The all-new toy story
Traditional toys need to change to attract a generation of children exposed early on to the charms of the virtual world. As old favourite Barbie turned 60 last month, a look at the current hitsUpdated: Apr 21, 2019 17:15 IST
Kuheli Sen, a 45-year-old mother of two, loved dolls as a child. “My prized possession was a dolls house,” she recalls. “I wanted a Barbie, but never got one. Later , when I had access to the doll as a grown-up, I realised I hadn’t missed much,” she says.
For decades, Barbie – who turned 60 last month – has drawn mixed reactions from children and adults. While the doll – with its perfect limbs, tiny waist and enviable wardrobe – has been a favourite with kids, adults have worried about the kind of body goals it was giving little girls. Barbie came to India in the late ’80s- early ’90s, and the reason for her popularity, feels John Baby, CEO Funskool, was that “it was the only branded fashion doll available then.” Today children have a wider range to choose from – Moxie Girlz, a range of fashion dolls by the US-based MGA Entertainment and the Baby Alive dolls who eat, pee, poop, puke and talk (to name just two dolls). “But no other doll has equalled the success of Barbie,” says Satish Sundra, owner of the Ram Chander and Sons toy shop in Delhi.
Lately though, Barbie – and all toys for that matter – have had to contend with not just competition from each other, but also from the digital space. A 2014 report published in the Daily Mail, UK, quoted a national study to state that the ‘ipad had replaced the toy chest’, with children spending more time with a touchscreen device than traditional toys. The scene is no different in India. In malls, at homes, in restaurants, you are more likely to see children hooked to their parents’ mobiles, than holding on to a favourite doll or car.
No Child’s Play
It was business as usual on a recent Sunday evening at the wholesale market for cycles and toys in Delhi’s Jhandewalan. Like most shopping places during the weekend, the market was crowded. But parents seemed more interested in checking out the merchandise than the children.
This is something many parents of young children are used to. “There are bucketful of toys lying about in our house, but while my elder daughter – aged nine – has completely outgrown them, the younger one, who is four, uses her dolls and soft toys only as objects to talk to or form a part of some imaginary scene that she is acting out – like going to school,” says 37-year-old Gurugram-based techie Niranjan Singh Manohar. “They’d both much rather watch TV or browse the internet on a smartphone,” he adds. Both kids were excited when Manohar brought home an Alexa.
Children are growing up faster and their play days are shrinking, says Sanjay Pawa, owner of the Delhi toy shop Kiddi Land. “They really only play with toys till the age of nine or 10. After that, as they grow older, they are more into gadgets, social media and hanging out at coffee shops with friends,” he says. When they do engage with toys, the hold on their attention and emotions is fleeting. Sen doesn’t see the same kind of glee in her sons (aged 14 and six) for a new toy that she felt when she got her dolls house. “They ask for something and then they get over it. They move on,” says Sen of her two sons – aged 14 and six. The younger one had wanted a kitchen set. “I got it for him,” says the mother who doesn’t believe in gender restricting her children’s preferences. “For a while he played with it. Now he is more into things he like Legos. He plays with the kitchen set when he remembers it,” she says.
In Toy Land
“The economic liberalisation in the 90s, opened up the domestic market to toys from abroad,” says Sundra. More recently the coming of international stores such as Hamleys (the chain with its headquarters in London opened its first store in India in 2010), further expanded the choice for kids here – from Disney princess dolls to the latest Lego kits, JCB models and much more, all of it is now selling in a store near you. Online portals too have made shopping for toys easier.
“Toy merchandise based on movies and TV animation tends to be quite popular though its life cycle is often short,” says Baby. “Beyblades , based on TV animation, have probably been the biggest phenomenon in toys. Internationally, Paw Patrol and Peppa Pig, again based on TV animation, have done well recently, and merchandise based on the new Avengers movie slated to release later this month, is expected to be very popular.”
A cabinet at Ram Chander and Sons is filled with models of various screen and comic book chcaracters – Avengers, Minions, Hulk…. There is also a rich collection of car models. “They sell well,” says Sundra, as he hands two cars to a college students. “But they sell also as collectibles for adults and not just as toys for children.”
