Preschool and Infant Toys Riding Wave
of Technology to Learning Success
By Paul A. Paterson
Today’s toys for preschoolers are a contradictory mix of the complex
and simple. From basic wooden cars to high-tech toys sporting interactive
sounds and lights, a lot of work goes into engineering simplicity.
Tickle Me Elmo
"In some ways, consumers have been ‘conditioned’ to expect toys
to do more," said Dana Marciniak, public relations assistant at Fisher-Price
Inc. "Fisher-Price’s Tickle Me Elmo conditioned
children, and adults, to squeeze the hand or foot of a plush toy to get
it to sing or dance or giggle. They learned to expect more from a plush
In 2002, infant and preschool toys accounted for almost $3 billion of
the total toy market, down somewhat from 2001, but still considerably
higher than 2000. The use of technology has not only increased the interactivity
of the products, but also brought the price down.
"The new cheaper technology is very interesting," agreed Larry
Balaban, executive vice president of marketing and production for Genius
"Some of the toys for $5 or $6 dollars are great. I think any time
technology becomes inexpensive, if you are able to understand how to use
that technology, you can really create some great things."
Some of those great things are also based on decades of research, something
toy makers are tapping into to make more engaging products. "There
is more research available about how children learn and develop, and that
has provided toy designers with new ideas to include in toys that extend
the play value and developmental benefits of toys," said Dr. Kathleen
Alfano, director of child research at Fisher-Price.
"With the increasing knowledge of how children play and what interests
them, today's toys are based on basic play patterns that children have
exhibited for generations, as well as new information and technologies
that make them more appealing to today's children and today's parents,"
And parents are the keys to the success of any product. With more information
available about the importance of a child's early years in the development
of fine motor skills, language and cognitive ability, forward-thinking
parents are shopping for toys that will educate as well as entertain.
It's a trend Donna Nash, marketing manager for Brio watches
with a degree of concern.
"Each year I see more and more toys that are limiting the parent
involvement, that keep the child off to the side," she explained.
"I think it's a statement about our society today. Mom and dad come
home and are trying to make supper, and the kids want to play. So it's
easier to put the child down with the Elmo or with a toy with flashing
lights. It occupies him for a few minutes, but then he walks away."
Like most of the toy makers, Nash believes a great preschool toy encourages
interaction between child and parent, and that, she believes, is a message
that is getting out to more and more parents.
"As parents become more educated, they understand the need to interact
with their children," she said. "But the constraints of time
in our society still pose a problem. I think the constraints are winning,
and that's why you see the sales in Talking Elmos doing so well."
What much of the new crop of preschool toys has in common is the use
of music to enhance the play experience, tapping into a growing understanding
of the benefits music can offer to developing minds, something Balaban
believes encourages participating.
"We love to encourage kids to sing," said Balaban. "If
you can get that little instrument, the human body, going, you've done