Every February, children’s entertainment professionals from around the world converge in New York as the overlap of Toy Fair, Engage Expo and KidScreen Summit turn the city into a veritable stomping ground for those of us in the kids business. And every year, I can hardly wait to hear about the trends and see the products that will entertain children throughout the year ahead. This year did not disappoint!
Surprisingly, the product that most interested me this year came from toy giant Fisher Price, who unveiled the Laugh & Learn Baby iCan Play Case, a plastic case that protects any generation iPhone or iPod Touch from the poking, prodding and sticky fingers of young children. Coming out of a show filled with augmented realities and 3-D, this basic product may seem like a surprising pick as a standout. However, it’s less the product itself that is interesting, and more the commentary that it makes about the role that mobile devices are playing in kids culture today.
While adult’s tools have always been amongst children’s favorite toys, toy companies have traditionally provided children’s versions of the real thing. From vacuum cleaners to toy phones, this aspirational play pattern has been around long before the age of digital. But now for the first time, children are playing with the real thing rather than a plastic version, and a toy is simply facilitating that play. I applaud Fisher Price for not viewing mobile devices as competition, but rather providing kid-friendly tools to help enable the rich experiences that mobile apps can provide. They have accepted that digital goods such as apps are competing with physical toys for the dollars in a parents wallet, and have taken an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” mentality in their product offerings. This product unequivocally confirms the market for children’s apps. With companies like Fisher Price launching product lines that depend on a parent not only owning but also sharing these expensive devices with their young children, even the most serious naysayers of the pass-back effect may start to take this phenomenon seriously. Now, if only someone were taking bets, I’d put my money on an iCan Play iPad Case faster than you can say Toy Fair 2012.
This product is extremely exciting to someone who strongly believes in the potential of mobile devices to play a positive role in children’s lives. However, I do have concerns that the market is growing so fast that policy can’t keep up. As the app market for children continues to explode, thousands of apps are claiming to teach children about anything from arithmetic to astronomy. However, there are currently no standards of educational value to help parents, children and educators discern if the multitude of products in the marketplace live up to their educational claims. The recent Smurfberry debacle highlights the need for children’s protection initiatives around in-app purchases. And most importantly, how do we help these devices shrink, rather than widen, the digital divide? It seems that we’ve figured out how to protect the device from sticky fingers. But who’s protecting the sticky fingers from the device?
But apps are just one part of a much bigger picture, and though I could go on and on about all things mobile (and very well might in my next post!) I would be remiss not to mention the other key trends. As always, experts from the Toy Industry Association scour the hundreds of thousands of products on display at toy fair and do an excellent job summarizing the year’s top trends. A few of these are particularly exciting:
- Simply Social: Not surprisingly, connected toys that enable and encourage children to virtually socialize, network, and play was one of the biggest trends this year. Amongst the standouts, Lego introduced Ninjago, bringing for the first time a social and competitive aspect to the age-old building sets. Activision got a ton of buzz for Skylanders Spyro’s Adventure. Playable character heroes populate the video game; the twist is that players will have to “summon” these extra characters in the form of physical toys that will be available in toy stores across the country. This is the most innovative merging of the virtual and physical that we’ve seen since these worlds began to blur in the past few years. Despite these exciting innovations, what most excites me in this category was the emergence of a sub-trend of socially aware products that integrate a pro-social play pattern. Addressing issues ranging from sustainability to charity, these products aim to teach kids about the world around them and how to be a better citizen.
- Performance Play: The influx of products that encourage physical activity among children indicates that toy companies are rising to the challenge of childhood obesity. Wild Planet, who has been a leader in this area since making a splash with Hyper Dash in 2007, showcased a host of active toys expanding on their successful line of Hyper games and introduced a new line called Torx. Geopalz encourages kids to get moving, tracking the steps they take and translating them into points that can be traded in for all types of active prizes. Clearly the active play trend that was observed at last month’s CES is equally prevalent in the toy industry — and this is a good thing!
- Design, Discover and Learn: Saving the best for last, I couldn’t be more excited to see that learning through games, puzzles, experimentation and technology was one of the key trends this year. I, for one, am thrilled that that the industry has finally shaken the bad rap that “edutainment” gave any products having to do with learning, and that toycos are capitalizing on developments in science and technology to captivate children’s natural desire to discover and learn. Uncle Milton’s Star Wars LightSaber Room Light is a great example — the realistic looking lightsaber that can be mounted on the wall would be a great product without any educational element, but children have to put this piece of hi-tech gadgetry together themselves. Toys in this category range from tech tools to spy gear, from 3-D models to new plays on constructibles and crafts.
So, was I right to be so excited for this year’s Toy Fair, KidScreen, Engage extravaganza? Absolutely! For the first time it really seems like industry is meeting the demands of parents, government and healthcare officials to encourage and enable educational and active play, working towards a healthier future for today’s kids.