SINGAPORE - When Ms Ziyi Sheena Cheong signed up for a children's books subscription service in January, she did not realise how useful it would turn out to be.
At the time, the busy mum of two wanted to find age-appropriate titles and was impressed by the detailed questions from One Happy Book.
Chace, four, and Scarlett, two, were "absolutely delighted" by their monthly package of surprises, she says. Their subscription proved a godsend during the circuit breaker, when they read twice a day.
"The kids and I got to spend quality time. They loved pointing at the illustrations and they pretended to know how to read the words (they're still learning) but it was very nice," says Ms Cheong, 34, a florist who runs ForPeopleWhoLoveFlowers.
"It helped accompany us during the day and in the evening when we were getting them ready for bed. After reading them over and over again many times, I gift them to my friends' kids so the books get love over and over again."
The pandemic has renewed interest in such subscription boxes for kids as families spend more time at home and parents seek out meaningful ways to engage their little ones.
While there are many overseas-based services, there are now at least seven home-grown suppliers, often helmed by parents who saw a business opportunity based on their own parenting needs. These local businesses offer everything from sensory play kits to Montessori learning packs and Mandarin activities.
Earlier this month on Oct 2, the National Library Board (NLB) piloted its version of this, called The Little Book Box, which delivers eight English children's books to customers every month for a fee of $10.70. The service will run from next month until July next year.
All 1,000 slots were snapped up in five days - the figure includes 200 subscriptions sponsored by The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund for children from low-income families.
The NLB is "heartened by the overwhelming response" says its chief executive officer Ng Cher Pong, who adds that it underscores "the importance of cultivating the love for reading at home".
My Messy Box, one of the early players, was born in 2013 when Mr Jeff Lim realised that his son, Medion, then aged two, had issues with fine motor skills, such as picking up small items.
Sensory play helped the boy, but Mr Lim, 34, had trouble finding relevant activities, so he created his own. Seven years on, he has two full time teachers who plan the themes for each month's box, which he says models the Ministry of Education's Nurturing Early Learners framework for pre-schoolers.
The business has grown from 50 boxes initially to "a few hundred boxes worldwide" every month now, shipping to destinations such as Malaysia, Hong Kong and the United States. Demand "more than doubled" during the circuit breaker, he reports.
"There were many who even requested for boxes to be sent to them in advance, but it wasn't easy at that time as the global supply chain was affected greatly by the pandemic," says Mr Lim, who also has a seven-year-old daughter.
Mr Austen Ho, 43, co-founder of Squizzel Box, was worried about the pandemic dampening demand for his learning packages. But his fears were unfounded. At one point, he was fully sold out and customers told him "the boxes were a lifesaver" during lockdown.
"We also had inquiries from preschools as they wanted learning to continue for the pre-schoolers at home," says the father of three kids aged two to nine.
While Mr Ho and a partner started Squizzel Box in April last year because they wanted their children to love hands-on learning and avoid screen time, their business created new opportunities beyond just servicing parents.
In February, they branched out into creating customised learning kits with organisations, such as a Bubbles Lifelong Learning Kit activity package for persons with disabilities that was commissioned by the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore.
Meanwhile, four-year-old Josh & Cherie Books has expanded beyond book subscriptions over the years to include educational toys and games, Mandarin books and even an e-commerce discount bookstore, Friendly Giant Books, for customers who want to choose their own books or buy additional titles.
Co-founder Cheryl Ang, 29, says the business has sent books to more than 5,000 readers to date and is growing at about 15 per cent annually. The circuit breaker boosted its subscriber base by 20 per cent.
One Happy Book, the brainchild of sisters Shanice Goh, 33, and Shernice Goh, 28, plans to expand beyond Singapore and Indonesia as their 11/2-year-old venture gains visibility. Ms Shanice Goh, who has a 14-month-old toddler, says authors of illustrated children's books have started contacting them to add their titles to their product range.
She is not worried about the NLB's foray into the market as she believes that parents are "increasingly conscious of their child's hygiene" during the pandemic and appreciate books that are new and allow sensory stimulation. "To a very young baby, that can even include biting the edge of a book," she explains.
