The Day the Toys Died (An Obituary for Toys R Us and Play)

Toys R Us

Over the past few months, I’ve been watching the declining fortunes of Toys R Us. Well, really I’ve been watching for years. The chain has been in trouble since a leveraged buyout saddled it with billions in debt – money it couldn’t recoup through declining sales. The bloodletting worsened in recent months with Toys R Us announcing bankruptcy filings last year.

Last week the death knell sounded: There is no viable path forward, so all stores will be closed and liquidated. Barring someone swooping in after the ashes settle and picking up the name and trademarks (remember what happened to Twinkies?) to revive the brand later, the last large toy store is dead.  

I’m too old to have been a true Toys R Us kid. The chain didn’t really rise to prominence in my area until I was in middle school or early high school. I can’t remember exactly, but I was beyond the age of most toys. I do remember hitting Toys R Us for video games, though, and the occasional board game and Lego set. I’ve actually shopped there more as an adult for Lego than I ever did as a kid.

Anyway, most of my childhood toy buying was done at the smaller mall stores like K&K Toys or Kaybee. And, of course there was the Sears Wishbook which was the joy of every holiday season. (Oh, the memories of poring over every page and carefully marking what should go on my list for Santa!) There were other retailers, too, like BEST and K-Mart, and small local shops.

The point is that generations of kids (up until this week) have known the joy and fun of walking through the wonderland of a toy store. As much as I love the convenience of online shopping, there’s no way it can compare to walking through a toy store and gawping at the offerings. Especially from the point of view of a kid. And now this is an experience that kids will no longer have unless they are lucky enough to have a small toy store somewhere in their neighborhood.

(Let’s be honest, the toy aisles of Target and Wal-Mart  cannot compare to a dedicated toy store. They’re not bad in a pinch, but the offerings are limited to only the bestsellers. Neither is a place to discover new toys or simply bask in nothing but toys. They don’t have any play areas set up, and no way to try anything out.)

The reasons for Toys R Us’ demise are many and I’m sure that business school students will be debating them for years. There was the crippling debt accrued during the buyout. There were declining sales thanks to the dominance of Amazon and retailers like Target and Wal-Mart. Shifting demographics likely played a role, as well. And the Great Recession didn’t help, coming at a terrible time for the debt-laden company.

And the repercussions will be the subject of debate as well. What happens to toy makers when one of their major retail outlets dies? Will they discontinue a lot of their lines because there’s just no place to showcase them anymore? Can small toy companies even get their wares noticed anymore? I doubt Wal-Mart or Target will take chances on unproven toys the way Toys R Us did, so where do the new toys go to be discovered? Kids’ interest in toys was already flagging. Without a place to see and touch toys, will they just abandon the concept of toy-based play altogether?

Is the death of Toys R Us the death of toys? It sure seems like it.

Part of the reason Toys R Us died was that play is shifting away from physical toys and onto screens. It amazes me to see kids as young as one or two banging away on mom’s iPad or phone. More and more research shows that this is unhealthy for a developing brain, but harried parents eager for a moment’s peace give in and slap a screen in the kid’s hands. Kids see other kids using the devices and they want in on the action, as well. It becomes a vicious circle. We know that gadgets are addictive for adults. Why would we expect it to be different for kids who have even less of an ability to think, “This might be bad for me?”

Injured bear

It takes real strength these days for parents and kids to resist the siren song of the screen and choose real-world, tactile play. I know a guy who works with kids and he recently took a group to Toys R Us and said the kids didn’t know what to do. They simply looked around at all the stuff with no idea what much of it was for. It was like a foreign country to them. (And no, these kids weren’t disadvantaged or from another country. They were kids who had parents with the money to buy toys and familiarity with American retail. In other words, the parents had simply decided that toys were unimportant.)

Now, I can understand parents limiting toys. As with any consumer segment there is a ton of crap out there. It’s smart to limit the pile of crap that can quickly overwhelm a house every Christmas and birthday. I understand choosing toys wisely and sticking with things that offer real benefits or fun. But to decide that all a kid needs is a screen to keep them entertained? That I cannot understand.

Play is beneficial to a growing brain. Whether it’s playing outside with other kids or playing with toys that stimulate the imagination and desire to role play, play is how kids learn to navigate the world and engage with other people. But kids today literally don’t know how to play. They’re either staring into a screen, or rushing to pre-programmed activities that are “good for them.” They don’t have the time or the ability to simply sit and play with a toy, or create their own outdoor games.

Yeah, I’m old. I know that and I know that the world doesn’t remain the same. But in my mind, some things are just fundamental to raising a well-rounded, well-adjusted kid. And one of those things is giving a kid a chance to role play with toys, to create his or her own stories, and to just take a break from all the crap society throws at them.

In this social media/media addicted world, kids are exposed to far too much too early. In a world where everyone believes kids need to always be “doing something” in order to be successful, kids lose the ability to entertain and regulate themselves. Play is a way to take them away from the ugliness of the world for a while and teach them how to navigate the world on their own terms. There’s plenty of time for kids to drown themselves in bad TV and social media. And there’s time for them to develop the skills that will get them into the Ivy League. But play is fundamental to all of that. Play is the building block upon which many skills begin.

Sure, kids can play without toys. You can send a kid into the yard with a stick and the creative kid will find something to do. But toys, especially the good ones that require kids to think, be creative, and engage with one another, that’s something special. When a child engages with a favorite toy, it’s magical to watch. How many people do you know that, even now as adults, can still tell you what their favorite toy was? Why do you think the movie Toy Story resonated so strongly with adults? It’s because we all remember how special and magical it was to play with toys.

It’s equally magical to watch a kid go into a toy store and ponder all the options, looking for that one perfect toy. There’s magic in watching their eyes light up when they see that one thing they really want. Or at least there was. With the death of Toys R Us, that magic is gone.

At least for now, the screens and the pre-programmed entertainment have won. Congratulations to social media, TV, lazy parents, and a society that glorifies forced busyness and overly-scheduled kids. You’ve killed the toys. I hope it was worth it. When the next generation lacks the creativity, curiosity and empathy fostered through play, remember the moment the toys died and ask yourselves if what you gained was worth what was lost. I doubt the answer will be yes.

(Photos courtesy of Greyerbaby, congerdesign)

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