The world may be in the grips of an economic crisis, but the market for toys was looking pretty recession-proof last week at the International Toy Fair. Held annually at a huge convention center in New York City, the fair is by far the biggest toy industry show in the world, with more than 1,200 exhibitors showcasing more than 100,000 products.
One doesn't have to be a child to be dazzled by the sheer number and diversity of playthings that were on offer. The nearly 100,000 square meters of exhibition space at the Javits Convention Center were bursting with products from 90 countries - including, of course, China, where most of America's toys are manufactured.
Carter Keithley, president of the Toy Industry Association, said much of lasts year's alarm about the safety of Chinese-made toys had subsided, and that while concerns have grown about the impact of the global financial crisis on business generally, the toy business has not been hurt as badly as many had feared.
"We have long said that the toy industry is 'recession resistant,'" he explained. "People will sacrifice buying other things for their family before they will sacrifice buying toys for their children, and that certainly has turned out to be true."
Many manufacturers were touting more affordable toys this year, including some that actually seem attuned to the crisis in the economy, such as Payday, an educational game by Winning Moves that actually teaches children about how the financial system works. One of Parker Brothers' classic Monopoly games now has electronic banking.
"Because kids see adults using that swipe [ATM] card every time [and want to do it themselves]," said toy trends specialist Reyne Rice.
Transfixed by electronics
As computer chips have become cheaper, electronic toys have become more affordable and more interesting. Mattel's Mindflex headset, for example, lets players use their brain's alpha waves to levitate a ball. HP's 3-D boombox projects tiny hologram-like dancers onto a miniature recessed stage.
One new toy that combines sophisticated digital technology with the old-fashioned crafts is Printies by Technosource. Ginny McCormack, the company's interactive specialist, said the product lets kids design their own stuffed toys online and turn them into their own 3-D plush toys at home.
Old favorites still captivate
While girls tend to treat their Printies delicately, as art projects, they have been snuggling up to Madeline for years. She is an independently minded, red-haired French girl who was first featured in Ludwig Bemelman's children's stories 70 years ago.
"For all girls, she is a lifelong childhood memory," said vendor Jennifer Eckhardt, as she arranged Madeline the rag doll's teacups for a "guest" in the "café" booth her firm set up next door. "I remember the first time my mother started reading that book to me. It's kind of a dream fantasy of every little girl to be able to wander around Paris just as Madeline did."
Scientific toys that are fun - and educational
Science and discovery toys continue to be a major trend in 2009. Stephanie McQuillan of Thames and Kosmos demonstrated her company's Power House kit. It's a miniature home that teaches kids 10 years old and older about renewable energy and environmentally sustainable living.
"You can build a wind turbine. You can create electricity using a lemon," said McQuillan. "The manual is set up in a way where two kids are stranded on an island, and they have to figure out what they are going to do in order to survive. They are creating a greenhouse. They are baking a baked potato using power from the sun. It's cool!"
Just meters away, Elizabeth Romney at the Amazing Toys booth was playing with Insta-Snow, a powdery science toy that's both cool in the sense of "fun" and cool in the sense of "cold."
"It's a super-absorbent polymer that instantly absorbs 100 times its weight in water," said Romney. "We call it the thirstiest stuff on earth, because it absorbs so much water that it's great for making snow, fake snow."
Romney then asked a reluctant reporter to hold out his hand and allow her to pour some of the non-toxic powder into his palm. Sure enough, when water is added, the Insta-Snow expands like a time-lapse photograph of accumulating white snow.
"It's actually warm snow in your hand, because there's a chemical reaction going on," explained Romney, "but after a minute, it will turn very cold because the water is evaporating out."
For budding artists
Those who wished to balance all the science toys with a little art could easily do so at the Schoenhut Toy Piano company booth, where Len Trinca, the company president, was somewhat artlessly doing his best to bang out "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star."
Thankfully, Trinca was soon replaced by New York musician Margaret Leng Tan playing Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata." Tan loves the Schoenhut toy pianos and has been performing on them for years.
This is New York after all, where even the play can get pretty serious.