It's a toy any boy would love: a sturdy jeep with all-terrain wheels and action figures to see it through all manner of adventures. But this is a toy with a difference. The Discovery Rig is built of recycled plastic and wood, and powered by a child's energy rather than batteries or a microchip. "I pick toys that are fun, durable, open up the senses, are safe and don't harm the environment," says Alicia Suwaina, the co-proprietor of Journey Toys (www.journeytoys.ae), an online educational toy store in Abu Dhabi. She says these characteristics are the jeep's best features.
As a former educator (she has a master's in curriculum development and she taught kindergarten and fourth year at the American Community School for 12 years), Suwaina believes toys need to be more than mere playthings. "Toys can serve as a compass for self-discovery, for developing future interests and strengths," she says. "Play is a child's 'work.' Play rounds a person out. I look for toys that are limitless in play, that unlock the imagination."
Still, as the mother of three, Suwaina knows how difficult it is to deny requests for this season's must-have toy, which is often something with batteries, ear buds or a remote control. "My boys love that stuff," she says. "But that's not my market." Educational toys have managed to maintain a presence in the mass toy market thanks to such companies as Blue Orange, based in San Francisco, which plants two trees for each one cut down for its wooden toys. Corolle, a French company, specialises in what Suwaina calls "wholesome dolls" with sweet faces and innocent clothes. Such toy producers stay in business thanks to parents who are committed to the idea that children learn through play. Many are moving away from hi-tech toys and back to the toys of their own childhoods: blocks, model trains, puzzles and doll houses.
"What's the point of a toy for your child that doesn't teach her something?" says Jennifer Brooks, a music teacher at ACS and the mother of a five-year-old girl. "If it's not going to expand her vocabulary or help her work on fine or gross motor skills, why buy it?" Brooks admits she occasionally shops at large, chain toy stores. "I'm not an extreme type of parent," she says. She did, however recently cancel her subscription to children's cable stations because of "a whole bunch of junk and a whole lot of violence. Last night, instead of TV, I started teaching my daughter checkers".
When we pull the plug on the electronics, we turn on our kids' creative power. "The toys we choose have a direct impact on our child's development," says Petra Arzberger, the director of Kidz Inc (www.kidzinc.com), the toy store she opened in Dubai four years ago when she couldn't find shops that carried the sort of toys she was looking for. "Educators favour toys with multi-function, or 'open-ended' toys, as many like to call them," Arzberger says. "A toy should be versatile so it can be used in different ways, allowing children to try many variations, combinations, different themes with different outcomes. Wooden building blocks would be a good example of this."
Like Suwaina and Brooks, Arzberger is concerned about the long-term effect of electronic toys. "Children are being stripped of their natural creativity because of their increasing exposure to the structured activities of hi-tech toys. The same goes for expensive - and usually plastic - battery-operated, one-hit toys, which are quickly forgotten, lost or broken within days of being unwrapped." Manufacturers of some of those toys claim they teach skills such as hand-eye coordination and critical thinking, but Arzberger believes the opposite is true. She finds many hi-tech toys "more limiting than liberating. They encourage passive learning and can foster the need to be entertained".
Khalil Abdulhay, the UAE area manager for Early Learning Centre, a chain of educational toy stores that has 29 branches in the country that cater to babies and children up to age six, agrees about the need to engage. "We're keen to raise children to be bright, confident, happy people. Our toys are more development-focused, offering a variety of experience and imaginative play. They encourage children to participate in a range of activities." Another goal, Abdulhay says, is to encourage parents to spend time playing with their children, "despite having a busy schedule".
But it can be a challenge for children and parents to move away from heavily marketed, easily available toys. Educational toy retailers admit it can be a slow process, but as adults become more aware of children's developmental needs, the market for smart toys grows. "At first it was hard to find shops that wanted to carry educational toys and it was an upwards struggle," says Arzberger, who began as a Kidz Inc distributor before opening her own shop. "But parents now understand the importance of good quality, open-ended toys and we have many retailers who buy from us."
Top sellers include doll houses, play kitchens, beads and dolls for girls, and marble ball tracks and work benches for boys. But the most popular item for both is the Micro Mini Scooter. "They're tremendous fun and help children develop balance and coordination skills," Arzberger says. Suwaina is still developing her market for Journey Toys. Most of her first customers have been expatriate mothers, but she is working with a group of women at Zayed University on ways to introduce her toys to the wider community. "Even though I've lived here forever, I'm seeking advice from people around me," she says.
Her creative (and surprisingly affordable) toys are delivered free within Abu Dhabi. Over the holiday season she donated toys to children whose families could not afford them. "Starting Journey Toys wasn't just about buying and selling toys," Suwaina says. "I feel a strong need to give toys to kids who don't have them." Wherever Journey Toys is set up, boys can have a go with the Discovery Rig or the look-ma-no-batteries jeep. And girls can give a cuddle to the baby dolls. Of course, it could be the other way around, too. Exploring is what it's all about.