Kids across the country are officially back to school, and we thought we would kick off the school year with a few new “truths” related to one of the most important parts of kids’ and parents’ days: school lunch. Whether you’re concerned about the cafeteria consumer or the meal maker, there are a few new (or at least novel) truths that might change the way you think about fitting into this occasion:
- Time is of the essence. According to a study conducted by the Partnership to Promote Healthy Eating in Schools, 20 minutes should be allowed for lunch after children have sat down at their tables. In middle school, this means providing an adequate timeframe for kids to move from their class to the cafeteria, via their locker if necessary. It means having the right number of lines/cash registers to minimize the waiting time. And it means taking into account the load they’re carrying (can a tray fit on top of the pile of books they’re carrying, or do they need to factor in finding a spot at a table before they return to the lunch line). Of course, if you’re in food service, the implications are considerable. But even if you’re humbly hoping that your containers or snack foods make it to their bags or boxes, you have to keep in mind that convenience matters.
- Sharing isn’t the same as it used to be. Trading snacks, leering at the lunches of others – these are rituals that have almost completely disappeared. And where snack sharing is permitted, it’s certainly more limited than it used to be, given sensitivity to food allergies and eating restrictions imposed by parents. For today’s kids who are raised in a less critical and less judgmental culture regarding others (every family is different, every mom and dad have different rules about eating, etc.), they’re less likely to brag about their own lunch or look to others for food ideas. You know who does ask about school lunches? Moms and dads! Kids might be less inclined to share intel on their friend’s brown bag brings, but parents do ask.
- Speaking of parents…Parents might be privy to more information and opinions than ever when it comes to their kids’ food – especially in a setting like school. So, while it bucks the conventional wisdom, perhaps it’s not surprising that kids report that parents are more likely to introduce them to new school lunch foods than their friends (60% versus 37% for kids ages 6 to 10). Parents are all about healthy options and alternatives to old stand-bys, but they also want to pack lunches that are inspired and creative. Kids report that their favorite lunch foods are sandwiches, and their favorite beverage is water, but moms and dads sometimes want to send their little students to school with more exciting fare.
- Sustainable containers. As much as kids and parents might prefer coming home without extra dishes, today’s parents and kids often opt for containers that are more sustainable and reusable. It makes parents feel thrifty and kids feel like they’re heeding the many mentions of “earth-friendliness” that pervade their days.
- Brain food is better. Today’s kids often have a very different definition of lunchbox “treat” than kids from the past. This cohort can’t always have cupcakes at school on their birthdays, or bring candy in their lunch bags. They’re less exposed to sugary and salty vending machine snacks, and even juice boxes are often considered a once-in-a-while drink versus the refillable water bottle that kids often bring right into their classroom. Kids get constant communication about feeding their bodies – and their brains – with the right kind of food. Don’t put them in a bind – health isn’t a benefit that kids seek out, but it is one that they might respond to in surprisingly open ways.
When it comes to understanding school lunch, make sure your brand isn’t relying on outdated ideas or conventional wisdom that no longer tracks. Brands that stay current with today’s cafeteria are sure to get an “A” among parents, kids and even teachers.
As a Philly girl, a (long since retired) softball player, a lifelong baseball fan, and, of course, a professional observer of youth culture, I couldn’t help but tune into the Little League World Series match between the Taney Dragons from Philadelphia and a team of tween rivals from Nevada. While this event always piques my interest, this year’s pull was decidedly more powerful: the team’s pitcher, Mo’ne Davis.
At a time in the sports calendar when preseason football typically dominates, 13-year-old Davis claimed the cover of Sports Illustrated, making her the first Little Leaguer to do so while still in their formative years. Davis isn’t the first girl to take the field in the crown event of the Little League season, but she is the first to pitch for a win, and the first African-American girl to get in the game at this level.
