50 years of Kaplan Early Learning

(Winston-Salem Monthly) – Hal Kaplan talks a lot about concepts.

Educational concepts, legislative concepts, schooling concepts, teaching concepts, toys that teach and the concepts behind those—the list goes on. Obviously, concepts are a serious driving force behind the strategy at Kaplan Early Learning, and they’re a big part of the company’s growing success.

“Every day in every classroom across America, a child picks up an item from Kaplan, plays with it, learns with it, and develops with it,” says Hal Kaplan, who’s served as CEO since 1994. “That’s a pretty cool concept.”

Yet despite its international reach, Kaplan Early Learning tends to fly somewhat under the radar locally. The company is nestled in Lewisville off Lewisville-Clemmons Road, occupying a 50-acre campus that includes a 350,000-square-foot distribution center, a 160,000-square-foot warehouse, and two large office buildings. The campus also boasts a large Education Megastore, filled floor to ceiling (walls and windows included) with brightly colored decorations, toys, games, and educational supplies that aim to entertain and educate. Unbeknownst to many, the Megastore is open to more than just educators. Parents, aunts, uncles, home-schoolers, and everyone else is welcomed to come in and shop at the store.

“[The Megastore] shouldn’t be a secret. It’s a resource for the community. We want to make sure that people know about us in the community so they can bring their children in,” says Raven Griffin, Kaplan’s marketing manager. “There are stations for children set up inside the Megastore—we might have a station set up for STEM, for instance. So while the parents are shopping, we can show them how to use some of the products in the store. They can shop while the kids play and learn, and then take it home with them afterward.”

This “learning through play” philosophy is something the company has prided itself on from the start.

Building a foundation

The story of Kaplan Early Learning actually began in 1951 when Leon and Renee Kaplan, Hal’s parents, opened a small toy store in downtown Greensboro known as Tiny Town. The store, which later moved to Fifth Street in downtown Winston-Salem, focused on providing unique educational toys and gifts.

“Over time the benefits of investing in early care and education became more evident, and my parents’ vision expanded to designing ‘toys that teach,’ ” Hal notes.

This vision led Leon to start Kaplan School Supply in 1968, which eventually became Kaplan Early Learning. Hal joined the company in 1969, and the company soon became recognized as one of the top early childhood education dealers in the nation.

Today, Kaplan employs more than 250 people locally (with many, many more across the nation). It also continues to make a huge impact on the Triad both in terms of charitable giving and educational initiatives, though it tends to do so quietly. Giving back to the greater good, Hal notes, is something his parents always encouraged.

“I’ve always felt that if you’re in a community, you need to be part of the community,” he says. “We’ve been in this town and this county, again, since 1952.”

Recently Kaplan has helped lead a community-wide education initiative known as Project Impact.

“Community leaders in Forsyth County and business leaders got together and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do something to involve children that come from economically disadvantaged neighborhoods,’ ” Hal explains. “We all said, this is a real need, and we need to address it and make sureit’s funded.”

Announced in 2016, Project Impact’s primary goal is to build a stronger foundation to better support early childhood education. So far, more than $25 million has been collected for the cause, which has helped fund newly launched programs such as “Kindercamps” and new pre-K classrooms.

“I’ve never seen a community step up like Forsyth County did to support this (Project Impact),” Hal says. “It’s been really unique, really inspiring to see.”

In a few weeks, the community at large is invited to a “Community Play Date” on the Kaplan campus to mark its 50 years in Forsyth County. The Aug. 30 event will be an extension of the annual tent sales Kaplan used to hold on its campus.

Teaching through toys

Constant evolvement keeps Kaplan at the forefront of the toy industry. It continuously evolves its “toys that teach” concept for both its national and international audience, partnering with universities and education groups for the latest early-learning research and findings.

“We serve virtually every school district in the U.S, and we supply every school system,” Hal says. “We rely on a lot of the research that comes out of the universities, and that helps give us a picture of where they see things evolving. There’s a lot of research being done on how children’s brains function, how they cope with certain issues in their life, and how they resolve those issues and move forward. Some of the product that we do enables teachers to understand where those children are and provides support to help them move through those transitions.”

The importance of Kaplan’s relationship with teachers can’t be overstated. In fact, Hal believes it’s been the key to the company’s sustained success.

After big-box stores began to open up, it completely changed the retail landscape for mom-and-pop shops—and toy shops were no exception. Hal’s parents began to rethink their go-to market strategy, eventually deciding it would be best to take their product on the road and present it directly to the school. (After all, there’s no better way to learn what schools need than by talking face-to-face with the educators themselves.)

“What I think we did was really listen to our clients—the teachers,” Hal says. “They told us how these things work in their classroom, we were able to come back and say ‘OK, let’s articulate this a little bit.’ ”

‘Doing a good thing’

The “toys that teach” concept that exists at Kaplan today continues to pay homage to Hal’s parents, Leon and Renee Kaplan, and their Tiny Town toy store—a place where all of the items were specifically curated to promote learning through play. And as the age of early education has shifted, this concept has never been more important than it is today.

“[Education] starts when these children are 3 and 4 years old. As a matter of fact, it starts at birth,” Hal says. “If you really want to get your child ready to learn, create the skill sets, support their efforts, get the family engaged, and good outcomes will happen.”

As one of the largest distributors of products and services that enhance children’s learning, Kaplan today provides innovative curricula, cutting-edge assessments, and teacher resource materials. The large-scale distribution center is constantly humming with trucks coming in and out delivering educational toys across the United States.

It’s a big-business operation no doubt, yet the company’s campus still feels quaint, welcoming, and even playful at times. The boardroom, for instance, features an assortment of toys along the walls. The onsite Megastore has a constant stream of smiling faces coming in and out. Even the company logo is splashed with a rainbow of color—all of which proves that business and fun can occasionally co-exist.

“When my parents started the company 50 years ago, I don’t think they ever envisioned what it would become,” Hal says. “It was simply a small family business that kept evolving with time. I think what brings the most joy to members of this team today is the fact that we’re doing good things for kids and families. Anytime you can provide resource materials, support materials, things that have outcomes for families, it’s a good thing.”

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