Those who work within the toy industry have an awareness of play patterns and recognize the value they provide in developing an individual’s creativity, imagination, knowledge, and physical skills. But, has the toy industry done an adequate job of educating consumers on specific play patterns and the value they provide? Are consumers able to distinguish between a good toy and a toy with great play value?
Most toys on the market are age-graded, providing consumers with general play and safety information relevant to a particular age group. When it comes to understanding the play value or play pattern of an item though, there tends to be little or no information available. Play-grading toys may be one solution. Many pet toys already provide specific play information for owners, indicating the targeted area of development for the pet. Some baby toys also provide this type of developmental information. Play-graded toys could provide consumers with play information and developmental benefits much like the nutritional labels found on food.
As consumers head out to the stores or log onto their favorite websites this holiday season, there may still be an opportunity to provide tips on purchasing toys and games with specific play patterns. A few stores I’ve visited have play category signs for their toy product. Mattel’s website also does a nice job of categorizing toys under specific play patterns. Below, are some common play patterns and their values; multiple play patterns within a toy generally make it more appealing and provide greater longevity of play to the user.
Toys and games that encourage physical activity, interactivity, or utilize the five physical senses aid in the development of gross and fine motor skills as well as sensory attributes. Some popular toys that get people fully active and use gross motor skills are Nerf, Frisbee, Hula Hoop, and Twister. Wii games also develop gross motor skills.
More sedentary physical activities like building model ships, jewelry making, or playing a game of Operation are opportunities to use fine motor skills. These activities help individuals exercise patience, and improve their skills and precision. Hand held video games use fine motor skills.
Another physical play pattern that engages the five physical senses is 'sensory'. This includes touch, smell, taste, sight and sound within a toy or game. Play-Doh, Strawberry Shortcake, and Slime, as well as toys with lights, music, sound effects, or vibration all provide a sensory play experience. Many of the toys we remember from our childhood are often linked to some type of sensory play experience.
Toys and games with a creative aspect, building/construction, or customization element provide a means for developing and manifesting one’s personality, imagination, and creativity. Arts and crafts kits, music-based toys like Guitar Hero, Paper Jamz, or Sing-A-Ma-Jigs, building and construction sets such as Legos or Lincoln Logs, and games like Pictionary all engage the participant in some form of creative play.
Acting out real life or pretend life situations can include play with child-sized appliances like vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers, or ride-on vehicles. Baby doll play, tea parties and playing war also fall under pretend scenarios. Teens and adults will find this type of play pattern in video games, Halloween costumes, and reenactment wearables. Barbie, Liv, and American Girl dolls as well as action figures like GI Joe, Action Man, and Ben 10 all fall under the definition of fantasy play. Pretend and fantasy play experiences are great opportunities for developing imagination, creativity, and aspiring to be something beyond one’s current situation.
Memory, word, strategic, and knowledge-based games are all examples of a cognitive play pattern. Puzzles, mazes, mix and match games, crossword puzzles, or games like Mad Libs, Apples to Apples, or Scrabble are perfect examples of cognitive play. This play pattern challenges and develops the mental skills of young and old alike.
Collecting and displaying a selection or group of toys is another strong play pattern, especially for older children and adults. Collecting cards, stamps, or coins may appeal to older children while younger children may take an interest in collecting and displaying characters like Littlest Pet Shop, TY Beanie Babies, dolls like Madame Alexander, or Hot Wheels cars. Building and displaying a collection provides one with a sense of accomplishment and can be shared with friends and family.
The play value found in toys and games can be as important to an individual’s emotional, social, and creative well being as food is to one's nutritional needs. If consumers are to make intelligent choices on play, perhaps the toy industry could do a better job of providing information on products that highlight the specific types, values, and benefits of play.