While many girls have gotten attention for playing boys’ games, many have credited Davis with being the first product of Title IX and the right to a fair playing field it provides for female athletes. Davis is clearly not a publicity stunt, and she’s presented as more than a symbol – she’s someone that her coaches and teammates expect to deliver in the highest pressure athletic situation that many athletes her age will ever face.
Davis arrives on our radar at a time when we’re talking about gender norms, expectations, and realities more than ever before. The very definitions of masculinity and femininity may be in constant flux, but today’s post-Millennials often appear to be growing up at a time when gender is more fluid than ever. We think Mo’Ne Davis – the phenomenon as much as the girl herself – serves as a symbol of what we believe are the evolving ideas and ideals about gender for today’s youth.
- Post-Millennial doesn’t mean “post-gender.” With much talk about this being a post-gender cohort, we think it’s critical to acknowledge that Davis’ dramatic victory over a team from Texas, and her mere presence on the mound has garnered a lot of attention. Philly Magazine recently described her as a “reluctant cover girl” who would prefer to catch some of the other games at the South Williamsport, PA tournament in peace. Kids interviewed about the young star for various publications echo the same sentiment that many adults do: this is/she is a big deal. She is on the cover of SI at the end of August, afterall.
- To Post-Millennials, everyone who can play should play. Davis is different – it’s not debatable among youth or adults. At the same time, this bucking of sports norms feels very different than it has in previous times, and in some locales still, where we see girls attempting to play being met with accusations of spotlight-seeking. We’ve often heard cries of inequity from boys, not girls, forced to compete against a perceived softer, more fragile set of competitors. But the post-Millennial response to Mo’Ne seems in line with their overall perspective on gender: gender shouldn’t stop you from doing something you’re good at or love.
- Boys will be boys, but they’ll also be buddies. While Davis’ pitching is worth watching, I found myself more engrossed in the off-the-field interactions between Mo’Ne and her teammates. To be clear, Mo’Ne doesn’t seem to play the role of mother, cheerleader or even “cool chick” when she’s in the dugout. With serious eyes, she watches the game. Her teammates stand alongside her naturally, without awareness that she’s symbolic of something bigger than the next batter at the plate. When she was pulled from the game, the coach and her infielders seem to have a kind of conversation that felt anything but gendered. It’s possible that, knowing all eyes are on them, these boys are on their best behavior. But in the heat of a game like this one, it seems unlikely that they could fake the kind of friendship, built on mutual respect, which their gestures and body language convey.
- Who says girls don’t like baseball? Post-Millennials are more likely than earlier cohorts to have gone to school in co-ed settings from the time they were toddlers. They are more likely to invite boys and girls to their birthday parties. They are even okay watching Frozen (even if Olaf is sometimes the convenient snowy excuse for listening to 1.5 hours worth of show tunes in a princess flick). Boys are happy to don rainbow loom bracelets, and they’re more likely to have been raised by a dad who changed diapers. And guess what? They know that sometimes that stuff that they’re not supposed to like, or their supposed to see as strange for someone of their gender to do, is actually fun. Mo’Ne seems pretty determined to make her mark, but not because of gender politics or a pro-social mission. She seems to like to pitch.
Increasingly, the back-to-school list includes as many “must-nots” as “must-haves.” These restrictions range from a ban on candy to limits on chips and a veto on peanuts, tree nuts and shellfish (scrap that shrimp sandwich, mom!). Even at schools that don’t require uniforms, dress codes have become increasingly strict. Depending on age of child, schools have prohibited everything from colors that could be interpreted as gang-related to t-shirts with words of any sort on them. Some schools are urging parents to forego the juice box for a refillable water bottle. At some private schools—and even some public ones—parents can expect to see that all or some characters can’t appear on backpacks or t-shirts. And, of course, technology that might be deemed permissible at home is often forbidden on school grounds.
This might suggest that the back-to-school shopping trip is more rule-driven than ever. It certainly suggests that it’s a little less fun trip for many kids.
