Why are children’s toys so boring?

Fidget spinners are just the latest dull, mind-numbing toy—a trend caused by economic forces, with consequences for kids

Fidget spinners. (Revo Toys)

Children’s toys are typically not so exciting; they’re often riffs off the latest big movie or TV show, or gussied-up versions of old reliable games and toys. But the latest toy fad might just leave your head spinning.

Fidget spinners—a tripartite ball bearing studded with three weights that reels around with a flick of the finger, intended as tools offering relief to those with ADHD—have been co-opted as the latest toy trend, found pinched in the hands of kids around the world. In the last few months, they’ve become ubiquitous among the younger set regardless of attention span, turned into toys as videos of fidget spinner tricks and Reddit communities gain fans in the thousands; they’ve been banned in swaths of schools; studies have been issued and rebutted over whether kids without ADHD playing with fidget spinners are actually productive in increasing focus in classrooms. As of the time of publishing, 19 of the 20 most popular toys on Amazon are fidget toys.

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Let it first be said that the retroactive justifications from parents and scientists that the spinner may improve focus for all kids—that somehow giving a child a toy helps them do one thing easier—feels like someone endorsing weeks-old takeout, just because it didn’t give you food poisoning last time. Let it also be said that trusting kids in their claims that toys help them focus is a child-pushed argument that’s so brazen that 12-year-old me—who would lay out my case to my parents that buying Pokemon cards was actually some kind of fiduciary investment with the potential for high returns on the resale market—can’t help but stand and applaud.

But its role as a focus-stealer isn’t the fidget spinner’s true sin. It’s that they are mind-numbingly boring.

Ball-bearing tools have been around since ancient Rome. They’re in your boring computers; they’re in your boring engines; they’re in your boring bikes, and your boring kitchen appliances. If we’re co-opting basic tools as toys, we might as well just rebrand them into Riveting Rivets and Ronnie the Wrench so kids can get to work in literal Fun Factories. Even the argument that they are effective productivity devices actually hinges on the idea that they are boring—the physical equivalent of a white noise machine.

Here is an adult man, in one of the more popular YouTube videos about fidget spinners, forlornly considering what went wrong with his life to get him to this place.

But fidget spinners are really just the latest in a long line of boring toy trends to dominate kids’ minds. Before the spinning whirr came the incessant kerplunk of kids trying to flip plastic bottles with a little water in them so they landed upright; though the bottles were half-full, the spirit of the activity was surely half-empty. Before that, there were hoverboards—massive deceptions, given that they were just non-hovering segways made more dangerous by the deletion of a support pole—and, of course, Hatchimals, lauded by the industry, with awards like the 2017 Innovative Toy Of The Year award at the prestigious New York Toy Fair. But even they were just a massive coup of rebranding, a more irritating Kinder Surprise without any of the pleasures of eating chocolate that basically becomes a Furby. And once it’s born, the Hatchimal just makes needy demands that require disproportionate time and energy. Where’s the fun in that? (On this, parents might feel some common ground.)

MORE: The lessons for investors in the hype and fall of Hatchimals

But there’s more here than the mere fact that I, an ostensible adult, can’t get behind toys for kids these days. There’s a greater potential cost—one that’s much less an indictment of our children, and says more about the lack of innovation and creativity in the industries helping to shape their young minds.

After all, a vast array of studies show that playing—an act that will invariably involve toys—fosters social and cognitive skills, while cultivating creativity and imagination among younger children. And according to a report from Sarah M. Fine, of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, “intellectual playfulness” remains a valuable thing to cultivate for high-school aged students, often the ones playing with water bottles and spinners. “Playful learning in adolescence is certainly not the same thing as playful learning in early childhood … But this does not mean that it is any less important,” she writes. “To the contrary, finding ways to support adolescent learners in learning playfully is more critical because it is less intuitive.” Kids’ toys should meet these needs—to encourage creativity, to focus on play value, to be better.

