Kids Just Wanna Have Fun

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Ryan Manns is a busy guy. The 12-year-old 7th-grader from Rocky River, Ohio, spends his days juggling honors classes at his middle school, doing homework, attending science club meetings, and competing at sports like baseball, skiing, and wrestling. Throw in the daily "mandatory bonding time" with parents Wally and Terri and 10-year-old sister Catie, and Ryan says he doesn't have a lot of time during the week to just hang out and be 12.

But if you think all work and no play makes Ryan a dull boy, think again. When the weekend comes, this five-foot-three-inch, 100-pound dynamo "packs in as much playtime as humanly possible." A self-described "24/7 mega-play monster," Ryan says he can surf the Net, play a video or CD-ROM game, "do some board games" with little sister and parents, listen to his favorite Jimi Hendrix or Third Eye Blind CD, build a model airplane, hang with his friends and watch TV, "all at the same time."

"When you've got the weekend, you play large," laughs Ryan. "Playing and hanging out with my friends and having fun is just so cool."

Unstructured playtime is fun, but it's also becoming a rarer commodity, researchers say. Toy and game marketers trying to capture the attention of today's busy, brand-conscious kids have to come up with business strategies that reflect the increased sophistication of kids, as well as their changing play patterns.

Time for Toys

Capturing a "share of play time" rather than a "share of market" is essential to the long-term success of toy manufacturers and other "marketers of fun," says Julie Halpin, CEO of the Geppetto Group, a New York City-based firm that specializes in kid marketing. "Play is for children what work is for adults. It's the way they learn about the world, express themselves, socialize, individuate, and mature," Halpin says. "When kids have limited time, though, marketers have to be much smarter in their promotional efforts. Kids are exposed to a lot."

A recent study by researchers at the University of Michigan (U-M), The Panel Study on Income Dynamics, Child Development Supplement, reported in the May 1999 issue of American Demographics, showed that in 1997, children ages 12 and under spent about 30 minutes less per day, on average, in unstructured play and outdoor activities, compared to kids in 1981. Even plain old free time - the time left over after eating, sleeping, and school - decreased from 40 percent to 25 percent of a child's day, the study said.

One reason is that kids are spending much more time in school and day-care. Children ages 3 through 11 log in about six hours a day in preschool or school, compared to a paltry four hours a day in the early '80s. The U-M study also found that children in families with either two breadwinners or a single working parent spent less time in free play than kids in families with a male breadwinner and female homemaker.

That translates into plenty of organization, scheduling, and stress. In fact, the 1999 Nickelodeon/Yankelovich Youth MONITOR report noted that kids ages 6 through 17 are "very concerned with their lack of downtime," says Yankelovich partner Ann Clurman. In 1995, for example, 41 percent of children surveyed said they had concerns about not being able to find time to relax. In 1999, that number jumped to 50 percent. The Youth MONITOR survey also showed an increased emphasis on performance-oriented goals, such as good grades, notes Clurman. In 1995, only 27 percent of children ages 6 to 17 said they received rewards for doing well in school. In 1999, the number rose to 38 percent.

Although a buck for an "A" is a time-honored approach to emphasizing the importance of grades, Clurman says the increased significance placed on achievement, perhaps coupled with decreases in playtime, is putting a lot of pressure on kids. Fully 80 percent of children surveyed said they wished they had more time to relax, and 80 percent of adults taking part in the survey agreed that kids today need more time to simply have fun.

"These kids are very sophisticated and they know the world's not a picnic," says Clurman. "In terms of just pure play, there's a problem. Kids always had school time, work time, playtime. What they need is more unstructured time, more `chill time.'"

Ryan and Catie agree.

"Playing is all about no pressure," says Catie, with a giggle. "You know, just playing, not having to be any good at whatever you're doing, but doing it because it's a lot of fun." Ryan chimes in: "Yeah, you know, when no one is telling you how to do something, anything you do can be a lot of fun."

The Battle for Mindshare

According to Halpin, multitasking children like Ryan and Catie aren't unusual; they are, in fact, the norm. But as children's lives have gotten more scheduled and complex, the manifestation of play has changed as well, bringing about a convergence among seemingly disparate products or "elements of fun," says Halpin.

"Kids don't distinguish between things the way adults do. Kids aren't sitting down and playing and not doing anything else for an hour," Halpin observes. "Kids are on the computer, playing a board game, watching a TV show, doing a lot of things. They don't segment their time like an adult."

Some manufacturers are beginning to acknowledge this paradigm shift, and making natural connections among products, Halpin says. The Pokemon phenomenon is a good example of just how cross-marketing efforts can pay off big in capturing a share of play.

