Toy land has always been about fun. But the industry that claims $20 billion in sales is experiencing a growing demand for toys that are not only entertaining but "nutritious." And judging by the selection this holiday season, some toymakers are are making leap-frog efforts.
"Learning and information has really come to the forefront," says Judy Ellis, chairwoman of the Toy Design Department at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York (FIT). "I'm happy with what's going on this year," Ms. Ellis continues, "I see more toys that respect a child's intelligence."
Many toy watchers like Ellis are encouraged by 1997 offerings, from activity books and brain teasers to building sets and classic comebacks. She also mentions some "wonderful craft kits" available.
But what's their value?
In the name of "play value," savvy parents are not only asking "What does this toy do?" they want to know, "What can this toy do for my child?"
"Parents are definitely better consumers today," says Stevanne Auerbach, child-development expert also known as Dr. Toy and author of the forthcoming book, "Dr. Toy's Smart Play: How to Raise a Child with a High PQ [Play Quotient]." "Beyond being better consumers, they want to know how to help their children be better players. They're seeing play more from a child-development standpoint and want to understand their child."
Toy experts Joanne and Stephanie Oppenheim see a "kinder, gentler toy land" this year. "Children are collecting Beanie Babies and virtual pets, instead of Power Rangers and toys with 'gross' agendas," says Joanne Oppenheim in a telephone interview.
Each year, the mother-daughter Oppenheim team looks at thousands of products, selects those that seem promising, tests them, then sends the best ones on to be tested by families. The winners end up in the Oppenheim's renowned toy guide. This year's guide - "The Best Toys, Books, Videos & Software for Kids 1998," (Prima, $13) - features more than 1,000 classic and new products for children up to the age of 10. Their Platinum Awards are broken up by age groups and categorized by toys, books, videos, audios, software, and special-needs toys.
Joanne Oppenheim talks about other trends she and her daughter consider progressive, one of which is better role models. "Barbie is more than just a beauty, she's got a career as a dentist," she says. (Next year, her figure will be more proportional, too.) "And Ken is into child-care." He comes with a backpack, his little brother "Tommy," and diapers.
There are more toys for infants, Oppenheim continues, reflecting a new awareness of the value of play from the beginning. Dolls are more multicultural than ever - Latino, Nigerian, Asian, and South American. "It's a positive sign that we're moving toward toys that are more reflective of diversity," she says.
And good news for every toy-buyer: There are more quality toys for under $20. On the downside, the Oppenheims note that some toys are requiring more assembly than ever. (One they tested called for a power screwdriver!) Joanne Oppenheim adds that in some cases it's worth paying the toy store to do it for you.
"We also found that we disagreed with more age labels than ever before," she says. "People come home thinking something is wrong with their child. It's usually that something's wrong with the box, not your child," she quips. Try to not rely solely on manufacturers' age guidelines.
Experts suggest that toy buyers check toy guides, family organizations that publish toy tips and tests, and consumer reviews. Toy store employees can sometimes be knowledgeable, as well as day-care staff and neighbors with children. Websites can also help, from parenting pages to the Toy Manufacturers of America (www.toy-tma.com) to retail sites such as the Hugely Fun Toy Store (www.hugelyfun.com) that publishes "The Art of Play" newsletter and holiday shopping tips.
"Toys help build a child's sense of success," Oppenheim reminds. "If you buy something that is physically or intellectually beyond them, you're telling them they're not good enough."
Not all fun and games
Safety concerns continue. According to the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, toy-related injuries and deaths have decreased in the past few years, due to industry, government, and consumer education efforts. But, as spokesperson Nikki White points out, "one is still one too many." The Oppenheims found an alarming number of toys packaged in mid-size to large plastic bags with inadequate warnings, as well as a greater number of high-noise toys.
As for the escalating mania over Sing N Snore Ernie, FIT's Ellis couldn't be more delighted: One of her grads designed it, and it's a top pick on many critics' lists.
Oppenheim cautions against too much hoopla, however, lest consumers forget the Cabbage-Patch and Tickle-Me-Elmo crazes. "It makes good press, but it becomes not just a tiresome story, but worrisome story." People clamoring at toy stores, hoarding them so they can sell them for high prices - "it's the antithesis of the season," she says.
While Ernie did earn high marks from kids in various toy tests, Oppenheim points out that such dolls don't replace those that don't say anything, such as teddy bears. She says toys should encourage children to do things with them that's different from just watching a toy snore. "Talking Playtime Big Bird," also made bv Tyco, won one of the Oppenheim's platinum awards. It calls for the child to clap hands, play patty-cake, and squeeze Big Bird's feet and tickle his tummy.
Most experts say you can't go wrong with the tried-and-true. Classic toys sales are strong, fueled by baby-boomer nostalgia. Ms. Auerbach's list of recommended classics includes jacks, yo-yos, Mr. Potato Head, kites, marbles, and Candyland.
What to Consider Before You Buy
To those who buy for children, toy experts Joanne and Stephanie Oppenheim suggest considering the following:
Safety: Is the product well-designed? Can it withstand the unexpected?
Age appropriateness: Does it fit the developmental needs, interests, and skills of the children it was designed for?
Lasting play value: What will a child learn from the toy? Is it a "smart" product that will engage the child's mind? Or is it a novelty that will soon be at the bottom of the toy box?
Entertainment value: No matter how "educational" a toy is, it should never be boring.
Messages conveyed: What values and messages will a child a child learn from the toy?
Assembly: Read labels carefully ("batteries not included" and "assembly required") so there are no night-before surprises.
The Oppenheim's Website is: www.toyportfolio.com
Toy Help Line: (800) KIDS-450
Dr. Toy's website is: www.drtoy.com
The Toy Design Department at the Fashion Institute of Technology also has a Website: www.toy-tma.com/ATI/FIT/index.html