The YouthBeat squad descended on Navy Pier in Chicago recently for the annual Chicago Toy and Game Week (ChiTAG). In comparison to the international Toy Fair event in New York every year, the experience in Chicago is much more approachable in three ways:
- It’s open to the public, and children (and adults) are welcomed to try out toys and games
- The inventors of many products are available in the flesh to explain their offerings’ origin stories
- It’s a manageable venue that allows toy fanboys and fangirls like the YouthBeat® team to see performances and demonstrations and hang out at all of the booths in a single day
A great time was had by all. We shared the excitement of, and enjoyed applauding, the kids who built and demolished block towers and those who launched NERF rockets nearly the length of a football field.
We came away appreciating four themes that we hope are carried out in the bigger Toy Fair next year:
1. Experiential Play—it’s not all hard-core STEM learning
Candidly, we think some toy companies are trying too hard to be educational in the science space and forcing coding on every child who may or not have an interest. We’ll be at the Consumer Electronics Show next year too, and will report back on the nature of the offerings.
We loved meeting Miss Jamie, who performs events across the Midwest, to promote a farm-based curriculum. Her music and books, as well as her live events, focus on healthy eating, planting seeds, and sustainability. She has entire songs devoted to pesticide-free foods and the famous cow from historical Chicago fire lore. A great way to invite “city mouse” children to enjoy the country!
Another of our favorite encounters was the crew from Improv Against Normality. Their inventor Julie created a deck that prompts players to enact fun scenes with the “Yes, and…” spirit of improvisational comedy. Not every child or other participant is hammy enough to want to perform, so each round allows someone to be the director of the scene, culling the choices of location, characters, objects, and secrets. Points can be awarded by the director each round or not, to suit the needs of the playgroup. We love this spirit of inclusivity and creativity through play—and appreciate being told when asked about age-appropriateness that “it’s for Ages ‘if you can read’ and up.”
2. “Magic-Adjacent” Toys (coined by our Millennial)
We loved seeing a close-up magician doing good old-fashioned card tricks to the fascination of crowds of young boys and girls. The Bicycle playing card booth offered mini, traditional, and maxi sizes of the classic 52-card deck. What’s more wholesome than a deck of cards? (Keep reading!)
Simple physics, including gravity, magnets, and centrifugal force, power the offerings from Fun In Motion Toys. We watched kids and adults hover magic wands (spoiler alert, there’s a string), build geometric creations, and slither coils from flat to fancy.
3. Brilliant Ideas from Grassroots Inventors
We particularly enjoyed meeting the designers of some very clever and innovative items and hearing their origin stories. One favorite of ours was the SmashMasters Customizable Card Game. It nods to comic fans of all ages, allowing the creation of custom teams/decks of characters that compete but don’t really do battle—with a solid dose of humor that adults will appreciate even if it goes over kids’ heads. A savvy player could even create an all-girl superhero team!
Another surprising delight was meeting the inventor of Potty Duck. Yes—just what you think, it’s a rubber ducky tub toy that comes with a mini toilet to adhere to the tub, which in combination demonstrates “going” and “flushing” behaviors. As the inventor points out, children like mimicking the behaviors of their toys, and potty training just a few months earlier than average can save families considerable money on diapers and wipes as well as freeing landfills from those last few disposables.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the prodigy middle school and high school students we met who designed Wrist World, a gaming universe utilizing slap bracelets. We’ve been saying we’re overdue for a bracelet trend for a couple of years, and this could be the fix. Each bracelet displays a QR code that accesses characters and adventures—and it’s important to collect all of them in order to win. Way to go, youth entrepreneurs!
4. Sensory-Forward Play
One of our consistently favorite experiences at these types of fairs is running into our friend Lee from Educational Insights. This year, they were displaying not just the usual PlayFoam creative toys, but the new PlayFoam Pluffle. This airy, less-sticky stuff stimulates the senses, from the glitter to the textural touch, and is relaxing, soothing, and satisfying. It makes even the grouchiest Grinch of any age breathe deeply with enjoyment.
The most surprising toy we stumbled upon was the woodworking set for ages 4+ with power tools. You read that right. Playmat offers a kit with a drill press, lathe, jigsaw, and sander, all safe for young kids. What a great way to nurture creativity, fine motor skills through tool use, and respect for safety in young boys and girls.
Finally, our Millennial proclaimed that “Bling is still in” when we encountered the Glamour Girlz Central booth. They, and similar services, bring the pampering of the spa to kids, with glam services, parties, and luxurious items available for purchase. Don’t let the name fool you, though, they’re gender-inclusive. Sparkle on!
The YouthBeat squad geeks out at this kind of event. We’re as giddy as the kids decorating sleep masks at intermittent booths or riding dinosaur bikes (with helmets, of course). With the demise of Toys ‘R Us, this type of event and mom-and-pop toy stores are families’ new conduit to fun. And sometimes, even often, the fun doesn’t have to involve overt learning.