OMG!!! Traditional Toys Are Disappearing!!

Gee, Thanks, Chicken Little.

I’m just back from the Toys & Games Fair in Hong Kong, the “official” start of the toy year and an exciting time in our business where new products are on display and we get a first look at things that may (emphasis on “may”) take off later in the year.

It’s also a time when “experts” battle to be the first to identify the “next trend.” Trends from the past include the end of fashion dolls and the dominance of “green” toys. And we know how those turned out.

So, it was especially hilarious to me to hear the prediction in Hong Kong this year that within five years, traditional toys will be gone and everything play with will be on tablets. I kid you not. This was said with a straight face and was followed up with admonitions about the bleak fate of the major toy companies in the years ahead. I, however, did my best Jerry Lewis spit take when I heard this.

It’s all part of a contemporary phenomenon I call “Chicken Littling” after the legendary bird who after being hit on the head by a falling nut was convinced that the sky was falling and the end was near and the king must be alerted. That’s no different from observing the rise in tablet use among children and concluding that toys will go the way of the dodo. However, in the battle for sound bites that has replaced so much of reasoned public discourse in our world, the more dire a prediction is, the more likely it is to get attention.

In this case, however, the facts tell a different story. Yes, tablets are appealing to younger and younger children. More and more of these kids have access to tablets, but they are not replacing traditional toys. An infant can’t teethe on a tablet. And you can’t cuddle up to one. There have been a slew of tablet-related toys in the past couple of years, but many of them just aren’t any fun and haven’t done well. (Here’s a big secret why not: they’re not fun.) Are kids playing with more apps? Yes…at least the good ones. But there are a lot of terrible ones out there, too, and kids are swift to reject those. What’s more, parents’ and caregivers’ response to this growth is to seek out other types of play experiences. They are seeking to limit screen time for their kids—and that includes any screen.

The facts also tell us that construction toys are booming. Arts and Crafts companies are seeing double-digit growth in some product lines. NERF blasters, sports toys, even some games have been successful in the past year. Small companies like Zing and Hog Wild are finding a steadily growing market for their classic toys. All of these have one thing in common: they deliver play experiences that cannot be replicated on a tablet or in an app. Social, physical and manipulative play are all critical to children’s development and the brain centers stimulated by play in these categories can’t be replicated by an app. More importantly, some of the most exciting new toys I saw in Hong Kong were, you guessed it, traditional toys. It’s going to be fun to bring them to you as they come to market.

In the case of tablets, they aren’t taking over the toy industry, and people who promote that idea demonstrate a real lack of understanding of how the business has grown and evolved over the years. Tablets just making the toy box bigger and will find a place in a kid’s overall play experiences.

How can I be so sure? Look at the history of toys. There have been tons of new technologies introduced over the years and not a single one of them has rendered traditional toys and classic play obsolete, though many have had an impact for a time. Even as technologies have become obsolete and new ones have emerged, traditional toys have stayed around.

Of course, I’m also sure that “experts” trying to make good copy will continue to predict that one small event will trigger a cataclysm. We’ll never get rid of the nuts—falling or otherwise. As for me, I’ll stick with reality. It’s ultimately a lot more fun.

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