Educational games are unfamiliar in most Cambodian schools. Panha Sabay is an educational supply store that is looking to change that. Founded by Ineke Leferink in 2017, it develops and produces educational toys for children who may attend school for only a few hours a day.

Panha Sabay offers students an opportunity to practice elementary school subjects in a fun and playful manner inside and outside their classrooms. Because the toys are self-correcting, children can work independently, at their own pace, and build confidence in their ability to apply what they’ve learned.

The Dutch founder of the company told The Post how she relocated to Cambodia and started the project.

“I came here as a tourist for the first time in 2005, and felt a special connection to the country immediately. I came back as a tourist in 2008 and then volunteered teaching teachers for a month in 2009. By that time I really was in love with the country and its people,” said Leferink.

“In 2010 I decided to come and volunteer for a longer time. I found a position as an educational coordinator for a Dutch NGO in the countryside close to Siem Reap. I stayed until the end of 2012, and then it was time to start earning some money again,” she added.

Working for the NGO gave her the idea for Panha Sabay. The NGO had a school with 60 pupils but every day a few hundred kids would pass by on their way to public school. She wanted to do something for, in theory, every kid in Cambodia and the way to do that was to develop educational materials which would help the students to practice what they learn in school.

“I came back to work on that dream in September 2017,” she said.

“My goal is to help improve the quality of the educational system by developing then introducing educational games and toys at home and in school. By making them fun and interesting, kids will be motivated to play them and learn at the same time,” she added.

Play based learning is a new concept for many Cambodian teachers, so she says she also provides training for teachers to help them improve the way they deliver their subjects in class. By making it fun they motivate the students – and that in turn is motivating for teachers.

She said when she returned in 2017 with her plan, she noticed a lot of trash around the countryside, and decided she should not bring more into this world. A second objective was added. She would not only develop educational toys and games, she would make them from recycled materials.

“Sustainability is very important to us, therefore whenever possible natural or recycled materials are used to create our toys. Beyond the eco-friendly benefits, using these materials also allows the toys to be affordable, making them available to more Cambodian families,” said the 54-year-old.

Currently, she uses left-over fabric, cuttings of artificial leather, PPR pipe off-cuts, water bottles, bottle caps and irrigation tubes.

She offers a variety of products, including a number of baby toys, like books and blocks, which are about developing the senses. Toddler toys are also popular, like a pillow with many kinds of fastener, which develops motor skills. These products are all made from left over fabric and socks.

She also makes a number of puzzles and games with her now-famous blocks. She has found a way to turn used water bottles into blocks, which are the base for all kinds of language and math games.

There are also whisper phones which allow you to hear yourself very clearly. This is helpful when you need to concentrate in a busy environment and to improve on comprehension and pronunciation while reading.

Finally, their biggest project is Leng. Leng is a method to practice what you learn in school in a fun way. There are books involved but you have to “play” the books with a game board and game pieces. They have printed 11 books so far. They cover the whole math curriculum of grade 1 and the first consonants and vowels of Khmer. Three of the books contain logic problems.

The logic books are very interesting because to play them you need to think of a strategy, which is a very important skill to develop as a student, she says.

She has games and toys for day care centers, pre-school and primary school. They also sell their products to families who want the products for their kids to play with after school. She not only sells the products, but offers training to make sure the products are used efficiently.

“I don’t want schools to buy my games and then store them in a cupboard. I have so many ideas for new games and toys, and I will develop more for older ages too – at least that is our dream,” she said.

Ponheary Ly Foundation – an education NGO that supports around 2,800 students in Siem Reap and Preah Vihear provinces – are one of the customers who have worked with Panha Sabay. They shared their experiences with The Post.

The foundation’s field director, Seak Theada, says Panha Sabay materials have been rolled out at their Learning Center in Siem Reap’s Banteay Srei district, led by their head librarian, Say Chenda.

Chenda says that before Covid-19 hit, they were introduced to Leferink of Panha Sabay by a mutual NGO connection. When their planned librarian training had to be delayed due to the pandemic, a couple of their staff members began using Panha Sabay’s materials with their own children. The benefits were clear.

“It’s wonderful to have such fun, engaging learning resources – especially ones that are made from recycled materials. Students and teachers at their Learning Center have absolutely fallen in love with the Leng books. During library time, students are choosing to play Leng in groups. It’s really improving their math and Khmer, and they’re having fun at the same time,” said Theada.

Chenda added: “Our students who are reading at below their grade level have been trying hard with the Leng books and have improved so much with their knowledge of consonants and vowels. Resources that combine fun, learning, and critical thinking are hard to come by – Panha Sabay is creating wonderful things that are desperately needed.”

REACH Siem Reap, an Australian registered charity and locally registered Cambodian NGO who have also worked with Panha Sabay, posted on social media about how the toys have helped their teachers.

One of the products is puppets. They said the puppets help develop confidence in students who are shy or afraid to participate in class, evolve language and emotions, and improve listening skills in small children. They also boost creativity.

“What’s more, puppets are a great support to teachers, helping them talk about sensitive topics like bullying, loss, or violence in a less challenging way. Our team participated in a role-play to solve potential problems inside the classroom, and it led to constructive feedback,” it added.

Panha Sabay does not just help students. It has also provided opportunities for young people to earn a living and develop new skills.

Currently she has four staff members. There are also a few families who do some home-based work for her. The staff in her work shop are young people who have graduated from high school. She says she likes to give them a chance to develop themselves.

“I let them do a lot of different things, so they can use these experiences to get to know themselves a bit better. We divide our year into terms and for each term we have personal and business goals. On a weekly basis we discuss these goals and learn where we need to focus on.

“They earn a small salary and I pay for their study, once they have chosen their field of interest. In return they are helping me develop this small business,” says Leferink.

One of the staff is Chork Neen. She has been working with Leferink since the end of 2018 and shared how working at Panha Sabay has helped her grow.

“I have learned a lot from her and she’s been my biggest support. I have learned new skills in many fields, like teaching, selling, creating and even sewing, something which I did not know how to do before. I do have my own dream of starting a small business – probably pig farming – but I will continue to help her,” Neen said.

Leferink said the biggest challenge is and was Covid. At the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020 they were ready to focus more on marketing and selling. But then tourists stayed away and even more important for the business, schools closed for a long time.

Even when they were finally allowed to offer lessons, they were completely occupied in organising everything, so little attention was paid to educational materials. Plastic recycling is also not that easy. It took and takes a lot of time and effort to keep it going.

Leferink says the business is still very small and therefore vulnerable, financially. She hopes they are able to make a profit soon, to make the business sustainable.

She explained why she does what she does.

“Being a teacher, I know the importance of education. And it all starts at an early age; actually you should develop from birth. Working with young kids also means, taking care of the next generation. For them and their children to have a good world to live in, we need to be much more careful with our planet. We only have one, so I try to reduce, re-use and recycle wherever I can and I try to explain to others how important this is.”