Educational Toys: Too Much Too Soon?
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October 2003 | Vol. II - No. 10

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Educational Toys: Too Much Too Soon?

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 (ToyDirectory) 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 (ToyDirectory) 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 play.

"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," he continues.

"In 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 stores.

"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 wife.


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