Toys 'R' Us May Be a Thing of the Past, but the Toy Industry and Play Will Always Be Relevant, Especially for the Creative Minds of Tomorrow
After 70 years of being known as the ultimate go to toy store for decades, Toys 'R' Us has finally closed its doors permanently in the United States. Years of fierce competition from Wal*Mart, Target and (not surprisingly), Amazon, leading up to a Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September of 2017 and then Chapter 7 bankruptcy in March early this year, the company hit too many hard times to stay afloat. As of June 29th, all Toys 'R' Us locations are completely vacant, leaving a behind a few traces of what once was.
Aside from the failed business plans that lead to the chain's demise, some people often fault smartphones, iPads and other such gadgets for the downfall. When asking your friends what was the main reason Toys 'R' Us liquidated, the common assumption is that kids don't play with toys anymore. All they want for Christmas and for their birthdays these days are just technological devices. While there is some truth to that assumption, it's not entirely true! Childhood is indeed, very different in the 2010's than it was in decades prior and with the rise of smartphones dominating the market, it's no surprise today's kids are so tech savvy. However, this was not precisely the reason Toy 'R' Us went the route it did. In his video, Welcome to Rotting Acres Mall!| Episode 12: Talking about Toys R Us & Catastrophe! (mild profanity warning), Retail Archaeology briefly discusses what really sank Toys 'R' Us, debunking the 'kids don't play with toys' assumption. Between 24:21 to 26:09, he highlights that the company "was bought with a leverage buyout" where "somebody takes out a huge loan to buy Toys 'R' Us and then uses Toys 'R' Us, the company, as the collateral for the loan". Because of the $5 billion debt, Toys 'R' Us could't afford to payback and recover. Retail Archaeology also pin points that had Toys 'R' Us been in better shape when the minor drop in sales happened, "they would have survived that dip". For more information about Toys 'R' Us' financial issues, I highly recommend checking out Jake Williams' (Bright Sun Films), Abandoned - Toys R Us.
With the 'kids don't play with toys anymore' myth debunked by Toys 'R' Us' financial history, it's safe to say that there is still a market for toys, especially with the K B Toys revival taking place this Christmas and holiday season and that Party City is planning to open their own toy store, both of which will be pop up stores. Even so, small and/or independent toy stores are still thriving. But even if it's true that there is a growing trend in smartphone and iPad use among children, that also doesn't mean play is not important anymore. If anything, play has always been and always will be a major part of children's growth.
On Fisher-Price's official website, Child Development and Play Specialist, Kathleen Alfano, Ph.D. lists 10 tips about the importance of play. Examples of such consists of how children learn about themselves and the world around them, develop social skills, and practice different roles as they play. In terms of how play impacts creativity, Alfano also pinpoints that "[p]lay, simulates and enhances creativity and imagination" as well as that it encourages children's curiosity and attention to flourish. It also "is the integration of language, social, cognitive, imaginative and physical skills". But above all, play "fosters self-esteem, self-direction and values". When children play, they are able to create a story and scenario with a tangible object. As they interact with the toy, they input a personality and characteristic on it. Children act out a scenario based on everyday life and what is interesting to them. In the process, they are able to problem solve because they are encouraged to think critically. This gives them the desire to learn more outside of their comfort level. It's that type of attitude that inspires artists as artists are always expanding their knowledge and creative skills. In fact, children who play become more immersed in the arts. Even so, just as artists have a set of values and self-awareness that they showcase through their works, when children play, they learn that the most important thing to live by are a good strong set of values. It is important for them to develop self-confidence and with that mindset, they start to understand what defines good solid principles.
European scientist, Jean Piaget (1896-1980) once said how play is significant to a child's growth as highlighted by University of Amsterdam graduate, Alexander Burgemeester in his essay, Jean Piaget's Theory of Play. The selected quote by Piaget goes as follows:
"Our real problem is ̶ what is the goal of education? Are we forming children that are only capable of learning what is already known? Or should we try developing creative and innovative minds, capable of discovery from the preschool age on, throughout life."
The four developmental stages of intellectual development named by Piaget were sensory-motor, pre-operational, concrete operations, and formal operations. Throughout the child's early years before adolescence, which is the formal operations stage, the first three are the building blocks, leading up to the stage when the child is a teen, capable of critical thinking. The sensory-motor stage, which is during the infant to toddler years, is when a child is aware of his/her senses. During the years prior and going into the early elementary years (pre-operations), children begin to grasp the concept of symbols. They learn that symbols, words, objects, etc. have a meaning behind them. Due to the limits of their knowledge and imaginations, they start to ask more questions based less in the 'what' and more in the 'why'. In the concrete operations stage, which lasts throughout much of the remainder of elementary school, children build on what they had learned in the previous years, learn how to take items and work with them in a logical manner. Upon reevaluating Piaget's theory, in order for children to develop and exercise their knowledge and imaginations, play needs to be encouraged. As Burgemeester concludes his essay, he indicates that "because assimilation and accommodation take time, the period a child remains in each stage is controlled by their own cognitive development, not that of a teacher or parent". That means that as children age, parents and teachers can benefit from Piaget's theories as an important guideline. Children need to receive the 'most appropriate 'play'...at each stage or sub-stage to help them progress to the next', otherwise they will fall behind in their growth.
Finally, another point that Alfano emphasized on Fisher Price is one that relates to a child's use of a physical object and how it helps their coordination skills. What happens as children play, their "perceptual-motor skills (fine and gross, such as eye-hand coordination and balance)" advances and so does their "strength and coordination". When children work with tangible objects, they are learning how to properly interact with them and strengthen the grip of their hands and their abilities to observe how things function. Thus they learn how to effectively work with items they pick up.
While the mega toy chain may be gone, the toy industry and the importance of play will always be relevant. With modern business models making an attempt to adapt to today's rapidly evolving market in this retail apocalypse era, there's still a demand for the toy industry. Independent local toy stores are still thriving in today's world and major retailers and business people continue to find new ways to reinvent the business model. In addition, even if kids today are immersed in today's technologies, an iPad or smartphone app is not necessarily a good substitute over something tangible. Psychology demonstrates this point time and time again that children do benefit a great deal from play. As children play a made-up game together that involves team work or a child is building a tower with legos, they are letting their capabilities to think critically flourish and restructure and apply their knowledge to everyday life. When they play, they are developing their social skills, learning about the world around them, extending their curiosity and nurturing their imagination. From playing, they benefit from it physically, grow in self-esteem and develop a sense of values. The theories conducted by Jean Piaget also demonstrate how such interactions with tangible objects are advantageous in the long run and therefore, significant to children's growth and well-being. As today's technologies continue to advance, drawing more attention from its users with the abundance of apps, children shouldn't be limited to their screens only. They should be offered more options to expand their horizons and explore possibilities they might not have thought of before. By encouraging play and reinventing the toy industry to suit those values and knowledge, we are encouraging the creative minds of tomorrow's thinkers to flourish and reach full potential. Although the doors have closed for the iconic retailer, one could peer into an empty Toys 'R' Us building and see either of two things: An empty shell that signifies demise of childhood as we know it or a new door will open with endless options and new opportunities to innovate.
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