A toy horse being used to teach children language skills? Don't say neigh. A Somerset woman has built a company from the ground up that uses both technology and a tech-free plushie horse to motivate kids to learn words through play.
Kimberly Rogers is the owner of Piccoli Horses, a small-town company that now has toys in retail stores in every state of the U.S.
Rogers said the horses also can be bought online through her web site, www.piccolihorses.com, or through Amazon.
Along with the physical toy, Rogers developed a free online application, downloadable for both iPhones and Androids.
The app introduces words to children by saying them out loud, then encourages the child to both say the word and preform a physical activity that reinforces the meaning of the words. For example, if the child is learning the word "snake," they will be asked to move and pose like a snake.
The horse has no electronics inside, but is an object to help keep the kids grounded in the real world.
"We are a technology-based toy company, but we don't just want to plug our kids in. We want them to connect, but to not lose the connection to us," Rogers said.
Sometimes, people just want the toy and never use the app, she said. And sometimes, people use the free app without buying the toy. The two work together, but do not have to be used together, she said.
The idea for using physical activity to learn language came to Rogers through the her efforts to help her son, Dylan. As a youngster, his language development was sidelined during the most important language-learning years due to a brain condition called gradual onset hydrocephalus.
"Sometime between the age of one and three, his brain was getting crushed," Rogers explains.
He had several surgeries to relieve the pressure, but the family began to see that learning language was difficult for him.
"His neurosurgeon said to me, 'English is a foreign language for him. Teach him to talk.'"
She found out from therapists that his best opportunity to learn language was through playing and being active.
The family, not originally from this area, would take trips to the zoo where Dylan could run, play and be with the animals.
Dylan, now 19, is a student at Somerset High School. Rogers says his speech is still developing, and that he is a physically active young adult.
Rogers said that when it came to working on the toy and app combo, she knew from the beginning that she wanted to have an animal involved.
She turned to the internet for help.
"I just Googled 'most advanced communicators on the planet,' and horses came up," she said. "They communicate with more of their senses, more than any mammal. So I picked horses."
When it came to finding a name for her company, that search was a little more difficult.
"When I was coming up with the name, I came up with four different names, and I tried to trademark three of the four names, and they were already taken," she said.
Name number four - Piccoli - was accepted. The word means small in Italian, so it fit well with the concept, both as a description of the horses and as a foreign word for a system that is intended to teach language.
Currently the app teaches English, but Rogers says French is on the way soon.
Making the design for the toy took time, too.
Rogers said she developed the prototype for the stuffed animal with local seamstress Stephanie Denney.
"We did 27 prototypes," Rogers said. "I remember undoing a seam and changing the angle of the head. I was fanatic about getting them just perfect."
She said it tool almost a year to find the perfect design.
When looking at turning her idea into a business, Rogers said she turned to CPA Jack Evans. "He's the one who kept me grounded, [saying] this is a business that has to operate as a business."
Rogers also got help along the way from many other sources, including technology advisor Craig Anderson. Rogers said he wrote part of the code that helped build the first version of the app, then helped find the software developers that created the current version.
"We were able to test an early version of the app because of Craig," she said. "We went on a global search to find just the right company to create Piccoli Zoo app. Craig told me the companies to call and those to avoid."
And while the horses can now be found in stores across the country, Rogers said the first retailer was The Mole Hole here in Somerset.
"Tammy [Hoehler] is amazing," Rogers said. "She knew and loved our horses first. She put them in front of customers before any other stores even knew the name Piccoli."
Rogers said the The Mole Hole will be carrying exclusive Christmas horses with 'I love Kentucky' embroidered on the saddles. "They are the only local retailer that stocks Piccoli," she said.
Other stores across the state that carry the horses are The Kentucky Horse Park, Bread of Life in Liberty, Completely Kentucky, and the McDowell House Museum in Danville.
Rogers said she also plans on showing up for the annual Sheltowee Artisans Artfair, to be held this year on November 10 and 11 at the Center for Rural Development. She said she would be offering in-person discounts on the horses.
Piccoli has been in business for a little over a year. Rogers said the journey from idea to creation was more difficult than she expected. She started with no experience in crafting, manufacturing or software development.
"I did not know what I was getting into," she laughed. "I had no idea. I think things like this are done by people who either think they can do it or are completely clueless. I was in the completely clueless category. I just kept taking little step by little step. And then all of a sudden, it was just there.
"It's been a fun trip."