“When I was designing toys, I would either go for something that was emotionally endearing to a child, or have play value—and ideally, I always wanted to have my toys teach kids something,” says Canadian inventor Wayne Fromm, whose own creations include the popular Beauty and the Beast Magic Mirror and who was a leading marketer of Crazy Bones. “Do these spinners teach kids anything? I’m not sure.”

The fact that current toys aren’t doing that is a reflection of ongoing shifts in the toy industry, he says. Physical toys are appealing to a narrower slice of children as iPads and apps are introduced to younger and younger kids, says Fromm: “They outgrow the concept of having a physical toy earlier.” That trend hasn’t spurred significant changes to how toys are sold, either; a small concentration of toy creators and distributors is actually working to staunch true toy innovation to meet these evolving terms, much in the way that major movie studios are content to produce sequel after sequel, loath to try new things when comfortable profits are at stake. “I’ve created many toys, and I would take them to the executive panel of Toys R’ Us and Walmart, and if they weren’t going to buy that product, that product wasn’t going to get made—there was no point,” says Fromm. “Doesn’t mean the toy wasn’t good, it just means the big-box stores weren’t going to support it, and now everything has to be vetted by all the big players—Hasbro, Mattel, Spinmaster.” And so, with the industry centralizing into a few massive leaders—a 2013 report found that the top five U.S. toy companies hold more than 50 per cent of the market—companies producing physical toys are now leaning more than ever on the success of a strong few. When Mattel reported declining revenues in 2014, its CEO was clear about why: “We just didn’t sell enough Barbie dolls.”

Kelly Ingram reacts while receiving a Hatchimal, a top toy of the season, at Walmart’s Black Friday event in Bentonville, AR on Nov. 24, 2016. (Gunnar Rathbun/AP Images for Walmart)

Indeed, the fact that the market remains loaded with toys that are specific to boys and girls—homemaking toys and princess dolls advertised to girls, cars and industrious construction toys for boys—is tied into the forces behind the innovation drain. Despite studies suggesting that targeted toys helps hem boys and girls into prescribed gender roles by influencing career choices, those big-box stores are only now seeing the capitalist value of challenging those stereotypes. Indeed, the first offerings from Debbie Stirling, the founder of GoldieBlox—now one of the industry’s hottest names, selling toys aimed at inspiring an affection for sciences among girls—were rebuffed by bigwigs at the New York Toy Fair, the make-or-break hub and haven for the latest in toy trends. “They said girls don’t like engineering. Girls don’t like building. That’s a boy play pattern. Girls want to be princesses, they want to play fashion. Go look at the pink aisle,” she said in an interview with Public Radio International.

There is one upside, perhaps, to at least the fidget spinner and the water-bottle flipping: it seems bad toys are forcing kids to find fun in other ways, like finding water (or in this case, flipped water bottles) in the desert. It feels like an active outgrowth of actual toys failing to make a mark on youth, causing kids to make do with what they have around—empty bottles, cheap ball-bearings—rather than the staid items being marketed at them. And it might be something the toy industry should consider as a warning sign; while toy sales continue to grow—Canada’s sales rose six per cent, to just over $2 billion—the actually number of toys sold are roughly flat, a quiet sign of a deteriorating market. It represents a disruption to the field that could loosen the grip of those big-box retail stores—and make innovation easier to achieve.

After all, a non-toy improvisation was the initial inspiration for the original fidget spinner, created by a Florida inventor who was injured while caring for her young daughter. “I couldn’t pick up her toys or play with her much at all, so I started throwing things together with newspaper and tape then other stuff,” she said in The Guardian. “It wasn’t really even prototyping, it was some semblance of something, she’d start playing with it in a different way, I’d repurpose it.”

Maybe that’s the best way to spin this latest trend—that children, failed by an unadventurous toy industry, have turned tchotchkes into playthings, so they can play on anyway. And good for them. After all, we must move forward, not backward; upward, and always twirling, twirling, twirling toward innovation.