"It's a card, a toy, a video game, a cyberlocation, a movie, and it sells a lot of fast food, too," says Halpin. "That's smart marketing." Smart indeed. Projected U.S. sales for all the various Pokemon toys, not including video games, totaled $555 million for the first ten months of 1999, according to Ed Roth of the NPD Group. Burger King, which ran a Pokemon promotion late last year, reported that the little monsters were the most successful promotion in its history. Some restaurants sold more than 1,000 Kids Meals a day.

"It isn't so much my kids like the food, it's more that they want all things Pokemon," says Sue Omori, mother of 7-year-old Sam and 2-year-old Jack. Omori, who recently hosted a Pokemon-theme birthday party for Sam, is well aware of the seductive allure of marketing efforts aimed at children and their parents. "My kids know what they want. In a lot of ways, they are the drivers behind the purchases," says Omori, a 39-year-old communications executive in Cleveland. "You can't fight a good marketing effort."

Toy executive Daniel Grossman doesn't argue the point that kids are the drivers behind toy purchases. But the CEO of Wild Planet, which caters to children under age 10, says his products also have to appeal to well-educated parents who want their child's play experience to be dual purpose: learning and fun.

"Parents are very concerned about their kids' education, about keeping up, about sharpening skills," says Grossman. "The mantra for parents is: `I want my kid to be ahead of the curve.'"

Wild Planet's most successful products are those that are "role-play oriented," Grossman says, in which kids can use their imaginations to create multiple uses for something as simple as a belt with tools. "We need to take a kind of Trojan Horse approach to marketing, especially in an environment in which kids' lives are very structured, and kids themselves are becoming more sophisticated," he says. "Let the parents know that kids can learn about the world with our products, and let the kids know that our products are a lot of fun."

Lost Childhoods

Despite the effects of KAGOY ("kids are getting older younger"), the diminishment of unstructured playtime, and the unprecedented choices kids have in choosing what they play with, the traditional kid biz - toys and games - is holding its own. Kind of.

According to Commack, New York-based Business Trend Analysts' 1999 report, "The U.S. Market for Toys and Games," the toy segment of the market historically has been erratic. U.S. manufacturers' sales ricocheted up and down and up again in the last decade or so, but overall, from 1988 to 1998, increased at an average annual rate of less than 1 percent. In 1998, BTA reports, U.S. manufacturers' toy sales (excluding games, hobby crafts, and electronic toys but including such playthings as coloring books, stuffed animals, and non-powered cars and trucks) reached approximately $1.79 billion, or 34 percent of the $5.27 billion total U.S. manufacturers' toy-and-game market, up 2.6 percent from $5.14 billion in 1997. The increase was due primarily to the popularity of games, dolls, and stuffed toys - most notably, the Beanie Baby craze. Still, according to BTA's associate director of research Vincent Seeno, the toy segment has suffered most from the overwhelming popularity electronic games, which now account for two-thirds of the total market. And whereas once, manufacturers of traditional toys and games aimed at children under 14, today the focus is on kids under 10.

"If you look at the numbers, sales are growing in almost all areas of traditional toys. But the age of the target audience has dropped," says Seeno. "That means that successful companies are looking to be in the kid business, leveraging their wares so they aren't stuck in one segment."

The games segment - both electronic and non-electronic - is expected to increase at an average annual rate of 3.3 percent between 1998 and 2008, BTA reports. By 2008, electronic games should account for about 76 percent of total U.S. manufacturers' sales of games. "What you have right now is a kid playing a board game and a computerized version of the game," explains Seeno. "That's probably going to shift in the future to the computerized version. It's going to be all about technology and innovation."

Industry giants like Hasbro and Mattel have already adapted several of their well-established brands to software and electronic versions. Monopoly, Hasbro's tried-and-true board game, is now available on CD-ROM, and Mattel offers a number of Barbie software titles. Even Fisher-Price, king of the preschool set, has moved into the digital realm through an alliance with The Learning Company for software development.

"Our market is parents, and parents are comfortable with Fisher-Price," says Jerry Perez, the company's executive vice president of marketing. "But you have KAGOY. And part of that phenomenon is that kids - even young kids - are increasingly becoming more computer-savvy. We have to meet that need."

Toy and game manufacturers aren't the only ones making the foray into new market opportunities. Even well-entrenched companies like Scholastic, Inc. are taking some unusual approaches to marketing their wares. Central to the strategy is the understanding that kids and parents don't draw the same bright-line distinctions between playtime and education time that they once did.

"Companies have to figure out ways to cross-market and cross-promote and bring down the market barriers," says Deborah Forte, division head of Scholastic Entertainment. "It's no longer acceptable to only sell books in bookstores. It's no longer acceptable to market in traditional ways. The media explosion has blurred the lines between education and entertainment. What is kids' stuff? And what isn't?"