Some parents like administrative officer Hu Huiting, 38, appreciate the convenience of subscription boxes so much that they have signed up with multiple vendors. Ms Hu subscribed to Squizzel Box for her 51/2-year-old son Hao Jun just over a year ago and is also awaiting her first package from NLB's new service.
Her son receives KiwiCo Box from the United States as well, as she likes its engineering oriented activities. Describing them as "great bonding activities", she says such boxes have helped Hao Jun gain confidence, boost his motor and literacy skills and increase his general knowledge. "It's really learning through play."
Subscription boxes and learning kits for kids
Former secondary school teachers Abigail Chee and Matilda Huang, both 37, both became mothers in 2011. Ms Chee holds a Diploma in Montessori and wanted to spread the word about the Montessori learning approach, which inspired their foray into business four years ago.
Their curated boxes of Montessori-inspired learning materials are sequential - each one building upon the previous activities - and in English and Mandarin to encourage bilingualism. Each box contains a Chinese book and about eight to 10 activities covering phonics, Mandarin, maths, science and art and craft. Suitable for kids aged 21/2 to six.
Prices: Buy individual boxes at $53, shipping included. Subscriptions are available about three times a year.
Josh & Cherie Books
Married couple Julius Chen, 30,and Cheryl Ang, 29, launched this children's book subscription service in 2016 when they could not find good books for their nephew. It curates titles that are not usually found in general bookstores and targets children from newborns up to age seven, with different themes and early learning objectives.
Each box for newborns and babies up to age two contains three board books, while a box for kids aged three to seven has two picture books. There are four age categories.
Prices: From $31.90 to $33.90 a box, depending on the length of subscription. Add $10 for a Mandarin book. There are Sibling Box options.
My Messy Box
When Mr Jeff Lim, 34, saw how his son Medion, now nine, benefited from sensory play as a toddler, it sparked the idea for his business as he found it difficult to source for sensory activities in 2013. Each box contains three to four activities and caters to four age groups between one and six years old. It also sells sensory kits and gift sets.
Prices: A box costs $42, but prices are lower with a subscription. A three-month subscription, for instance, is $114 or $38 a box and shipping is free in Singapore.
One Happy Book
Sisters Shanice Goh, 33, and Shernice Goh, 28, who love books, founded this book subscription service last year. It caters to children from newborns up to age seven and customises books based on the development stages, as well as the child's interests. There are seven categories.
Prices: From $19.90 a month for two books for newborns to six month olds, to $45.90 a month for four books for kids aged five to seven. Tracked delivery costs $3.90. It has family bundle packages for families with two or more children.
Hoping to nurture lifelong learning in their young children, Mr Austen Ho, 43, and a partner set up Squizzel Box last year to offer learning activity boxes for kids aged three and up. The activities aim to develop skills in areas such as language, numeracy and social and emotional development. It offers additional resources on its Facebook and Instagram pages.
Prices: Pay $39.90 a month for a box that can be cancelled any time, or commit to prepaid plans from three to 12 months that cost less per box. It also sells single boxes. Shipping is free for subscribers.
Da Little Arts School founder Eileen Yeo, 42, first ventured into the learning box business seven years ago with a photography-themed kit. She resurrected the idea during the circuit breaker when her art enrichment centre was forced to close. DaBox proved to be a hit, with variations launched every three weeks or so.
The boxes are seasonal and new themes are launched on social media as she lacks the resources to operate it on a subscription basis. The next theme is Christmas. Ms Yeo also offers DaBox Mini, a smaller-sized craft box that is popular for birthdays. Boxes come in two variations, one for ages three to six, and another for kids aged six and older.
Prices: $38 for DaBox. Add $5 for shipping or collect it from the centre at Rochester Mall. DaBox Mini costs $10 to $12 for a minimum order of 10 boxes, with three weeks' advance notice, and delivery is $12.
Tutor Janice Wong, 41, started her Chinese learning box service three years ago when her son Kaeven, now six, disliked the language. She could not find engaging activities to pique his interest, so she created them. As she runs it alone, she does not offer a subscription plan but debuts new themes every 90 days or so via Facebook and Instagram.
Boxes are limited to about 30 to 50 units a theme and tend to move fast - her space-themed box last month sold out within 24 hours. Suitable for kids aged 21/2 to about eight.
Prices: About $55 a box