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Blinded By Science: Kits, Experiments and Toys Keep Science Current for Kids
By Paul A. Paterson
May 1, 2003


When did science become cool? No longer the domain of geeks in lab coats, science has come to the masses with a selection of toys, kits and activity programs designed to safely fire the passions of tomorrow’s Stephen Hawking or Carl Sagan.

Johnny Girson, President of the American Specialty Toy Retailers Association, recalls being fascinated by science and nature as a boy and believes product safety has improved dramatically.

"The chemistry sets I was playing with when I was eight or nine, I would never give a kid now," said Girson, who is also owner of The Learning Tree store in Kansas. "It’s one of the toughest categories to keep in stock. The supply does not meet the demand. We really are not able to fill our section. When I caught bugs when I was a kid, I used a tin can. Now, there's a whole list of products kids can use."

Girson notes that while the selection of products has grown, the variety, especially at the lower price level, hasn't kept pace.

"There is a glut of products at the lower price range, but the companies mirror each other," he explained.

A testament to this increased interest in all things scientific is the emergence of a Canadian-based company, Mad Science. Now boasting franchises across North America and Australia, Mad Science offers birthday party and after-school science demonstrations that are equal parts fun and education.

"We allow kids to do experiments," explained Sharon King-Majaury, Director of Research & Development for the Montreal-based company. "They're not just being lectured about molecules, they're actually working with molecules. Science is all about investigation and we link it to stuff they know about."

At least part of this interest comes from parents who are seeking activities and products that will educate and entertain their children.

"Parents are looking for quality toys, and quality usually means they include some educational component," said King-Majaury. Trey Durant, General Manager of Science Stuff, Inc. in Austin, Texas, agrees that parents are important in helping encourage kids to explore the scientific process.

"The science fair when I was younger was no big deal. Now we sell a lot of products for science fairs all across the country and it's amazing how competitive it is," Durant said. "Parents don't want their kids doing a project that 30 other kids are already doing."

However, Durant also believes the kids themselves are drawn to toys that are more challenging. He points to one particular example, a flashlight that was repackaged as an assembly-based item.
"We used to sell those as a flashlight and they didn't sell well at all," Durant said. "They came out with a kit where the kids have to put it together, and [now] we can't keep those on the shelves."

Producing a generation of science-savvy kids is certainly good for long-term business, and Durant hopes this is a trend that will continue.

"As far behind as we are in science and math in this country, I hope this isn't a fad," he said. "We've been in business for ten years, and it's been growing every year."

While he agrees these toys can help a child academically by introducing him or her to terms, concepts and ideas outside the classroom, Girson points out that a child's love of science cannot be forced, and science-based toys should never be seen as a way to improve SAT scores.

"I cannot think of many situations where a parent comes in and says, ‘I want to introduce my kids to science,’" he said. "It's much more of parents coming in and saying, 'My kid is into this,’ and we take them to the science section.”

"It's also one of the fundamentals of the specialty toy retailer that we believe that kids learn by playing," Girson continued. "We don't say, 'Boy, are you going to learn a lot with this toy.' We say 'Boy, are you going to have fun with this toy.’"


 
 

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