UAE children learn to play their cards right

Whether it is Moshi Monster, Match or Slam Attax, children are learning to play their cards correctly. Although some parents have doubts about the trend, experts say it can be beneficial for a child's development.

Maia, 7, right and Aiman, 3, with their mother Annabel Kantaria looking on show off their Moshi Monster collection in their home in Dubai. Sarah Dea /The National
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When seven-year-old Maia Kantaria returns to school on Sunday, she will make sure her prized collection of 100-plus Moshi Monster trading cards is safely stowed in her bag.

At playtime, the Briton will sit in a circle with the girls from her class and trade any duplicate cards from her Moshi Monster folder.

Whether it's three cards to get a rare card or five for a Moshi Monster plastic figurine, Maia will bargain hard to ensure she gets the best deal.

"She's absolutely obsessed and thinks and breathes Moshi," says her mother, Annabel Kantaria.

"It's the first craze she's ever got into but I think she's learnt some valuable skills such as how to evaluate things. The first week she had them, she gave them all away and I said 'you can't just give them away, you've got to exchange them'. She's now become a good haggler."

Maia's hobby is becoming common in the UAE, where increasing numbers of primary schoolchildren are spending their pocket money on the Dh7 foil packs containing six cards.

Whether it's Moshi Monster trading cards - related to an online Facebook-style game for children - or the collections favoured by boys, such as Match Attax, based on the English Premier League, or Slam Attax inspired by WWE wrestling, many children are hooked.

New collections of each line containing approximately 200 cards are released annually with avid fans able to buy special collector tins, limited-edition packs, games and accessories - all of which add to the bill

The craze has reached such heights here that even Desert Chill, an ice-cream van company operating in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Al Ain, began stocking the cards last month - the first time they have sold anything other than ice cream.

"They are selling really well and I'm not surprised because I know how popular these things are. When I was a kid I used to be mad for the Panini stickers and they are a similar concept to that," says Dan Furlong, co-founder of Desert Chill, who adds that his best selling area is the Springs and Meadows in Dubai.

While trading cards have been collected around the world for over a century, what is significant about the Arabian Gulf market is that it still in its infancy. The first cards were brought to the GCC only four years ago, by the distribution company Red Play.

The company has a deal with The Topps Company - the world's leading trading card business - agreeing to distribute the Match Attax and Slam Attax ranges across the GCC.

Since then business has boomed, with the UAE quickly becoming the cards' leading consumer.

"The trading card trend was started by us and it took off as soon as we put the cards on the shelf," says Jason Castelino, Red Play's business development manager. "People were buying it left, right and centre and we couldn't get enough stock, to the point where we had to fly it in."

The company distributes to the nation's leading retail stores such as Magrudy's, Books Plus, Toy Store and Hamleys.

"When we first launched the cards, we were a new company looking for new products so we thought we'd try it out, but we were completely blown away. We almost doubled our sales in our second year and since then the business has grown by up to 35 per cent year on year.

"I grew up in Dubai and these cards didn't exist before, so we there was no history of how the market might fare. Now they are Red Play's top revenue earner," adds Mr Castelino.

The company now distributes six ranges, with Moshi Monster and Match Attax their biggest sellers, and plans to launch the Angry Birds collection this month.

But their success is nothing new. The concept of a trade card, a small paper card featuring an image of a person, place or thing dates back to 1886, when cigarette companies inserted them into packs to protect the cigarettes.

By 1900, 300 difference tobacco companies manufactured the cards, making them a popular collector's item.

In the United States, baseball cards first printed by a sporting goods company in the 1860s, also took off.

Fast forward to the 1950s, and The Topps Company included trading cards in bubblegum packs, while a decade later it was the Panini Group whose football sticker collections became the latest craze.

Today, trading cares are a standard part of sports and entertainment merchandise, while the older, rarer cards have become collectors' items, often changing hands for vast amounts of money at auction.

While modern brands also offer fans online links, with games and social media, for many the cards still remain the most important aspect of the hobby.