But will parents also miss a bit of the magic of selecting the perfect backpack or the peer-approved outfit? Based on what we know at YouthBeat about today’s moms and dads, and on what our C+R Shopper Insights expert, Terrie Wendricks, has seen in stores and online, they might.
Unlike parents of the past, today’s parents are perfectly fine with kid “asks.” They value their kids’, tweens’ and teens’ opinions like no cohort that came before, and see their children’s requests as keys to understanding their culture, in general, and their personal passions specifically. Having grown up with popular culture more prevalent in their lives, Millennial Moms and Dads, in particular, are more likely to share their kids’ interests in properties and characters. And with an increasing convergence around the content they consume, parents are more likely to side with their kids’, tweens’ and teens’ desire to express themselves through their affinities.
Nowhere is this dynamic more evident than in the retail environment where parents and kids seem to find more to agree over than to argue about! Terrie told us, “Today’s parents seek to ensure their children have their own ‘moments,’ especially in social situations like school, but today’s kids also recognize the reasons for parental restrictions across a wide variety of categories.”
So what happens when schools shun the very items that parents are happy to provide? Parents find other reasons to buy. So this back-to-school season, and for more to come, we predict that the out-of-school shopping list will be as important as the in-school one. Of course, with many families continuing to stick to the kinds of tightened budgets that they adopted during the down economy of the past few years (despite some evidence that families are returning to their traditional retail options over “band-aids” like dollar stores), the necessities are a priority. But if your product or brand is no longer on that list, we think there’s still hope for you…
- Position your product or offering as essential to “after school.”
- Forego messages about success and readiness, the domain of those in-school products, and instead speak to parents’ belief in the importance of play.
- Leverage parents’ nostalgia for characters that they grew up with, and that might provide their offspring with the kind of out-of-school enjoyment that parents can recall—Ninja Turtles, anyone?
- Remind parents that the fall “reset” doesn’t just involve the re-establishment of serious routines—it can also be a time to plan for fun!
- Remember that out-of-school offerings have permission to be packaged differently—think family size and shareable versus lunchbox friendly.
“Childhood isn’t what it used to be.”
This statement is often followed by an observation or perhaps a few statistics related to the way kids don’t roam their neighborhoods the way they used to. While this fact is hard to dispute, the reasons why are highly debatable. Some suggest that technology and television have made nearby nature seem boring to today’s kids. Others blame it on parents who hover, the helicopter moms and dads who prefer to keep their progeny in close proximity.
But giving kids the freedom to roam, or permission to spend time alone, is hardly a universally welcomed solution. In fact, what constitutes healthy supervision for today’s kids has become the subject of some of the most intense societal debates today.
Over the past few weeks, two mothers were arrested from Florida and South Carolina for child neglect has brought to a boil a debate that’s been bubbling up for some time. The first mother was arrested for allowing her 7-year-old son to walk to a park a half mile from his house, and the second mother was arrested when another parent called the police after seeing her 9-year-old daughter playing alone in a park near her place of employment (McDonald’s). The coverage of these stories have positioned these women as symbols of the hardships faced by the working poor (particularly single mothers), the shift from personal involvement to policing, and the change in neighborhoods from ones that are safe and “local” to ones that feel unfit for kids to play in without adult supervision.
Childcare website “care.com” asserts with authority, “Never let your child cross the street by themselves before age 10.” On the other hand, advocates of the “Free Range Kids” movement remind concerned parents that statistics do not support their fears of random abductions. While advocates of both positions will likely continue to disagree, a broader conversation worth happening might be “what constitutes supervision for today’s parents”?
For previous generations, supervision may have seemed more black and white – you were either with your parent or not, supervised or not so much. Today, parents – even helicopter parents – often keep in intimate contact with their children via text. Today’s latchkey kids can Skype mom and dad in the office when they arrive home. While it’s true that many kids are better equipped to enable and disable “parent” controls on their iPad, Kindle or laptop than their moms and dads, these virtual limits can be set without a parent actually being there. And while even a decade ago, parents had to pre-view a TV show or browse a website to know if their child was accessing age-appropriate content, now they can consult CommonSense Media for a full review – along with the age listed for appropriate use/viewing.
