Waiuku maker Nina Leesuwantrakul of CodeKiddie, a former flight attendant, found herself changing her high heels for overalls as she navigated her way through the changes and challenges of the last couple of years. Discovering a talent for wooden toy making, she now shares her love of play-based learning through her creations.
What do you make?
A variety of learning resources from woods with the aim to promote learning through play in the early years. I currently have three collections in the shop: Educational, Sensory Play, and Mindfulness.
How did you get into your craft?
I’ve always been fascinated by children’s creative worlds and how playing plays a significant role in their development, ever since becoming a mother. The maker journey came after I lost my job following the border closure in 2020. One day I came across an online article that inspired me to create natural learning resources. The article talked about the impact of technology on young children, how majority of young children are spending less and less time on physical activities, and how learning through play can benefit them.
I started by making the alphabet tracing board, and a few wooden toys for my kids to play with at home, then I made a few more for some friends, but it wasn’t until my first online sale came through that I realised the potential of the business. With many job losses in the community, I consider myself very fortunate to have been able to start something new with the resources that we already had while also being able to spend important and quality time with my young family.
Do you have formal training or qualifications in your craft?
Nothing formal. My husband (who has been in the construction industry for many years) has taught me everything I needed to know to make my ideas a reality, including how to turn a sketch into design drawing and how to use a range of power tools, all of which were previously intimidating and unfamiliar to me. I continue to learn, both physically and mentally, with each new project – which I believe is the most important aspect of this journey. It’s definitely been a wild career change driven by inspiration but I’m really enjoying what I’m doing now.
Your favourite materials, tools and processes?
I’ve grown to appreciate native New Zealand timbers. I love how a planer and sanding can transform a weathered piece of timber, slowly revealing the hidden colour and grains, into something incredibly beautiful. Painting is also a happy moment for me, I often refer to it as “colour therapy” because it not only provides the finished product, but it also helps me relax and wind down.
Tell us about some of the techniques involved in producing one of your pieces
Everything I make goes through three steps: researching the idea, developing a design, and creating a prototype, but not everything makes it to the shop. Some are tucked away in the pile I call “experience” because they help me grow.
What inspires you?
The majority of my inspirations come from nature, family activities, and the interests of my kids at the time. The butterfly sensory board, for example, was inspired by our observations of the Monarch butterfly’s life cycle in our garden, while the fantail sensory board was inspired by a forest walk on our camping trip. The breathe board was created to help teach the art of mindful breathing, while also making it enjoyable and interactive. So almost every piece has a backstory.
Is there a philosophy behind your work?
Simple, safe and practical. I try to incorporate open-ended elements into my design, which means they have no limitation on how they can be played with and children are free to go with their imagination. It is also important to me to be environmentally friendly; so all of my materials are sourced locally. I try to limit/reduce waste in every process, and I only pack my orders in repurposed cardboard boxes.
Aside from the support I’ve received, the most rewarding aspect of my journey as a maker has to be the opportunity to learn, to face my own fears and self-doubt, and to believe in the power of mind over matter. Mindset is essential in all aspects of life, especially when we face challenges. The right mindset will provide the right thoughts and the right plan for everything.
Describe your creative process:
My creativity comes in waves! When an idea strikes me, I will start by sketching it out and spend a few days researching it before beginning with a prototype and onto the making process. I spend a lot of time and effort researching because that is how I learn, not only about the benefits of the toy but also the most efficient way to make it.
Describe your workspace:
Lively, dusty, and functional. I work from two locations; the making is done in a corner of my husband’s workshop. Painting and finishing are done at home on the dining table. Some evenings, you’ll see me juggling cooking and painting there!
Your favourite feedback from a customer:
“The students love using these resources. They are extremely calming and beneficial in a variety of ways.” There has recently been a significant increase in interest in mindfulness resources for use in schools, which makes me very happy to be able to provide these tools for their practice.
What are you reading now:
Does Audible count? Because there’s no wifi in the workshop, I usually listen to Audible while I work there; the book that I’m listening to now is You are the Placebo by Dr. Joe Dispensa.
Who is your hero/heroine? Why?
My husband! He has taught me a great deal about business and life. He has inspired me and has faith in me. If it weren’t for him, this dream would take much longer to come true, if at all. He created an environment where I can be inspired and passionate about life.
A favourite quote:
I love motivational quotes and have a collection that I refer to in various situations, but I’d like to share one that has helped me navigate the uncertainty of the past couple years:
“When you change the way you look at things, the thing you look at changes.” – Dr Wayne Dyer.
If you can’t change the situation, all you can do is change your perspective on it. I hope that everyone can relate to it to some extent.
Tell us about your pets:
We have two cats. Foxy (the mother cat), is grey and white. We rescued her when she was one year old. Foxy had a litter of kittens during the last lockdown, one of which we kept and named Smudge. He is now eight months old and a very active boy. Having kittens during school closure was the most joyful and loving experience for our kids.
What would your advice be for those starting out in a crafty business?
“When dreams can be shared with others, they become more real.” Sharing your passion with the world may feel like a big leap of faith, but you never know how many people you will inspire along the way. Felt is a fantastic platform that allows me to showcase my work to a large audience and has helped me in realising my dream of starting my own business. If you are starting out, you know where to showcase your creations. (Aww, thanks Nina! – ed.)
Why do you think it’s important to buy handmade and/or locally made goods?
One of the most important lessons I took away from the lockdowns was the importance of being self-sufficient, by finding local substitutes for what we used to get from overseas. In New Zealand, there are many incredible makers/businesses who put their heart and soul into creating and sharing what they love. I consider myself extremely lucky to have those options available, and I am also proud to be a part of New Zealand’s local businesses.
What does it mean to you when someone buys your creations?
Buzzing like a bee! An order is like a stamp of approval, so I am extremely grateful. Every time an order comes in, we do this family ritual, which includes a happy dance and thanking our customer. It teaches the kids to be grateful not only for the money we earn, but also for the trust and love we receive for what we make. It also provides me with a strong sense of fulfilment and motivation to keep going.
What was the last handmade item you bought and what attracted you to it?
A stunning one-of-a-kind Ancient Swamp Kauri Toki Pendant from fellow Felt maker Ancientwood. Neil has created a perfect marriage of Ancient Swamp Kauri and Green Mica Resin through his incredible craftsmanship. If you love native timbers, I recommend paying a visit to Ancientwood.
What’s in store for the rest of 2022?
I had a great time working on a few collaborations with amazing mummy makers last year. So, in addition to making more toys, I’d like more opportunities to collaborate with other makers.
Special offer for Felt readers!
Nina has generously offered Felt readers 10% off any of the gorgeous, engaging products in her Felt shop, when you enter the voucher code meetthemaker10 in the voucher code field at checkout. This offer is valid throughout the month of July 2022. Thanks so much Nina!