Decoding the kid psyche: tips from the toyzone

My job is to test toys. Adults may not think this is really a job, but I have turned it into a career. I study kids daily, observing, evaluating and calculating results of thousands of children's actions, comments and reactions. Kids...
March 1, 1999

My job is to test toys. Adults may not think this is really a job, but I have turned it into a career. I study kids daily, observing, evaluating and calculating results of thousands of children’s actions, comments and reactions. Kids like to know their opinions matter.

I’ve learned what video games they play with that are cool, what video games they `re not allowed to play with at home, what toys they ask for from Santa, who their best friends are and what their best friends have (this indicates what they will be asking for next!).

Kids name their birthday as one of the most important days in the year, and one of their biggest dilemmas is what to ask for. My seven-year-old friend Brennan reminds me every year-a week before June 20-how my research would benefit from him testing all the toys on his birthday list. It seems I hear the same wish-list items cropping up all the time: toys tied to the current box-office hit, LEGO, expensive things Santa forgot, Nintendo games and even pets! (I made the mistake of letting Brennan know I also test toys for pets, since in a Toy Tips survey of 2,000 pet owners, 83% buy toys for their pets). This year, Brennan also wants to test a horse. He promised to feed it, and wants to watch how the horse throws the Hippity-Hop similar to a dog with a tennis ball! I’ll likely let him test Sega’s Dreamcast instead. No horse. But next year will be different. He may not ask for any toys.

Kids are starting to want more expensive toys like computer software, VCRs, cell phones, e-mail, stereos, TVs and bedroom microwaves for making popcorn while they watch movies in their own ‘bedroom theater.’ And guess what? Parents are buying all these items. [A study by Roper Starch reveals that one-third of six- and seven-year-olds, and 60% of teens have TVs in their rooms]. But kids actually enjoy saving their own money, as well as going to the store and making the transaction themselves. [Roper Starch says the average 10-year-old has over US$7 of weekly discretionary income, while teens have closer to US$20]. The new generation is made up of very independent kids.

These digital kids

who have access to computers with cameras and Web sites

for quick information are mimicking adult behavior at a younger age. This independence will affect many other life skills. If they are playing less, they are also using their imaginations less, and their childhood is being cut short. Books and family games help combat this imagination-draining spiraling sophistication.

Kids like books

Eighty percent of children complain that their parents don’t read to them enough. Parents will spend lots of money on educational toys and software, and they will also let kids watch high-quality educational TV shows like Big Bag and Barney. But they won’t give very much of their own time. Our research shows that reading to a young child encourages them to listen to stories, develop imagination and creativity, and strengthen the diminishing parent-child bond.

Kids like to play on family vacations

Toy Tips and The Hilton Vacation Station Program teamed up for the second year to evaluate what toys kids choose to play with. Our study found that kids mostly enjoyed toys that engage in social behavior. School-age kids (five to 12) enjoyed Parker Brothers’ Bop It!, Radica Jr.’s Bass Fishin’ and Milton-Bradley’s Twister.

Kids in the U.K.

The rise in children’s early maturation is a global phenomenon. U.K. kids spend only 13% of their free time playing with toys. Girls ages six to seven primarily play with plush, dolls and accessories, indoor games, science activities, adult imitation toys and playground equipment. Boys of the same age play with action figures, vehicles, construction toys, indoor games, soccer (our football) and playground equipment. Television has a huge influence on children in the U.K.: they spent 28% of their free time watching it.

One parting toy tip: Kids like to help shop for birthday presents for their friends, and they don’t like it when parents buy the present without them. These little independent kids like to make their own decisions.

Marianne M. Szymanski is president of Toy Tips, Inc. and founder of The Toy Research Institute. Commuting between Toy Tips’ Milwaukee headquarters and L.A. office, Szymanski is within cyber-querying distance at

If you would like to share an anecdote about children that gives professional insight into kids’ likes and dislikes, needs and desires, please contact West Coast editor Virginia Robertson at 323-966-4500, or email:

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