Whether you’re 5 or 55, at this time of year everyone has toys on the brain. It was impossible to turn on the TV and not be bombarded with an ad for one of the season’s must-have toys. So when we had 35 kids in our office last month between the ages of 5 and 10, I couldn’t resist talking to them about what they wanted for Christmas. What surprised me most was how similar these Gen We-er’s toy dreams were to the toy dreams that many of us had 20-30 years ago. I decided to do a little digging into the top toys of the late ’80s and ’90s. It seems that even as kids have evolved and are becoming more diverse, tech intuitive, and globally conscious, the toys that they most want have stayed largely the same.
Below are five themes that were prevalent in our Millennial and Xer toy boxes that are still seen among any 2012 hot toy list.
The Furby made the top toy lists this year for Target, Walmart, and K-Mart (no easy feat); it was also at the top of Bianca’s list (a nine year old who I met last month.) She explained why this toy was so cool to her: “The Furby has a real mind. It’ll do something and reacts to you.” So I looked up the Furby and Bianca was right, it’s pretty awesome. The Furby’s personality is shaped by how you play with it, so as you feed it, shake it, or play music for it, the toy changes so that no kid’s Furby is the same. Yet, the Furby, for as cool as it is, is really just an evolution of the Verbot. The Verbot was one of the first of the genre of robotic friends for kids made by Tomy, and it was popular in the late ’80s. The Verbot was a remote control, voice-activated robot that our generation could order to do their bidding.
The Nintendo 3 DS was hot with both the boys and girls I spoke to. Andrea, age 8, told me she wanted one because “I can play with it, take videos, and take pictures.” Didier, age 8, said, “I already have a 3DS but I need the 3DS XL because it is even larger.” Game systems have definitely advanced since we were kids, but the desire for having the latest and greatest one is as strong with Gen We as it was for us when it came to wanting the Sega Genesis or Nintendo Game Boy.
Toys that Teach
This toy theme may be more driven by parents than kids, but it is so strong that no hot toy list would be complete without it. This year’s hot learning toy was the Leap Frog Leap Pad 2. It’s an upgrade to the #1 learning tablet of previous years and adds-on front and back cameras, a video recorder, 4GB of memory, and ability to use 325+game cartridges and numerous downloadable apps. Compare this to the Dial a Teacher of the mid-’80s, where kids could dial up questions on spelling, math, and music; it is learning on steroids. But for as cool as it may seem, it is still fundamentally a toy that teaches. And though those continue to get tech upgrades, this core theme was also prevalent in my own Gen X toy box.
‘Kid Friendly’ Versions of Adult Gadgets
When I was a kid, I desperately wanted an Easy Bake Oven, but I never got one (thanks, Mom). I had fantasies about one, nonetheless, and so does Emilia, age 8. “I like to bake, and with an Easy Bake Oven, I do it myself. I don’t need to know what temperature to cook at.” I am sure that Emilia, like me, has dreams of a non-stop, warm brownie supply in her room that’s outside her mom’s control. I wish her better luck than I had. Two things really surprised me about Emilia’s wish list: 1. The obvious: how relevant the Easy Bake Oven is despite being on the market for almost 50 years; and 2. The slightly less obvious -- kids still desperately want to play with adult gadgets. Which is why no matter how much our society evolves, there will always be some version of My First this or that. For us, it was my first CD player and for our own kids, it’s more likely to be my first camera , video recorder or tablet.
New Twists on Classic Play
Some might say that we parents are forcing the toys we loved from our youth, like Barbie and Legos, on our own kids, but I don’t think that is the case. I think both brands are still relevant to kids today because they enable imagination, story building and role play, and kids will always gravitate to those toys that give them that classic play outlet. Take it from Jake, age 6, who wanted the Lego Batmobile and Two Face Chase because “it’s buildable and fun.” Legos have been around for over 63 years and have evolved to become more targeted to kids’ interests and gender preferences. Where in our generation the hot Lego might have been the Lego Airport, it is now the Lego Monster Fighters Vampire Hearse or the Lego Friends Heartlake Pet Salon.
So this holiday season, whether it was a Lalaloopsy Harmony B Sharp, an Air Hogs Hover Assault vehicle or a FurReal Friends Baby Butterscotch under your tree, I encourage you to look at the toys the kids in your life receive a little differently. Instead of marveling at how much toy technology has improved and how many things include microchips that once didn’t, take a step back. Really look at today’s toys and consider how they parallel to the toys of your own youth. These toys can serve as a lesson to marketers, that connecting with Gen We doesn’t always require a complete reinvention. There are universal truths and desires that are simply tied to being a kid and sometimes success can be driven by simply acknowledging and serving those needs. Trust me, that Pillow Pet Dream Lite is just a souped-up version of the Glo Worm. Just don’t tell your kids that.