankly, but there are times and places where digital play can be really wonderful and really beneficial.”
Given these concerns, Cash said Pok Pok has tried its best to straddle the line between ensuring Pok Pok is engaging, but not addictive.
“That’s a really tricky thing because obviously we have to balance the health of our company and our business, but we also need to balance the health of our kids,” she said.
Feature image courtesy Pok Pok.