‘Jewish girl with a punch’ creates educational toys with a pouch

Thursday, June 7, 2012 | by chloe schildhause

The little orange feline with the sly smile and bandage on her forehead is a natural leader. She always knows what she wants off the restaurant menu, and is usually the one to pick the restaurant. She’s a bit bossy sometimes. But she is good-natured. She loves to host tea parties. Her favorite color is purple. She enjoys eating toasted almond cookies with warm milk.

Cat is one in a series of plush dolls created by Nina Rappaport Rowan of San Anselmo. Called Kimochis — Japanese for “feelings” — the stuffed animals are made by the San Rafael–based Plushy Feely Corp., which Rappaport Rowan founded in 2008.

She wanted to produce the dolls, she said, “to do something meaningful for this world, what could be described as tikkun olam.”

More than cute and cuddly companions, the eight dolls are learning tools that help children understand and communicate about emotions, and they have been embraced by educational and therapeutic communities around the world.

Nina Rappaport Rowan with  son Nathan
Nina Rappaport Rowan with son Nathan
Each doll is accompanied by three small plush “feelings” that help children learn how to discuss their feelings and moods. That’s why Rappaport Rowan calls them toys “with a purpose.”

“We all need to learn to be better communicators,” she said.

During the development process, she knew she had something special on her hands when she brought some Kimochis to a classroom at the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael, where her son, Nathan, now 6, was attending preschool. The experience “was awesome,” she said.

The original concept for the toys — designed by award-winning children’s book illustrator Hanako Wakiyama — was simply to provide a way for parents to talk with their children about feelings. A main source of inspiration was Rappaport Rowan’s bubbe. “She was from Russia and was one of the most emotionally intelligent and caring people I’ve ever known,” she said.

Another influence was growing up Jewish in Long Island, N.Y. “We are such a familial- and community-driven people, and it’s all about social and emotional intelligence,” Rappaport Rowan said.

Cloud is  unpredictable and has a hard time controlling his emotions.
Cloud is unpredictable and has a hard time controlling his emotions.
Shortly after being introduced, Kimochis took off. A curriculum on how to use the toys in a classroom setting was created and is now used in some 300 schools in the United States. It is also being implemented in Australia, South Korea, Eastern Europe and soon England. Four picture books have been developed, with more in the pipeline.

Rappaport Rowan, according to LadiesWhoLaunch.com, is a leader in the field of computer-generated imagery, more commonly known in the movie industry as CGI. She was the producer of “Bunny,” a seven-minute film that won the Academy Award for best animated short in 1998. The New York Times called it “a humorous and sentimental story about an old rabbit’s battle with a moth … [and] journey into a wondrous new realm.”

After that, she went on to executive produce “Despicable Me,” a 2011 animated feature that had a $56 million opening weekend in the United States and was voiced by Steve Carell, Jason Segel and other big stars.

Hilary Friedland, the director of LuluCo, the exclusive distributor of Kimochis in Australia, called Rappaport Rowan a “nice Jewish girl with a punch.”

“She’s extremely quiet and humble, but driven by tikkun olam,” Friedland added. “What she has achieved in the past five years is quite extraordinary.”

Bug is thoughtful, cautious  and afraid of change.
Bug is thoughtful, cautious and afraid of change.
Available in eight countries, Kimochis have been adopted by child psychologists, hospitals with sick or abused children, and special education teachers whose students have significant communication challenges.

One important advocate for Kimochis has been psychotherapist John Gottman, author of “Raising an Emotionally Intell-igent Child.” Gottman sees parents as “emotion coaches” who are responsible for their children’s emotional understanding and growth. Emotional and social intelligence are believed to contribute to one’s overall success and well-being.

The toys are designed to promote such emotional and social intelligence. Each of the dolls has a different personality and comes with three emotions — such as happy, brave, scared, friendly, hurt or uncomfortable — in a little pouch.

Each Kimochi character has a flaw, or challenge, it needs to work on — such as feeling left out. Cloud gets a little moody and temperamental. Bug is afraid of change and  can be a worry-wart. Bella Rose is sweet and sensitive but can have trouble expressing how she feels. Other dolls are named Huggtopus, Lovey Dove, Clover and Hero.

“The qualities that each character has, we all have,” Rappaport Rowan said. “Sometimes one can be a bit more pronounced than another … when the kids recognize the challenges and personalities in themselves, then they are more likely to gravitate toward a particular character.”

The Plushy Feely CEO noted that the Kimochis’ curriculum “has to be somewhat customized for [each] culture,” but, she added, “everyone has feelings; everyone has to communicate.”

She sees the toys eventually being in every country in the world. “No doubt in my mind,” she said.

“It’s all about teaching kids the foundations for social and emotional intelligence and teaching them through this playful way of identifying feelings and expressing feelings.”