But despite the popularity of books like the Harry Potter series, it's not as if reading for pleasure is gaining ground from other entertainment pursuits. In 1997, according to the U-M study, boys spent just 10 minutes on weekdays and weekend days reading for fun, while girls spent 11 minutes on weekdays and 12 on a weekend days. Age differences in reading were small: 9-to-12-year-olds spent 7 to 11 minutes reading on a weekdays and 11 to 15 minutes on a weekend days.

To help bring the "cool-and-fun-factor" back to reading, Scholastic has developed a multitiered promotional campaign that involves The Backstreet Boys and other up-and-coming bands on the Jive Records label, according to creative marketing director Maggie Kneip. "To be successful," she says, "we need to go where the kids go."

The Connected Kid

But where do they go? When it comes to media use, kids today are all over the map - and they have the hardware to prove it. According to "Kids & Media @ the New Millennium," released last fall by the Kaiser Family Foundation, children - regardless of race or socioeconomic status - live in households that are glutted with televisions, VCRs, radios, CD and tape players, and increasingly, computers. The study, published in November, examined media exposure of 1,090 children aged 2 to 7 years, and 2,065 students in grades 3 through 12, or 8-to-18-year-olds. Not surprisingly, most households (88 percent) now claim at least two televisions. But that's not the half of it. According to the Kaiser study, the average American kid lives in a household with three televisions, two VCRs, three radios, two tape players, two CD players, a video game player, and a computer. According to the study, the only kinds of media that fewer than half of children have access to are premium cable channel subscriptions (about 44 percent) and the Internet (45 percent).

When it comes to computers and fun, the Kaiser study found that overall recreational use is highest among older children: about 30 minutes a day for 8-to-18-year-olds. But even very young kids aged 2 to 7 dally about 7 minutes a day at the computer terminal. Gaming is the most common way that youngsters of all age groups use computers, the study showed; for 8-to-13-year-olds, games accounted for roughly half of the time they spent on computers each day: 16 minutes, or nearly twice the amount of time they spent using computers for school work.

"Kids today grew up with a mouse in one hand and a CD-ROM in the other," says Paul Kurnit, president of Griffin Bacal, an agency that specializes in youth marketing. "The computer is a powerful form of kids' entertainment that makes parents happy from the educational aspect, makes kids happy because it's fun, and makes marketers happy because it's a whole new channel."

And while children are surfing, they're also being exposed to a glut of consumer products which, ironically, aren't being marketed to them yet, generally because of issues relative to safety and privacy. "The interesting disconnect is that advertising to kids on the Web basically doesn't exist yet," Kurnit says. As the medium evolves, many of the new dot-com advertisers "will have to do a better job strategically if they are going to differentiate themselves and survive, let alone build strong brands.

"The game is going to be about selling and marketing fun in a new space," says Kurnit. "The reason that ebay is so popular with kids is that it appeals to what kids like: finding and collecting really neat stuff and being part of a community. Kids really like the idea of feeling unique and the freedom to be different - like everybody else."

While "digital wallet" sites take an aggressive marketing approach that allows parents to set up spending accounts for their children, who can then buy their own toys, some kid-friendly sites are taking a softer approach to selling sponsors' wares. California-based, which is largely supported by ad revenues, says its raison d'etre is to provide a safe environment for kids on the Net. "Safety is first, advertising is second," says Peter Katz, SurfMonkey's head of marketing.

Operating as a browser, the company offers a family of Internet tools for kids 6 through 12. The tools include an animated SurfMonkey character, the SurfMonkey Kids Channel, and the parent-friendly SurfMonkey Bar, a navigation tool that resides at the bottom of the browser window and incorporates comprehensive features for safe cybertravel.

The site offers interactive learning-based games, a chat room and bulletin board, and a virtual mall where kids can choose from a myriad of "floors" or categories of toys and entertainment. Kids can then add their choices to their wish lists, and e-mail that list to far-flung relatives and friends, or grab a parent if they choose the "buy now" link, which shoots off to, for example.

"The gestalt behind the site is to let kids reap the benefits of the Internet, rather than building a site that's purely compelling for toy sales," says Katz. SurfMonkey has engaged in a number of cross-promotions with Disney, Nickelodeon, and MamaMedia, and co-marketing efforts with Hewlett-Packard and Intel. "It's a strange market," says Katz. "You compete with other sites, yet you support everything they do."

Childhood experts know that despite increasing barriers to quality playtime, children's DNA is hard-wired to find fun. "If you look at kids today, play patterns are setting them up for the future world, a world which we as adults have no clue about," says Terri Bartlett, director of communications for the Toy Manufacturers of America.

But despite the deluge of choices, children are still little kids, Batlett adds. "Everyone involved with kids truly understands that. The challenge and opportunity for parents and manufacturers is to prepare kids for what's coming up in a rapidly changing, technologically driven world, while remembering that play and fun are essential to the development of children."

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