Toys are the instrument through which children shape the future

Gary Pope, ceo and co-founder of KI, on why the serious business of play is so important.

Play is a child’s work.

Jean Piaget said it, Maria Montessori said it and Mr Rogers said it. And I think they’re quite right. Play is serious business. It empowers and enables, it is the method through which little humans make sense of this incredible world and bring their own colour, excitement and joy to it.

And toys are the tools of this work. The instruments through which children experience their imagination. Where would we be without toys?

And what a busy few weeks in the world of toys! London Toy Fair, Nuremberg Toy Fair, the 2022 Toy of the Year Awards and brilliant YOY data from the NPD group telling us just where the toy industry has been and where it is going.

Thing is, sometimes this industry misses a trick. Sometimes it’s all just a bit too grown up for its own good. Not all of it, heavens no, but maybe, just maybe the industry takes itself a little too seriously and forgets the ‘why’ to go with the ‘what’.

I get that it’s about share price (or survival), but the last couple of weeks have left me wondering what would things be like if more elements of this very important industry accessed their inner child a bit more. Or, better still, what if they thought a little more about why this serious business of play is so important.

One of the hats I wear is as the Children’s Ambassador for Products of Change. And I am annoyed. I am annoyed because the vast majority of those exhibiting [at the shows] offered only the scantiest of nods to the fact that this is an industry that HAS to step up and affect change. The stark fact of the matter is the little people through whom the toy companies make their shareholders blissfully happy, will not have a planet to live on unless the industry gets serious about sustainability. Some are doing more than their bit, but a good number don’t appear to give a Monkey’s Puzzle.

One product at Toy Fair really heralded the sustainable credentials (a green PE play kitchen in case you’re wondering) but quite predictably it was seemingly overlooked by many. Innovation isn’t cheap I know, but moving humanity off world because we’ve broken this one will be infinitely more expensive. And it’s today’s toy users that will be footing that bill.

However, we did see our German friends have an actual awards category for sustainability. And there was a winner… Creative Building Blocks from Bavvic. So maybe we need to take a recycled leaf out of their book. Wouldn’t hurt would it? Might even encourage more innovation and investment, you never know.

And breathe.

Outside of sustainability (one of KI’s Super-Six – pillars that support the happy, healthy development of a child for the 21st century), I also like to look for developments and progress being made in Diversity and Inclusion (yes, another of our pillars), and it was clear to me there still seems to be a bit of a timewarp in addressing the imbalances.

A mud mask posing as a science toy for girls? Really? Don’t get me bloody started. And what exactly is wrong with having a rocket making kit with a girl on the front? Oh, I know, it’ll not sell to boys. Really? A lad’s not going to blast a homemade rocket into the sky because there’s a girl on the front of the package. Really? And let’s not even start on the make up sets that ‘empower’ you to do your make up like an influencer.

Some things have to change.

It seems to me that perhaps this wonderful industry could do with thinking a little bit more about the people that need to play with their creations so that they can properly prepare for what is a very different world to the one that you or I or any of the executives that approve these lines have experienced.

I know these things sell. I get it. I know the industry has to make a profit. I get it. I know there are boys toys and there are girls toys. I get it. But toys are the instrument through which children shape the future. If we give them the tools of the past how exactly will they build what needs building hereafter? I’d love to hear your thoughts…

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