“Are these controls enough or too much?” seems to be the crux of the question on the minds of cultural critics. But we think it’s just as important to view this heated debate as a sign of its importance to parenting culture, and thus, to kids’ lives.
But what does this mean for anyone operating in the kid and parent space?
- Don’t assume you know what “everyone” thinks about safety. Assume ambiguity, and don’t expect that you can predict what your audience thinks. Even the most research-reliant parents can admit that they still worry about kidnappings (despite “knowing” that their child is more likely to be abducted or abused by someone they know). Despite the risks associated with putting kids’ personal info online, many parents continue to post pics of their little ones online. Beliefs and practices don’t always match.
- Do treat parents with respect. Parenting is hard and while many staunch defenders of the “free range” or the child supervision camp will suggest that the other side is damaging children, remember that most parents live somewhere in the middle. And sometimes for good reason. Remember that many parents don’t have the choice to supervise “ideally.” As the stories of these single mothers suggest, childcare is complicated and expensive. Age doesn’t always tell the story of a child’s level of responsibility. And keep in mind that compromising on a child’s safety isn’t something that most parents would ever do if they had another choice.
- Reconsider the “permissive/restrictive” continuum. Most parents have complex relationships to the rules they establish for their kids, and what they permit them to do, when, and why. Labeling parents “restrictive” or “permissive” in any category is likely to mask a much more complex reality. Parents often consider context (e.g., sometimes parents who are strict about sugar are even stricter about making sure their children doesn’t insult another parent who has just offered them a treat. Respecting parents’ choices and realities related to their child’s safety, health and well-being starts with understanding their lives.
Kids, tweens and especially teens today increasingly expect brands to come to them. It’s not just that they prefer being courted to being pressured to discover a new brand or retail experience, but quite literally, they expect food trucks to bring their favorite eats to their neighborhoods, online retailers to curate offerings based on their tastes, and pop-up versions of their top shops to sprout in unexpected spots. The latest marketing trend brings products to the places where they already play.
Old Navy recently made the most of a summer sale by bringing flip-flop vending machines to well-trafficked locales in Los Angeles and New York. Of course, these big-city spots were selected to maximize PR more than product sales, but they also play into the desire and fantasy of teens to get what they want, when they want it. But even though Old Navy’s objective was to raise awareness for a $1 flip flop blow-out, they actually gave away the simple summer shoes for an even cheaper price: a tweet.
Getting stuff for social currency might be something that’s more accessible to the stars than to the average teen, but the idea of giving away goods in exchange for a great story was the strategy of another vending machine adventure. In 2012, Coke turned a simple partnership with the latest 007 flick into a chance for consumer participation. These kiosks, and the theater that ensued (see the video), didn’t just make a mission their message, they made it an interactive experience.
What can brands learn from these vending ventures?
- When it comes to youth go to them, don’t make them come to you.
- Show up in surprising places. Don’t worry about fitting in spaces – look for ways to stand out within them.
- Consider the cost of communication. Remember, that the buzz your branding effort generates after the fact might be more valuable than first-hand exposures.
- Promote participation. Teens are still playful, but they don’t always get to show it. Make your promotions more fun than cool and gain their loyalty and love.
Every three to four years for the last few decades, U.S. commentators wonder aloud whether this will be the year that Americans care about The Beautiful Game, in conjunction with both the men’s World Cup and the women’s World Cup (Canada, 2015). The escalation of youth participation in soccer
, the rising international profile of U.S. Soccer (men’s – women, we know, have been on top for quite a while), and increased media coverage on mainstream outlets are all cited as reasons why this (insert year here) will be the year that Americans finally get soccer. Of course, on the heels of the draw with Portugal, which looked like a victory for the U.S. up until the last 30 seconds, this claim seems more justified than in the past. Can Americans still possibly claim that soccer doesn’t hold the excitement of other sports?
