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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 toy market.

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 of noise.

"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 of thing."

"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 your products."

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."


Mastermind Toys
A good example of a successful retail chain for educational toys

Discovery Toys
One of the leading educational toy companies

Toy Industry Association, Inc.
Toy trade organization for toy producers and importers

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