9 May 2019
Tech vs Tactile: Digital and Traditional Toys Slug It Out at NY Show
While some exhibitors looked to appeal to parents by piquing their children's interests in science and coding, other companies attending this year's New York Toy Show hoped to capitalise on the disillusionment with all things digital.
At the bustling North American International Toy Fair (New York Toy Fair) there was plenty to attract the attention of visitors – from traditional wooden toys, games and puzzles, to high-tech gizmos and licensed character toys reflecting the latest must-have crazes. As ever, Toys That Teach were well represented at the event, with plenty of options for those parents who want their children to learn as they play.
Highlighting the trend towards more purposeful learning toys, Isabel Carrión, Director of Digital Communications for the New York-headquartered Toy Association, the show organiser, said: "While learning toys continue to be very popular, they're now also highly aspirational. At their best, they let kids unleash their creativity and inspire them to discover just what they can become – whether that's a fashion designer, a chef or a robotic engineer."
Unsurprisingly, many of these Toys That Teach were attracting considerable attention at the event, not least the GraviTrax interactive track system. Impressively, the company behind this particular innovation – Southern Germany's Ravensburger – claims the system is now the world's best-selling toy.
According to Product Manager Andrea Leahy, it is essentially a means of getting kids to think about physics and design in creative terms. Explaining just how this works in practice, she said: "It's all about what we like to call 'open-ended play'. It's a way of opening doors for kids, especially if they're interested in engineering. It gently teaches them new elements of physics. As no part of the system is battery-operated, it relies solely on physical laws – kinetics and magnetism – to move a ball from one end of the track to the other.
"The starter set has eight activities – eight new tracks to build – and, once a track has been built, there are prompts to develop it further. Once you've built the track and it's working correctly, for instance, you then have to figure out how you can get the ball to go uphill. Do you build in inertia? Do you use one of the canons? At every opportunity, it teaches something new."
The system is targeted at kids aged eight and above, with 100-component starter sets retailing at US$60. Expansion sets are then available for about $5-10.
Another item attracting particular attention was Botley, which won the accolade of Innovative Toy of the Year at this year's event. Dreamt up by Illinois-based Learning Resources, this $50 playset has been designed to introduce five to eight-year-olds to the basics of programming.
Maintaining that core programming ideas don't necessarily involve staring at a computer screen, Senior Account Manager Hastings Malon said: "Botley is completely screen-free and has over 120 programmes. It comes with a full set right out of the box and is instantly ready to go. We also have a smaller version at a lower price point if you don't want to do all of the activity components straight off."
The company also has plans to release a range of programming toys for pre-school children this year under its Coding Critters brand. Essentially, these are a trio of simple programmable animal toys, each with its own unique personality. Outlining the thinking behind this new range, Malone said: "For kids as young as pre-school, we are basically providing an introduction to sequential logic, problem solving and critical thinking – the building blocks of coding.
"All of the coding is done via a button-press on a Critter. You can tell it to go forward and then back or forward-forward, back-back … It's very simple. Each one can store about 30 steps, which is more than enough for a pre-schooler."
Although the toys can be programmed in any fashion the child sees fit, Learning Resources believes that directed play provides more of a purpose and keeps young minds more focused. Explaining how this pans out in practice, Malone said: "Every Coding Critter comes with its own programming storybook. We think that is a better way to teach as it keeps kids engaged and they are driven to do more than just very simple operations. The books ask them to do tasks that have a purpose and follow a story. Basically, we're teaching interactivity and coding with a purpose."
While most of the teaching toys at the event were targeted at kids, one stand featured a new leisure concept actually conceived and developed by kids – Wrist World. Developed by a group of high-school children from Oklahoma, it is essentially a new augmented-reality wrist band.
Outlining the thinking behind this particular digital asset, Katherine Sparks, a member of the Marketing Team behind the project, said: "It's a game on your wrist – you scan it with your phone and a whole world pops up. You can explore, talk to characters, and collect items. As you gather keys and various other things as you travel through various secret levels to go to yet more levels, the gameplay continues to evolve."
While many of the toys and games at the show incorporated high-tech elements, some exhibitors were looking to capitalise on the feeling among some parents that such digital diversions didn't always benefit their children. One such company was Gund, a New Jersey-based stuffed-toy manufacturer, which was in New York to promote its range of Gund Pusheen plushes.
Confident that old-fashioned toys still maintain a distinct appeal, Donald Lehnert, the company's Director of eCommerce and Digital Marketing, said: "We've seen a steady growth in the appreciation of classic plush toys. Where there was once a real emphasis on tech and integration, you now have parents swinging in the other direction as they want their children to get away from being in front of screens all the time. The tactile sensation of having a plush toy represents a very different emotional response and one that we put at the front of all our marketing activities."
Even a company keen to emphasise the value of a simple cuddly toy, such as Gund, however, is not immune to the pull of the kind of on-screen properties drawn from family-friendly movies and TV shows. Acknowledging this, Lehnert said: "We are currently expanding our range to include popular characters from the world of TV and beyond. We already have Hello Kitty and we are adding in Aggretsuko from a new Netflix series. We also have Gudetama – one of Japan's most popular animated characters – which we started working with last year."
While licensed toys have long been big business, the sources of licensed characters have broadened considerably over the recent years, with streaming, YouTube stars and other online properties having become increasingly important. Detailing the significance of this particular development, Laurie Chartorynsky, a Communications Specialist with the Toy Association, said: "Licensing continues to be a huge part of the toy business, representing about 30% of all US toy sales.
"This year will see the release of a substantial number of family-friendly movies – from live-action remakes, such as The Lion King and Aladdin, to Toy Story 4, the next Star Wars and the latest Avengers instalments. Licensing is now not just about big-screen movies, though. We're also seeing YouTube properties, such as Baby Shark, playing a more and more significant role."
Another trend evident at the event was a growing emphasis on positive environmental credentials, with some parents concerned about the disposability manifested in plastic toys. One company to have particularly taken this on board was California's Green Toys.
Explaining just what makes his company's range of plastic toys quite so different, President, Charlie Friend said: "Everything we produce is 100% made here in the US from recycled milk jugs. Everything is kerbside-collected in Los Angeles, then sterilised and injection-moulded in California."
As well as creating products from recycled raw materials, Friend was also keen to make it clear that all the company's packaging materials are equally eco-friendly, saying: "The packaging is printed with soy inks in the US and any plastic you see is actually recycled – it's all folded origami-style with no glue and no twist ties."
These green credentials are said to make the company's range especially appealing to younger, more environmentally aware parents. Highlighting this, Friend said: "Millennial parents love what we do. They love that there's a mission behind it – a back story – and that we're doing good. This allows them to feel good about supporting us."
The 2019 North American International Toy Fair (New York Toy Fair) took place from 16-19 February at the Jacob K Javits Convention Center in Manhattan. The event featured more than 1,000 exhibitors and attracted in excess of 30,000 visitors.
James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, New York