The popularity of mementos of screen characters is what made the entertainment company Ultra Group, venture into soft toys. “One of our first creations was the character Jadu from the film Koi Mil Gaya,” says Madhu Kishore, business head (toys and merchandising), Ultra Toys and Gifts Pvt Ltd. Twelve years down the line, they manufacture not just the usual teddy bears and other characters, but also educational plush toys like hand puppets used for teaching in playschools, alphabets and number cubes.
But that the smart phone generation expects more from their toys is readily admitted by most toy sellers. “The zero to three age group has lesser exposure. It’s the five to nine year olds who have started using their parents gadgets and want technology,” says Faisal Khatri, owner of Souvenir, a toy shop in Mumbai.
Bridging The Digital Divide
Last summer,Sen caught her elder son play the viral virtual game PUB G on the sly. She was finally able to reason with her son that the game was not good for him, “but even in toys, when he plays, he prefers some technology – drones or something like that,” she says.
The Indian toy market is estimated to be worth approximately ₹3,500-4,000 crores. “But the share of Indian manufacturers is only 12-13 per cent,” says Manish Kukreja, president, The All India Toy Manufacturers’ Association (TAITMA). For years imported toys – whether from Europe and the US, or the cheaper ones from China – have controlled the market. And that’s primarily because of lack of research, innovation and poor design in India, feel industry watchers.
In the last five years, however, more trained toy designers and those from engineering backgrounds have entered the industry, says Kukreja. Two such companies making popular innovative toys, helmed by a bunch of engineers and designers, are Smartivity and Play Panda, which use a blend of science, technology and creativity in their products.
“STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – toys help children develop skills in these core areas and are particularly popular in the five to nine age group,” says Khatri. “There are DIY kits in this range that allow children to make perfumes for example.”
The National Institute of Design’s course on Toy and Game Design was started in 2002. But the number of students finding employment in the toy manufacturing industry in India has increased in the last five years, says course lead Shekhar Bhattacharjee. Last year the TAITMA president visited the department and the two are collaborating on a few projects, he says. One of the areas the design institute is working on is the interaction of physical toys with digital properties, to give children an augmented experience.
There are already such toys in the market. For example, something that comes with an app that can be downloaded for an added experience – say, a soft toy that becomes a virtual pet . Smartivity too has toys that bridge the physical and digital gap. One of the tech toys available at Ram Chander and Sons is a companion robot. At Jhandewalan, there are toy mobiles and laptops. There’s also a PUB G-inspired toy – where kids get to wear helmets and use toy weapons to recreate the virtual game in the physical world.
International brands like Lego – an old favourite – have successfully bridged the physical and digital divide. “Research published in 2018’s LEGO Play well Report shows kids see no difference between digital/physical play and shift effortlessly between the two. We call it ‘fluid play’. We see increasing digitalisation as a fantastic opportunity to add new, exciting layers and dimensions to the LEGO experience,” says Ryan Greenwood, senior director, corporate communications, Lego. Some examples of Lego toys that use technology are the Lego Hidden Side, which provides an augmented reality experience, Lego Duplo Train, for early coding, Lego Boost robotics and digital building instructions.
All this is in keeping with Indian parents’ preference for educational toys for their children – while too much screen time may prove a worry, STEM and tech-aided toys, seem like the perfect balance to keep children engaged with their toys, while at the same time making digital knowledge available to them.
Not surprisingly, Barbie too has changed. She may not have evolved into a tech toy, but she’s no longer simply a fashionista. While there have been dolls like astronaut Barbie, doctor Barbie and computer engineer Barbie for years, a more recent addition has been the ‘inspiring women series’ modelled on real-life achievers. The doll also comes in different body types, complexions and hair types now. As part of Barbie’s 60th anniversary celebrations, Mattel has chosen 20 more women trailblazers from 18 countries, including tennis player Naomi Osaka, actress model and activist Yara Shahidi and Indian gymnast, Dipa Karmakar, to model the doll on.