Playing for Keeps


Does this sound familiar?

The holidays are over and your children are bored with their latest toys--all of which are based on the latest TV shows and movies.

Mesmerized by television commercials, the kids had yearned for these plastic-and-electronic gizmos. But here they are: scraps on the toy heap.

What do the youngsters reach for instead? Maybe their old Brio wooden trains or that Tinkertoy set that was passed down from older siblings. Legos, Barbie dolls, the Erector set, Lincoln Logs. Could it be the old Slinky fascinates?

If this has happened to you, rest assured you are not alone. Your children have demonstrated what child-development experts have long known: Newer isn’t necessarily better when it comes to toys.

As consumers once again flood toy stores in search of holiday gifts for their youngest relatives and friends, the smartest may be the ones who search for the familiar: the classic toys they played with as kids.


“Sometimes we get so caught up in the technology of today, we forget about the simple joys of playing with balloons or kites,” says Dr. Stevanne Auerbach, author and toy-industry consultant. “Kids get brainwashed by commercials. You need to get children back in touch with the old-fashioned.”

Somebody must be listening to that advice because toy retailers and manufacturers have begun to see a much greater interest in the classics this year.

“Parents are disappointed with the limited toys that are hyped on TV, and the child plays with once or twice,” says Maryland toy-store owner Jeff Franklin. “Classics have always been a substantial part of our business, but that part of our market is growing too.” Old reliables like Brio trains and Playmobile play sets are enjoying a record year in sales at his stores.

Sally Lesser, owner of a toy store in Cambridge, Mass., says parents have discovered that classic toys are a better value. Time-tested, the toys are certain to capture a child’s imagination for years, she says.

“Lights and sounds are helpful and fun--I can go for them--but the real value in play can usually be found in classic toys,” says Lesser, who also serves as president of the American Specialty Toy Retailing Assn.

Whether it is baby-boomer nostalgia or a backlash against the mass-market licensed products that still dominate toy sales, consumers are snapping up a variety of classic toys--some of which would be familiar to their great-grandparents.

Carol Wirth, director of the Timonium (Md.) United Methodist Church nursery school, says it is easy to predict what her 180 preschoolers will want to play with every day: building blocks, kitchen toys, trucks, trains and puzzles--all toys that have been around for decades.

“My son is 10 and he still plays with Legos,” she says. “Stick with the classics. These things are always popular.”

At Chicago-based Radio Flyer Inc., two out of three of this season’s top-selling wagons are old designs--the classic Model 18 steel wagon and the Town and Country with the added wooden sides.

“Hot things come and go, but a Radio Flyer is something people can depend on,” says Robert Basin, Radio Flyer president and grandson of the 81-year-old company’s founder.

In the northwest Pennsylvania town of Kane, Dick Bly restarted 10 years ago a classic toy company that went out of business in the mid-1960s. The company, named Holgate Toy, has seen steady growth each year since.

Doesn’t sound familiar? Maybe you’ve heard of their maple wood creations: the Rocking Color Cone (a 1938 creation), the Bingo Bed (the peg bench created in 1934) or Jumbo Lacing Beads (a classic since 1948).

“Children are no different today than 60 years ago,” Bly says. “They don’t need the whistles and bells. They have imagination.”

Classic toy makers say one characteristic that often distinguishes their products is simplicity of design. Another is that the toy was a bestseller--at least when first released--and then held on for 25 years or longer.

Exhibit A: Etch-A-Sketch, the mechanical drawing toy that was all the rage when it was first produced in 1960. Today, its sales are good enough to be described as “warm,” but probably not “hot.”

“Kids don’t necessarily ask for us, but moms and grandmoms do,” says Elena West, marketing director at the toy’s maker, Ohio Art Co. in Bryan, Ohio. “We have one of the simplest and most enjoyable toys. That’s what makes it viable today.”

Like some other classics, Etch-A-Sketch got a sales boost from the 1996 movie “Toy Story,” in which it and a variety of other toys were the film’s computer-animated stars. But for most, that was a temporary uptick.

More exciting for fans of classic toys is the public’s rediscovery of the yo-yo. Duncan Yo-Yo went bankrupt in 1965. But the product has inexplicably made a big comeback in the 1990s--thanks to Flambeau Products, which bought Duncan’s brand name and has the company’s original plastic molds.

“I’m so glad they caught on again. I’ve been talking about them for 10 years,” says Auerbach, author of “Dr. Toy’s Smart Play: How to Raise a Child With High Play Quotient.” “It’s one of my absolute favorites.”

Auerbach, who writes a syndicated newspaper column about toys from her San Francisco home, says what turns a popular toy into a true classic is its ability to challenge a child developmentally.

A youngster might need his parents’ help to play with Lincoln Logs at first. Later, he’ll be able to build a cabin on his own. Perhaps months after that, he’ll be able to use the interlocking logs to create bridges or other structures, Auerbach says.

Compare that to an action figure or video game tied in with a Saturday-morning TV show. Such toys call on children to play with them in a set way--imitating what they’ve seen on the tube--and that can get boring fast.

“You should look for durability and longevity in a toy,” Auerbach says. “The toys that are hyped on TV usually don’t have it.”

Dr. Richard Chase, an adjunct professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, says the fact that classic toys address a child’s developmental needs should put them high on holiday gift lists.

Even something seemingly as simple as a Slinky can instruct “restless young minds on how the world works through mechanical action,” he says.

“Classics become classics because they are toys with complex and fulfilling play patterns,” says Chase, who is also president of a New York consulting and toy-research firm, Child Growth and Development Corp.

“There’s some unique quality in these products that have captured a child’s imagination, their skill or their ability to feel good about themselves.”