A pediatrician at Toy Fair, Part I

June 1, 2007

A pediatrician's look at the world's largest toy convention.

Key Points

Toy Fair introduces new toys and product lines for the 2007 Christmas shopping season. As probably the only pediatrician among the 20,000 visitors, I felt like a stranger in a strange land, but I went with an open, curious mind. You can imagine my excitement at being able to play with so many toys.

Despite frigid temperatures, high winds, and an ice storm that crippled air transportation around the city, the show was extremely well attended. During the four-day event I visited hundreds of booths, spoke to toy company representatives and publicists, and learned quite a bit about an industry that pediatricians should get to know better.

Toy Fair was very noisy and busy, with all exhibitors trying to outdo one another in drawing curious visitors toward their exhibit booths. There were glitzy signs, flashing lights, and organized demonstrations everywhere. Wearing a press pass gave me ready access to toy company marketing directors who were uniformly eager to show off their new product lines. From these conversations, I took a pulse of the toy industry.

Introducing a new toy to market is not simple. It takes about 18 months from the concept phase until appearing on store shelves. Toy companies can generate their own new product concepts, work with toy inventors, or license ideas/characters from companies like Disney. Market research tries to predict what will be the popular toys in a year or two. The toy goes through many prototypes during the design phase, and stringent safety tests.

While new toys are in development, they are promoted in advance so orders can be placed and demand anticipated. In the United States, over 60% of toy sales to consumers are accounted for via the major chain stores (Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Target, KB Toys, Toys "R" Us, etc.), with the remaining 40% sold to independent toy stores.

The role of the pediatrician in toy selection

It has never been demonstrated that any toy can stimulate an infant to achieve developmental milestones. Yet our society pressures parents to buy such toys to build a better baby. In my experience, few parents ask their pediatrician to recommend toys for young children. Parents (myself included) purchase toys based on ads, articles in parenting magazines, and what appeals to children. If parents do talk with their pediatrician about toys, it's only about toy safety.

In our role as child advocates, we naturally want the child's toys to pose no choking hazards or other risk of injury. Yet with so many toys available, pediatricians should take a more active role in discussing toys with parents. During well-child visits, seize the opportunity to help parents choose age-appropriate toys that encourage play, stimulate the imagination, and foster parent-child interaction. At the same time, dispel the myth that the right toy will turn everyone into a baby genius.

The toy industry in perspective