Toy Joy: Why Do Kids Love Toys?

It's Toy Fair this week in NYC, where toymakers will herald the latest and greatest toys of 2015. What will be your kid's favorite?

Parker Barry

No doubt, discovering and playing with new toys is exciting for both kids and adults. In 2014, Americans spent an estimated $22 billion on toys. We find action figures, cars, dolls, digital toys, building blocks, board games — the list goes on — valuable enough to devote our money, time and living space to them. Playing with toys is an everyday part of family life.

In this midst of this week’s new toy hype, let’s step back and look at the big picture: What makes a great toy, one worthy of our kid’s time and attention? Why are toys important to kids’ development? What’s in the future for toys?

Toys: Happy times, happy memories

Think back to three of your own childhood memories of fun times at play. Are toys involved? Mine include playing with my Weebles collection, learning to hula hoop from my teenage sister and sketching houses on a giant pad of plain paper. All of these things, including the plain paper, are toys.

Christopher Bensch, vice president of collections at The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, N.Y., says his working definition of a toy is “quite spacious,” and may include just about anything that kids use for play, even household items like blankets and cardboard boxes.

Now recall three memories of your kid playing happily: Do any objects they’re playing with in these instances fit this more “spacious” definition of a toy?

“The toys that strike the strongest chord in general are the ones that are the most open-ended,” says Bensch. There are no rules, no backstory, no singular end goal. “Toys like these empower kids to leap off and go where their imaginations take them.”

Bensch, who also helps select toys chosen for the National Toy Hall of Fame (last year’s inductees were the Rubik’s Cube, bubbles and the Little Green Army Men) mentions examples like LEGO, Tinkertoys, baby dolls and the Radio Flyer wagon as open-ended toys. And, indeed, just six LEGO bricks can be combined in 102,981,500 different ways, according to a TIME magazine report that places LEGO at number 19 on its 100 All-TIME greatest toys list.

The toys that strike the strongest chord are the ones that are the most open-ended.

What makes a great toy?

In prehistoric times, objects like dull arrowheads or bits of clay may have been given to children as toys to use in play. Experts believe that this was to help prepare kids for hunting with real arrowheads or making usable pottery in adulthood. Some modern-day educational philosophies incorporate making toys and other handicrafts, giving lessons with specific sets of materials that kids use to build, or incorporating imaginative play with toys into academic lessons as key elements of their teaching methods. This leads to the question: Must a toy help kids practice for adulthood or learn an academically useful skill in order for it to be considered a high-quality toy?

Absolutely not. What makes a great toy is its ability to engage kids in a way that empowers them to use it in whatever way they can envision.

When assessing a for-purchase toy’s value, researchers may consider many other factors, including the toy’s capacity to help kids develop in a range of life skills such as problem solving, positive social interaction and creativity. Parents must also assess a toy’s safety for their kid’s age and development. Organizations that publicize toy safety issues and toy recalls include the Consumer Product Safety Commission and organizations like

What makes a great toy is its ability to engage kids in a way that empowers them.

Why is play with toys important to kids’ development?

Kids build skills naturally through play. They practice cognitive, emotional and social skills such as creative thinking, verbal and nonverbal communication, spatial and body awareness, empathy, adaptability, choice-making and more. Through toys that promote role play, kids can learn subject-specific vocabulary and practice real-world scenarios to decrease anxiety and boost confidence.

Good toy play “allows kids to try on lots of experiences, contexts, and challenges in a safe structure that they’re in charge of or collaborating with other kids,” says Bensch.

The common denominator that links all good toy play for kids is that the kids themselves are generally in charge of the experience and it meets their unique inner needs (of which only they really know) at the time of play. Oh, and one more thing: Toys are fun, and fun is important!

What’s happening next with toys and play?

Some toys, like those found in the National Toy Hall of Fame, are likely to be cultural favorites for generations to come. Toys like checkers and Play-Doh that I played with and my kids play with will presumably see time in my grandchildren’s hands as well.

Digital toys are adding new ways to play within the toy landscape. Research conducted by the LEGO company’s Future Lab discovered that “kids no longer make meaningful distinctions between digital play, like Minecraft, and physical play,” according to an article about Future Lab in the February edition of Fast Company. So it’s easy to imagine that the iPhone or iPad may be found in the National Toy Hall of Fame someday soon.

“I don’t think that’s too far off,” says Bensch. (The Atari 2600 Game System and the Nintendo Game Boy are already there.)

In today’s toy world, parents and kids have so many options that the choices can become almost overwhelming. That’s why — although it’s fun watching industry trends and buying the newest toys — it’s even more important for parents to keenly observe what kind of toys add to their own kid’s unique, preferred ways to play at this present moment. What one kid needs to play today may or may not be what the trend setters are selling this year.

Know your kid, and you’ll know their hottest toys of 2015 may include the newest construction set, a fabulous app, an adorable doll — and your old blanket, dining room table and flashlight.


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