Trends in Traditional Toys and Digital Playthings

with Dr. Michael Cohen

ToyInfo’s trend team recently sat down with Dr. Michael Cohen, a developmental psychologist, market researcher and expert in the field of children and play, to talk about the value of traditional toys and digital playthings, and how they’re evolving.

The following is an abridged interview transcript, edited for clarity and length.

ToyInfo: Before we delve into our conversation about the evolution of traditional toys and digital playthings, it would be helpful to define what we’re talking about. “Traditional toys” and “digital playthings” — what does that mean to you?

Michael Cohen: A toy, as kind of a standard Webster dictionary definition, is an object that’s traditionally a miniature version of something in the adult world that children use to play with. So you have a doll house or a toy car that’s used for imaginary play. And it is free from consequences of the world. …

(As for digital playthings,) there’s a big difference in my mind, which I think is going to blur soon, between introducing digital components into toys, and having digital technology that wasn’t designed as toys become digital playthings, or a place where you play. So this iPad is not designed as a toy, it’s designed as a touch screen device, which we can do a million things with. You can keep your calendar with it, you can make a Skype call with it, and you can also play games on it. The question is: when does this itself become a toy? And I think we’re kind of on the verge of seeing that transition. … It’s how something is used that identifies it or determines whether it is a toy. It’s a question of function rather than structure. If it’s a child-designed app and you’re doing puzzles or games with it, it’s absolutely a toy in my mind.

ToyInfo: Can you talk a little bit about the educational value of play?

MC: Play is a way that young children learn about the world through trial and error and get to try different roles. Play is the work of the child. … There is a term called constructivist learning, and that means that a child learns by constructing. It’s not instructional learning. We know now how children learn, and it’s not often by teaching them, it’s by giving them the opportunity to construct. … You learn by doing, by playing.

Through play we’re learning about the world and ourselves and our interpersonal relationships all the time. But it's not engaged in for learning. You engage in play because it's entertaining and pleasurable. Learning happens, but that’s not why you play.

Hear Dr. Cohen talk about children’s learning.  Audio

ToyInfo: So how is the role of digital playthings in unstructured, constructivist play evolving?

MC: What I’ve seen up to now is that the digital things being made were more prescribed, but I’ve seen some things recently that really open it up so that the digital world becomes as free as what we call ‘traditional toys’ have been. You can create avatars. You’re free to create a world. …

With every new technology there’s a novelty phase. The fact that it’s on touch screen becomes the big thing. But then the technology becomes so integrated into our lives that it becomes functional. … The focus will be back on the play rather than the technology. I play chess on my cell phone. At the beginning it was like, ‘Oh my god, I can play chess on my cell phone.’ Now, it’s back to being about chess. It’s just a way I can access it. … It’s amazing how quickly we integrate technology into our lives. We can go to the store now on Mulberry Street that’s a 3D printing store, which seems like science fiction, but kids will be able to design and make their own toys. I think 3D printing is going to be gigantic for the toy world. That kids can design and print their own toys is just extraordinary. That’s very positive and very powerful. … I think it’s just the most wonderful move in terms of having the digital world engender creative free play.

ToyInfo: One of this year’s strongest trends, which seems to be continuing for 2014, is the reemergence of classic, retro, “unplugged” toys. At the same time, we’re seeing continued advancements and interest in tech-based toys. Why do you think such divergent trends are both on the rise and what does that say about what kids and parents want out of play?

MC: You can organize the world in that way between very sophisticated digital toys and traditional unplugged toys, but I think that’s not necessarily how parents are organizing it. … I think part of the reason we’re seeing a resurgence of unplugged toys is that they have immense play value. And those are the ones that are evergreens. There are a lot of toys from years ago that we don’t see reemerge because the play value wasn’t necessarily there. We’ll see an explosion of digital toys but the ones that are going to make it are the ones that offer extraordinary play value, and that will be used over and over. … Parents want their kids to have a range of experiences, so it’s not surprising to me that you’d see (both traditional toys and digital playthings on the rise).

ToyInfo: Can you talk more about the importance of having a range of play experiences?

MC: Here’s what I would say to parents. Your child is a complex and wonderful, developing person. And they have lots of needs. She needs to have free play, she needs to be taught things, she needs to be free to learn on her own through trial and error, and no one type of play is going to meet all those needs. Your child needs a variety of types of experiences. In history, there’s never been a time with more tools and toys for you to engender these various types of experiences. Playing online or digital games is great, but not all day long. It’s not a question whether digital games are good or bad for your child, it’s about how much and with whom and what game it is. … It’s part of your role as a parent is to know your child and ensure that they’re having a variety of experiences.

Hear Dr. Cohen talk about the need for well-rounded play experiences.  Audio

Dr. Michael Cohen is a developmental psychologist and the president of the Michael Cohen Group LLC. He has gained recognition throughout the world for being a provider of superior qualitative and quantitative research studies, as well as his roles as a developmental psychologist and clinician.