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Kids Still Prefer The Real Thing: Playtime Shifts From Xbox To Sandbox

Misty Harris, National Consumer Trends Reporter

CanWest News Service - The National Post

July 5, 2004

Not content to have their children mistaken for TV-addicted zombies, more Canadian parents are buying toys that encourage traditional play. In other words, today's kids are finding Nemo at the lake, not at the video store.

And, with summer holidays in full swing, toy manufacturers aren't wasting any time responding to the trend. "Countering the sedentary lifestyle of kids is something that a lot of children's marketers are working with right now," says Stephen Kline, a communications professor at Simon Fraser University and noted expert on children's culture. "Parents are trying to look for those old family practices where play was a part of everyday household maintenance, and toy companies want to insert their brand or product into that trend."

A survey released in May by the NPD Group, which provides sales and marketing data, revealed traditional toy categories are being increasingly threatened by video games, most notably among boys aged five to 12.

Kline's own research indicates parents are anxious about this technology, recognizing the need for adult supervision, and seeking more conventional toy alternatives. "Parents have been concerned with providing their children with toys that invoke a broader and healthier lifestyle," he says. "There has been a bit of a backlash against the kind of laissez faire parenting where kids disappear into the tube."

The new push for traditional toys, Kline suggests, is largely based on parents' desire to project their own lifestyle values onto kids. This is why elements of middle-class pastimes such as fishing, golf and gardening are resurfacing on toy shelves.

This summer, Mattel unleashed an arsenal of new consumer products that speak specifically to what they call "realistic play." In both the Hot Wheels and Barbie brands, toy lineups are looking less like playthings and more like junior versions of the Canadian Tire catalogue.

For boys, there are portable beds and dual-suspension bikes. For girls, there are Barbie fishing rods, tackle boxes, camping equipment and gardening gear, most of which supplant ostentatious images of Barbie with understated patterns and grown-up designs.

"Once kids hit the five-to-eight range, they're more interested in emulating real-life situations than fantasy play," says Anikka Foster, licensing manager for Mattel brands. "They still play with toys, but how they play with them is different."

According to Foster, the change in play pattern has been emerging over the past 10 to 15 years, but only recently translated into new sales for categories such as sporting goods. Canadian kids, she says, are putting parents on notice that they're not babies anymore.

Dr. Steveanne Auerbach, author of the new book Smart Play, Smart Toys, calls the comeback of traditional toy fare encouraging. But she's worried parents will see the marketing, rather than the meaning, behind the trend.

"Play is not just what you buy for children in toys, but using things found around the house as well," she says, noting that a mixing bowl and some water can be just as interesting to a child as something bought from a toy store.

Adventure playgrounds, for example, are a grassroots version of "realistic play." With no slides, swings or sand, the unique public spaces are built from the ground-up on the sweat and creativity of the kids who play there. New to Canada, the do-it-yourself playgrounds operate only with participation from parents, "play leaders" and support from surrounding communities.

"Traditional play," says Auerbach, "only has hope against video games if adults get involved."

CanWest Global is Canada's largest media company and newspaper publisher, with an ownership of 11 major daily newspapers and a combined average circulation of 1.4 million daily. CanWest papers include: The National Post, Edmonton Journal, Ottawa Citizen, Vancouver Sun, Calgary Herald and Montreal Gazette.

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