I was saddened to learn that Toys R Us would be closing 180 stores in the United States, including one I frequently visit. Like Borders and Circuit City, retail stores dedicated to one category are finding it harder and harder to compete with Walmart and Amazon.
It’s not just how toys are sold that’s causing trouble for the retailer; toys themselves aren’t what they used to be. One of my other favorite toy stores buys, sells, and trades in toys from the past; everything from Lego to Transformers to Cabbage Patch Kids. People my age have a great deal of nostalgia where our childhood toys are concerned. Somehow I can’t imagine kids of today being nostalgic for their toys when they grow up.
When I was young, there were very few “screens” in my house. There was only one family TV and coming from a large family, there was a lot of competition for it. While I did spend time watching Saturday morning cartoons and Disney Afternoon, most of my time was spent in my room playing with a myriad of toys. I didn’t have a lot of toys but I played the heck out of the ones I did have. My sister and I would sit for hours with our Cabbage Patch dolls and our Teddy Ruxpin, listening to stories and creating our own.
As I’ve watched my nieces and nephews grow up, I’ve seen how different the toy world has become. While Lego, Transformers, action figures and dolls are still around, they don’t get played with for the hours on end of my childhood. Once the novelty of a new toy has worn off, they’re tossed in a bin and eventually taken to Good Will. That novelty period seems to be growing shorter and shorter with the increase in screen time.
Toys R Us doesn’t just have to compete with the likes of Walmart and Amazon, they have to compete with the changing world of how kids spend their free time. Instead of building with actual blocks, its applications on a tablet monopolizing free time. Computer and video games have taken over the time previously spent on building with Lego and imaginative play with action figures. If I were to give my nephew a choice between a play house and a new game for his Nintendo, Mario wins every time. To be fair, he’ll play the heck out of his Mario game so in that regard it would be money well spent.
Toy manufacturers are also feeling the squeeze. When kids want screens and apps instead of blocks and dolls, why continue to push physical products? I realize things like film and video rental stores will never return as our society moves into the future. But I believe the toy industry is something worth hanging onto. Physical interactive and imaginative play as a child is fundamental to development. Among other things it teaches social and problem solving skills in a way a screen can’t.
I don’t see digital entertainment going away anytime soon and that’s fine. As an adult I can use screens and devices as they were intended, a tool. I can set the phone or tablet down and go outside for a walk. I can put aside technology and spend a weekend camping with friends and family. I can do this because I didn’t grow up with a screen in my hand so I know how to put it away.
The time in our lives we spend as children is precious and the ability to play and enjoy physical toys shouldn’t be taken for granted. Kids today should learn from experiences in the real physical world and interact with it. When they eventually grow up, as we all do, they can retreat into the digital world knowing it’s not the only thing out there.
“I don’t want to grow up cuz if I did, I couldn’t be a Toys R Us kid!”