Once reserved for the classrooms of forward-thinking teachers, educational
toys have found a home in the toy boxes of North American families. The
trend of mass-market appeal for educational toys is something industry observers
believe will only continue to grow.
"There is certainly a general trend of purchases in the mass-market
from specialty stores, whether teacher/educator schools supply stores or
specialty gift and museum stores," says b. dazzle
Executive Vice President Marshall P. Gavin. "But the mass market seems
to be focused on licensed products and novelty-type toys, rather than the
kinds of products that instruct and inspire."
Karen Hewitt, president
and designer of Learning Materials Workshop
believes the concept of an "educational toy" is currently trendy
but somewhat misleading.
"The companies claim these are educational because it's a selling device,"
she says. "I think it's a false category. It's confusing. All toys
are educationa,l in a sense that children are learning something when they
"There has been an increase [in this] because there is an awareness
of how much learning takes place in the first three years of life,"
she notes, offering parents a word of caution.
"I worry that children are not just allowed to play. Parents are
obsessed with doing everything faster. Have a 6 year old do what a 6 year
old can do. They need time just to spend dreaming. So much of the joy
is taken away."
Gavin is even more direct in his assessment.
"Manufacturers and retailers seemed to have embraced the ‘educational
toy’ market at the nexus of two recent powerful trends in American culture,"
he says. "One, deteriorating academic test scores in our public schools,
especially when compared to scores among students in other countries,
and, two, the shift in consumer buying from occurring largely at owner-occupied
specialty stores to mass-merchandising ‘warehouse’ type stores.
"This nexus of cultural trends created a niche for specialty stores
to provide carefully selected creative products that teach in the environment
in which they could be explained and demonstrated: a specialty store where
personal service to the consumer is still possible and even prevalent,"
kindergarten, you and I were finger-painting. Today, [children] are
reading and writing, and they can do that because parents are introducing
that when they are 3 and 4 years old.”
Mark Carlson, director of sales and marketing for Creative Teaching
Associates (ToyShow), believes
the parents buying this type of toy generally come from a higher educational
background and income bracket. He also believes there is some evidence
that the availability of these products has affected the classroom.
"In kindergarten, you and I were finger-painting,” he explains.
“Today, they are reading and writing, and they can do that because parents
are introducing that when [children] are 3 and 4 years old. Our Build
A Sentence has always been listed as first to fifth grade levels.
I know for a fact that product is being bought for kindergarten classes."
Hewitt notes that her company's website generates sales to parents, which
have grown steadily over the last four years. Ironically, Carlson believes
the traditional market for educational toys -- teachers and other educators
-- is showing signs of eroding in the face of school-board cutbacks to
classroom funding and the development of standardized testing, which he
believes channels educators to "teach to the test.”
"A lot of school districts are pushing a curriculum and not giving
the teacher that opportunity to bring these types of products [to class],"
he says, noting teachers have often been the force behind educational
toys. "A lot of teachers developed games for kids to help other teachers
get to those with different learning styles."
Looking to the future, Gavin sees further expansion of the mass-market
retailers' interest in learning toys at the expense of independent toy
"Individually owned toy stores will continue to diminish in number,
and other types of specialty gift stores will survive and prosper by carrying
more educational products and family activities, providing specialized
service to consumers," he says, pointing to museum gift stores, airport
shops and office supply outlets, among others.
Success in this area for toy makers, Carlson believes, is dependent upon
diligent attention to one factor.
"The manufacturers that will be successful will stay on top of the
funding issue, so we can know what's going to happen and develop products
that tap into that," he says.
Writer's Bio: Paul A. Paterson is a freelance
writer living and working in Southern Ontario. He has worked for, among
other publications, an Ontario based family magazine and a start-up online
service. His household includes four children, three cats, a dog and one