"We just let them have fun," says Pichet Sithi-Amnuai.
During our interview at his colourful office, fun is a word that’s going to be used several times by the director of Thailand’s first Gymboree Play & Music, a centre of – well, play and music – for children aged just a few weeks to four years old. And with a background in engineering, export and finance, perhaps it’s no wonder that Pichet is so enthusiastic about getting people to have fun – it’s obvious he’s finally having some real fun himself.
Although Gymboree centres have been slowly spreading across the US and other countries since first opening in 1976 – there are now more than 420 around the globe – parents in Thailand had to wait until August of this year for a chance to visit one in Bangkok.
The programme at the centre involves parents coming with their child for two 45-minute sessions per week for the "Play" programme. One session is planned, and the other is simply an opportunity to use the equipment. ("And have some fun," adds Pichet.) In addition, or alternatively, parents and children can come for the weekly 45-minute "Music" programme. It’s all non-competitive, and there’s no right and wrong. If a child wants to do something on their own while others are participating in a group activity, that’s fine.
"The programmes are also something that parents and children can take home with them," says Pichet. "We want the parents to come so they can see the learning curve that their child is on. There’s also a safety factor, but it’s much more than that. It’s about children learning to trust their parents, and about parents seeing their children laugh and have fun."
And so unlike some businesses where taking photographs on the premises is considered taboo, Pichet says making videotapes and taking pictures is actually encouraged. "We’re in the business of selling happiness. Please take photos and videos!" Pichet tells parents.
The programme is based on the notion that children "learn" more during the first year of their life than any other, and that 50 per cent of a child’s learning foundation is established by the age of four. Learning here means understanding themselves and the world around them, rather than anything academic. Classes, which are divided by age and activity levels, are designed to enhance the process of this learning, and help develop motor skills, socialisation and physical fitness, among other things.
There are even lesson plans for birthday and theme parties. "Parents just have to bring the cake so they can have fun too," says Pichet.
So how did Gymboree come to open here? Like many parents, Pichet only came to hear of Gymboree after the birth of his first child, Prim, who’s now aged three and a half.
"It’s become common that when you have a child, you want the child to become involved in some sort of activities," he says. With the birth of Prim, he and his wife Jib, who has a background in economics and banking, searched around for "something for her to do". They couldn’t possibly have foreseen that doing so would change their careerpaths at the same time.
"We tried a few different activities. We thought Prim should have an opportunity to have fun and benefit herself at the same time," he explains. A friend of Jib recommended Gymboree – famous in the US, but little known in Thailand. "So we talked to some parents in the US."
The timing was good. Last year Gymboree started selling franchises internationally. "We applied for a franchise, along with I think five or 10 other people." One trip to each of Singapore and the US later, and Pichet and Jib found themselves owners of the first Thai franchise.
Now there are over 300 children attending classes, conducted in English, from 9 to 4 each day. There are five teaching staff, who hail from Ireland, the Philippines and Thailand. A maximum of 15 children are allowed per class compared to the 20 allowed in the US. Teachers don’t have to have an academic background in education, but they do need a background involving children, and a lot of energy, says Pichet. "The first line of our advertisements for teachers says ‘energetic’ rather than ‘degree’."
So what does the future hold for Pichet, Jib and Prim? Eventually they’d like to open a second centre, or sub-franchise to people who are as serious about putting fun into children’s learning as they are. "This is not a hobby for us," Pichet says. "It’s a serious business." When he’s not having fun, that is.