A New Kind of Toy Story: The Market for Educational Toys
Who doesn't love toys? Even adults find it hard to not pull all those
colorful gizmos off the shelves and start playing with them. Toys are a $80
billion industry worldwide, according to the Toy Industry Association.
One area of toy sales is particularly hot. According to the NPD Group,
a consumer and retail information provider, sales for learning and exploration
are on the rise.
If you're interested in turning your love of toys into a career as a toy
designer, it might be a good idea to educate yourself about the educational
So what exactly is an educational toy? While some companies are now simply
emphasizing the educational qualities of their toys, other toys are made with
the intent of helping to develop skills at an early age.
"Educational toys can be interpreted a number of ways," says Jon Levy.
Levy is the co-founder and vice-president of an educational toy store chain.
"They can be a manipulative type for the classroom, products with the primary
objective to teach a skill such as reading, spelling or math. [Educational
toys] can be simply a way of defining toys that have a learning value while
they're played with -- a shape sorter for a toddler, or Lego."
What's behind the increased interest in educational toys? According to
Levy, many factors come into play.
"Educational toys are popular because many families like to see children
interacting with products that do what they are intended to do," he says.
"They stay put together, are appropriately thought out, last through many
children, and, when all this is right, the child has fun and learns more."
James Gerber is the senior product manager at a leading educational toy
company. He also sees several reasons behind the rise in educational toy sales.
"Educational toys have become more popular in recent years due to several
factors: the overall deterioration in quality of education in our public school
system; the increasing desire for parents to give their children a head start
and an edge to succeed in school; the increase in busy time for parents and
the resulting decrease in available time to spend with their children; and
a backlash to some degree among parents against the popularity of video games."
There's also perhaps a more practical reason why educational toys have
seen a rise in popularity, according to Clara Smith. She looks after kids
at a child-care facility. She says many parents avoid toys that make a lot
"Those noisy toys tend to be the non-educational toys. As toys get more
high-tech, they're getting noisier, and the educational toys are still the
holes-in-block thing, not the noisy toys."
Apart from the idea that quietly learning is often more appealing to a
parent than noisily playing, there's another reason why educational toys are
seeing such popularity right now. And it also explains why the only other
category of toys seeing increasing sales is the infant and preschool category.
"People are becoming more aware of the fact that younger children do learn
in active ways," says Smith. "They're not just taking things in. They're actually
interacting with their environment.
"Psychological studies in fairly recent years have brought that to people's
attention. People are noticing more that younger kids can play an active role
in their learning, and the first three years are really important for that
kind of thing."
And it's important for the potential educational toy designer to know that
quality is important. And making a quality toy will pay off, both financially
and in terms of having your own creative control.
"Educational toys tend to be better made and tolerate a bit of a higher
price point, and therefore give more flexibility to a designer," says Levy.
Quality and flexibility are important, but we all know what's most important
when it comes to toys: fun! Toy designers say their job can be a lot of fun
-- and when they have fun, kids will too.
Some people might think that educational toys are no fun. Images of bad
design, clumsy interaction and toys collecting dust in the closet are stereotypes
from the admittedly clunky first wave of educational toys. The new world of
educational toys is, most assuredly, fun.
"Fun is key," says Levy. "I would never select a toy for our store that
is not premised around fun. There are teaching supply outlets for that sort
"Some of the kids' favorite toys at the day care are the most educational,"
adds Smith. "The kids just love them."
Combining elements of fun with educational opportunities is one of the
challenges faced by toy designers.
"It's my job to think like a child when designing a product," says Gerber.
"A good toy needs to excite the child over and over so the child keeps coming
back to it. Since the toy industry is so competitive, [it] is often a huge
challenge to offer fun play for a child in a fresh, innovative way.
"Yes, we have periods of fun amidst all the stress and busyness. It's
also rewarding to watch kids get excited and actually learn something with
So what does it take to get into designing educational toys? Gerber says
that if you're interested in getting into this field you need to know about
kids as well as toys.
"You need to have somewhat of an understanding of child development, of
how a child learns as they progress in age. This includes emotional, social,
psychological and physical development, in addition to intellectual.
"It's more critical for educational products to be age-appropriate, otherwise
learning moments are lost and the learning potential of the product is never
realized. The best learning products are designed with different levels of
play that can grow with a child over time."
And at the end of the day, what it takes to work in the educational toys
market is the same as what it takes to succeed in any market.
"Love and hard work," says Levy. "Same philosophy as any business needs."
A good example of a successful retail chain for educational toys
One of the leading educational toy companies
Toy Industry Association, Inc.
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Toy trade organization for toy producers and importers