“This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.”
― Alan Watts
I am spending a good part of this week in a conference room in a Las Vegas hotel, with hundreds of toys and a small team of fellow storekeepers, with a mission to achieve before we are released: to select the finalists for the ASTRA Best Toys for Kids ballot in 2020. Cartons, piles and tote bags full of nominees of toys and games in 12 different categories have been collected from toy retailers, manufacturers, and sales reps over the last two months, and now we are charged with winnowing this massive list (which actually contains almost 1,000 toys and games, but product size, shipping costs and domestic availability mean that some items are still reviewed online, and some were previewed at Toy Fair but not shipped west for our meeting) down to the top choices. The ASTRA retail membership will then cast their votes from these selections, and winners will be revealed at the annual ASTRA Marketplace and Academy in June.
The BEST TOYS FOR KIDS program was launched by ASTRA (the American Specialty Toy Retail Association) in 2007. As the only program of its kind, the Best Toys for Kids Award is intended to heighten consumer awareness of the value of creative, open-ended play and the role that independent, locally owned toy stores play in providing children quality playthings that promote happy, healthy, and productive childhoods. This program differs from many toy industry awards, as it is selected by the retailers themselves, places huge emphasis on play value and non-gender- specific branding. The award charges our committee to identify those toys and games which are unique, meaningful, ground-breaking, and thought-provoking in the specialty toy marketplace. Nominees must be new to the industry (launched in the fall of 2019 and beyond) and so this award list becomes the “hot list” for retail ordering in the summer and fall of 2020.
The process this year is a bit trickier, for several reasons. First, the obvious delays caused by factory closures due to coronavirus mean that some product samples are simply not available for retailer review. Second, attendance at both Toy Fair, gift shows, and Toy Fest West (held earlier this week in Las Vegas) were all impacted by travel restrictions and virus concerns, so fewer retailers are out scouting new items. We are rather concerned with eventual delays in production and shipping, and hope that new products that manufacturers previewed will actually arrive in time for their peak seasons, and that consumers will be actively shopping in our stores for new toys. It’s all a bit scary and uncertain, but as we gathered this week to review the stacks of nominees, we found that there’s a lot of great things to play with this year, and lots to be excited about showing to our customers.
How do we go about selecting the final list? This year was my first opportunity to serve on the selection committee, and while I have always contributed a few nominations to the process after Toy Fair, I had never really understood how that massive spreadsheet of options turned into the final ballot for retailers to complete. The answer, of course, is just a lot of play (with very detailed note-taking). Each item is opened, read, felt, operated, smelt, smashed, rolled, and tossed – in short, each toy is treated like a gift opened by a child, and experienced through play. If this sounds like a lot of fun – well, it is, but it’s also a lot of work. Comparing design, age appropriateness, clarity of directions and quality of construction, durability, encouragement of skill development and creativity, packaging appeal, novelty or innovation, and that intangible yet critical “fun factor” requires a combination of very adult focus with a child’s level of energy and curiosity (and in my case, more than a few cups of coffee.)
As I write this post, we have several more days of deliberation ahead, and I promise to share some specific product highlights and photographs in my next post. Until then, I invite you to find a few moments in your day to play, either with a child or as a child, and ideally do both.
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.” – George Bernard Shaw