If you’re toy-shopping for the December holidays, Tel Aviv-based toy designer Shlomi Eiger advises this season’s hits are STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) toys as well as kinetic sand and slime that kids love to sculpt, photograph and post on Instagram.
But if issues such as sustainability and diversity matter most in your purchasing decisions, toymakers are offering products like LEGO made from sugarcane-derived bio-polyethylene; Barbies of various body shapes and hues; and Creatable World gender-neutral fashion dolls.
If animal welfare or non-violence are your priority in playthings, you’ll find perennially popular hunting and circus train playsets rebranded as “animal rescue” and “safari train” playsets that encourage caring for and saving animals; and police, firefighter and medical responder playsets void of the violent elements of yesteryear.
“In addition to the ‘light’ contexts of toys, like play, leisure and entertainment, toys are also connected to the core of very serious issues such as education, cultural construction and assimilation of values,” says Eiger.
Figurative dolls have a secondary role as model archetypes, Eiger explained to educators, therapists, artists and writers at the International Children’s Day Dalia Yaffe-Maayan Conference for Children’s Culture at Jerusalem’s Train Theater in November.
“There is no way for a toy designer to represent the human body without dealing with gender, skin tone, body ideal and other issues. It is a matter of design and style, but in practice it creates a value statement.”
Play patterns don’t change
However, says Eiger, even if toys change according to societal values, kids’ basic play patterns don’t change — and that is the foremost consideration in the redesign.
“Actually, toys reflect the values of the adults who create them more than of the children,” says Eiger, who has a master’s degree in child and youth culture research.
“As far as the children are concerned, the set contains the same components — people, animals and miniature accessories – that they want to play with. It’s still the same toy but presented differently to reflect the values we want to give them.”
Unlike other products in children’s culture, he says, “in the case of toys you can control the design, but not the interpretation or the play pattern. I can try to put my agendas in the toys I choose for my children but there is almost no control in the role these toys take in a game.”
Safe for kids and environment
This doesn’t mean toy designers — or purchasers — should disregard what’s important to them.
“In recent years, I have been working to promote awareness of the issue of sustainability in the toy industry,” says Eiger, who teaches at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design and at the Toy Invention Program (TIP) of Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art.
“All big toy companies are putting out lines of sustainable toys and changing their raw materials,” says Eiger.
“Playmobil came out with a new line made of recycled materials, Wiltopia, which comes with a lot of information about the animals, making a conceptual connection that the toys are good for the world and educational about helping the world and animals.”
Toymakers are also taking more responsibility not only for the immediate safety of their products but also for the future of the kids playing with their products.
They’re rethinking production technologies and how to package products attractively with less plastic and cardboard.
“Toys are one of the most polluting industries, so the issue of safety has extended not only to how the toy might harm the child physically or emotionally but also how it might harm the environment. This is a big change the industry is going through these days,” says Eiger.
Choose (even plastic) toys that last
Eiger points out that if a plaything is durable enough to be handed down from one generation to the next, the environmental impact of the raw materials isn’t as relevant.
“There is a big trend against plastic toys and toward wooden toys. I feel that plastic is a great material for toys; it depends how you use it. LEGO is a great sustainable plastic toy that stays in the family for decades,” he tells ISRAEL21c.
Eiger, who consults for the local and international toy industry, also likes toys that reflect personal values important to the child’s family.
One of his newest projects fills a need in Orthodox Jewish families for playsets with themes and accessories in line with their lifestyle, such as a Torah, kiddush cup and Shabbat candlesticks.
Israel has enjoyed a reputation as a toy invention hub, Eiger adds, ever since Ephraim Hertzano invented Rummikub in the 1940s (Eiger recently updated it). Industry legends Theo and Ora Coster are behind iconic products such as the Guess Who? board game.
“You hear so much Hebrew at the toy fair in Nuremberg every January,” Eiger says.
His own son, not yet a year old, comes to the studio to test new ideas. What does the toy designer’s boy enjoy most? Ironically, not toys.
“He likes to play with books, real keys, and the remote control,” says Eiger with a laugh. “I offer him toys and he goes for my keys.”