This is the case for nine-year-old Lawrence Ginns, who started collecting at the age of four.

Along with Match Attax, his favourite range, he also collects Moshi Monsters and tournament-linked ranges such as euro 2012.

"When we moved to Dubai from the UK a year ago the selection was a bit smaller than we were used to," says his Ukrainian mother, Irina Ginns, an accounts executive in the oil and gas industry.

Still, Lawrence buys four packs a month, while his mother says his hobby is worth it because it keeps him so busy.

"He sorts through the cards and thinks of games to play with them. It's one of his favourite activities. It's good for his social development because he meets up with his friends to exchange cards or play games."

A Dubai-based mother-of-two, Annabel Kantaria, 41, says her daughter's fascination with the cards, which started last September when she was given two by a friend at school, is also positive.

"I thought it was completely harmless and, because she's got some pocket money, I let her buy three packs. Within two weeks she had over 100 because she got into the trading and is quite a good bargainer."

Devika Singh, a psychologist at the Dubai Herbal & Treatment Centre, agrees the trading card craze can be beneficial for young children's development.

"Many of these cards involve developing patience and negotiating skills. Because they deal with 'luck' or chance, children are encouraged to learn to cope with disappointment if their card has a lower value.

"Essentially, they learn to accept losing. The process of collecting the cards involves delayed gratification and planning. They may have to wait till they are allowed to buy the next set or, better yet, wait until they have saved up their pocket money."

As Maia's interest grew, Mrs Kantaria discovered the craze was not limited to one series of cards. Moshi Monsters for example has three series and accompanying plastic figurines, that have a high value in playground trading.

"Then she wanted the branded binder and the box of gold figures, which she had for Christmas.

"Now she wants Moshi Monster pyjamas and I've told her she can save up and buy them herself. She is learning a little bit about the value of money, but I think it needs to be carefully handled by the parents," adds Mrs Kantaria, who says she has been concerned about her three-year-old son, Aiman's interest in his sister's card collection.

"He's far too young for all of this, but he thinks the only way to get Maia's attention is if he has cards too. He started asking for them but doesn't understand trading, so it ends up causing massive fights with them both screaming and shouting.

"I then confiscate their Moshis for a couple of days. I even asked Maia to keep them at school because I didn't like the fighting that goes on at home."

Arguments are not limited to siblings with many playground spats starting as children fight over cards. As a result some UAE schools have banned the cards.

"I know some schools have banned them and I'm surprised her school has not," says Mrs Kantaria. "However, they're not allowed in the classroom and I did hear one girl had them confiscated after looking at them in class. It would be easier if they weren't there at all though.

"I've talked to a few other mums and asked if we're doing the right thing, and they say 'it's just a fad and they'll grow out of it quickly'."

Mrs Kantaria says because own parents refused to buy her football stickers when she was growing up, she does not want Maia to miss out.

"I was on the outside looking in and I don't want Maia to be sitting on the edge, not taking part. Without the cards she'll be on her own with no friends. They all sit there in a big circle with their cards, figures and folders and trade away."

Not being part of the gang can be a problem for those not allowed to buy the cards, says Ms Singh.

"They feel left out and may feel a significant amount of peer pressure associated with not participating in the trend.

"Parents must also monitor their children's spending on trading cards. It can sometimes become quite addictive - a bit like gambling. On the one hand it can teach children the value of saving, but it can also become an obsession. Parents should encourage a balance of interests so that it doesn't envelope their child and take them away from other interests."

However, parents overly concerned about their child's new fascination can relax, because card collecting won't last forever.

While nine-year-old Lawrence Ginns happily plays with his collection now, his 15-year-old brother Lodewijk - once an avid collector himself - has lost interest.

"Once he got to secondary school, he wasn't into it so much. And my four-year-old daughter, Ariadne, is more into princesses and unicorns than cards," says Mrs Ginns, 40.

Mrs Kantaria adds: "Trading cards are very good for bribing too because it's a cheap, non-food treat. Each time she learns a new times table she gets a packet. I try very hard not to reward them with treats so the cards are good in that sense."