museums&MORE Summer 2010
Toy Story

Learning can be fun—and profitable—if you play your cards right

By Abby Heugel, Managing Editor

Before the electronic age of computers and gaming, kids had to rely on (gasp) their imagination for a majority of entertainment. Using leftover dress-up clothes, random household items and the power of pretending, children transformed the simplest things into hours of fun — no batteries required.

Today kids are using computers before they can talk, learning from links and gaming for hours, creating a fine line between technology as a teacher or a toy. This is where retailers can pick up some tips, as technology does something that you hope to do with your products — sell learning as something that’s fun.

Toys have basically two purposes: to entertain and to teach,” said Ramona Pariente of Safari Ltd. “The educational aspect of a toy is a very important factor for parents when deciding whether to purchase it or not. They enjoy teaching their children and children enjoy learning in a fun way.”

To Do Is To Learn
And what better way to learn than to actually “do?” At Pretend City Children’s Museum in Irvine, Calif., children have the chance to “builds better brains through whole body learning experiences,” educational programs and over 15 permanent exhibits. It’s the first educational facility of its kind in Orange County, representing a small interconnected city complete with a 450-square-foot “mini mall” (gift shop) located inside the museum right next to Pretend City Hall.

But unlike toys found just anywhere, the store offers educational toys in which the long-term benefits of the purchase can be easily recognized.

“For instance, the museum has a grocery store where children can pretend to buy, sell and work in the store,” said Krista Adams, general manager of the Pretend City Mini Mall. “We carry similar items in the gift shop so children can continue to role-play at home. The more they ‘practice,’ the more they learn and since it is so much fun, they hardly recognize it as learning.

It is, however, apparent to the adult how much the child is growing through role-playing.”
Staff works closely with the Pretend City education department to ensure they are offering items both developmentally appropriate and fun for the children. Adams said the “big box” stores simply offer any and everything, but specialty stores can put more thought into their merchandise by identifying what will benefit the guests the most.

“Children can pretend to be specific careers within Pretend City, with each theme emulated in a collective manner in the gift shop,” Adams explained. “As an example, for Emergency Services we offer age appropriate books on fire trucks, puzzles made out of emergency vehicles, wooden emergency vehicles and dress-up outfits so children can continue to role-play at home.”

Adams has found that parents are more inclined to purchase items that their child is interacting with at the gift shop, so they encourage interaction by assembling games, puzzles and art projects to showcase a particular piece and the sale of that item.

“We find that many items become interactive on their own the minute a child picks them up,” she added, “and this is always a good thing!”

Accept the Challenge
Games that do all the thinking for kids may be fun for a while, but they tend to get bored with them and gravitate towards toys that challenge them in a variety of ways and get them to think.

“Kids love toys and games that have three crucial elements,” said Randy Compton, CEO of Think-a-lot Toys. “They have to be both fun and engaging; make kids think a little, if not a lot; and have an element of open-ended play.

“We all love a challenge and those games that have multiple ways and even levels of challenging kids are the ones that last and become classics,” Compton continued. “This is why open-ended games are so timeless. You can play with them over and over and each time you play with them, the experience is a little bit different.”

Value-added plush and figures can be transformed into anything at any time. Things like drawing kits and activity sets with fact guides present infinite possibilities for creativity and learning, facilitating multiple skill building. And as Mary Ludovico, marketing director for Schleich North America, Inc. added, parents are willing to pay more if a toy has a certain educational dimension versus paying less for a trendy item that may fall out of fashion.

“The value equation for consumers may also include issues such as playability, versatility and ‘play life,'” she added, “as in, how long can/will this toy be played with?”

But just as the idea of learning toys and games appeals to parents, the toys and games will only be played with if they hold appeal to the child. If it’s value-added plush, it still needs to be soft and cuddly. If it’s a book exploring underwater sea life, it still needs to be accessible, colorful and interesting to young minds. When it comes to these details, presentation can be everything.

“Our educational plush have done exceptionally well in hospital gift shops and baby stores,” said Tina Waldmier of Aurora World, Inc. “Many of these retailers have created window vignettes focused on their various educational toys and really dialed in a specific area of their stores to focus on this type of product. They make it a highlight and a priority, especially since the value-add of educational learning can help to solidify a sale.”

Many companies include educational information with their products and also on corresponding Web sites, and as Debbie Kurlansky-Winer of Scratch-Art Co. added, “play days are pay days” and “make it and take it” events always stimulate sales. Hands-on areas where kids and parents can touch and play with the games at hand makes coming into a store fun, while interactive displays engage kids in a way that a description on the back of the box can never do.

“We strongly encourage retailers who carry our games to have a demo game out so kids can play with the tiny trinkets,” Compton said. “And when a kid keeps playing with something, you not only have their attention, but you have the attention of the parent whom you can spend a few magical moments with talking about the benefits of educational toys.”

He added that an educated, lively sales staff and a game that is out and available to be played with are keys to a sale, and that one of the strong suits of specialty retailers is the knowledge and service their sales staff can provide.

“If you educate your sales staff about all the amazing facts of educational play, customers will be grateful,” Compton added, “and before you know it, they will not only be your best customers, but also your best advocates.”

And while the need for educational toys will always be there, Waldmier has recently noticed a trend towards advocating physical activity as the next “value-add” with toys and games. With the spotlight on childhood obesity and overall health of children, toy manufacturers and retailers may begin stepping up to the line with toys that get kids moving again.

Offering physically and mentally stimulating products will get kids, creativity and sales moving in the right direction — and there’s nothing pretend about profits.

Social Connections

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