Thus far, research shows that viewership of and interest in the World Cup has remained pretty stable compared to four years ago. According to Pew Research, roughly the same share of the public is looking forward to the World Cup this year (22%) as it was in 2010 (23%). The nature of the tournament means that few moments will garner as much attention as the one and done Super Bowl. Despite the U.S. and Ghana match’s 7.0 ratings share on Nielsen’s overnight report—a record for a FIFA World Cup match on the channel, according to Businessweek, kids, tweens and teens who are still in school in some parts of the country and beginning camp in others, don’t exactly have the freedom to view during the day that many adults seem to find. Youth can’t flock to their local pub the way Millennials might, and kids and tweens, in particular, are consistently more excited to play the game than watch it on TV.
Still, it’s hard to argue that the World Cup and soccer, in general, have become important symbols of youth culture. Pew’s research shows that four-in-ten adults ages 18-29 (40%) were looking forward to the World Cup before the start of the tournament, compared with just 13% of adults 50 and older. The last time the men’s World Cup occurred, we wrote about the reasons why soccer should matter to today’s kids, tweens and teens
. Four years later, we’re inspired to look at all that soccer – and the U.S. team specifically - represents and reflects about this particular cohort of youth.
A global community. As fans of England now know, the seemingly solid lines of citizenship and belonging are hardly fixed. Uruguay dashed the hopes of the English team by the foot of striker Luis Suarez – best known for an infamous stint in the Premier League, and as a player for Liverpool. The global exchange of footballers is not new to the sport, but better reflects a kind of youth culture and experience that sees country boundaries and borders, and a general sense of belonging and membership that is more fluid than ever. The U.S. team has players that feel diverse in all sorts of ways – with many spending much of their lives living outside our nation’s borders. The U.S. team, moreso than many other “national teams” like the Olympic contingents for most sports, feels like it truly reflects the plurality of experiences and backgrounds that youth recognize from their own lives.
An underdog coming of age. The U.S. team might be an unlikely underdog, but when it comes to soccer, the world seems to be watching to see whether this up and comer can establish itself as a world power on the pitch. Being underestimated makes the U.S. team even more relatable to youth, who respect fame and accomplishment, but root for those who – like themselves – are often trying to prove they’re more capable than expected.
A respect for refresh. For many long-time U.S. soccer fans, the decision to leave Landon Donovan at home was controversial to say the least. But for youth, a chance for new stars to shine makes the team even more appealing. Soccer has been somewhat stagnated in popular culture, with athletes like Mia Hamm (who kids continue to love) representing the face of the game, despite being on the bench. Today’s youth are more likely to follow someone who represents the future of soccer, not its past.
Inclusiveness. The Nike campaign for the World Cup suggests that the kind of inclusiveness that this cohort of kids, tweens and teens value and demand is not lost on one of youth’s favorite brand, even beyond football. The ad includes “characters” from across the globe in a video game style ad, and, importantly, speaks to youth with humor, not only heroism. And, the language of laughter connects with a broad range of youth.
On the surface, Kendall and Kylie Jenner are not relatable in any sense of the word. They come from one of the most globally recognizable families in the world. They call an Olympic athlete their dad and a “Momager” their mom. Kendall Jenner’s IMDB bio describes her as an “American socialite, television personality and model.” Kylie Jenner hangs with Will Smith’s son, movie star Jaden Smith. Their famous sisters (and half brothers) have had self-titled TV shows, and almost everyone in their family of drinking age is paid in the thousands of dollars for merely appearing at a party. Not to mention that their lives have been filmed and broadcast since the age of 10 (Kylie) and 12 (Kendall).
But despite the odds, they might have just become role models of a certain sort to today’s youth. What makes these girls the celebs of the moment goes beyond good marketing and a public platform that is arguably unrivaled (although those help). We think that they were far from destined to become today’s trendiest teens (with millions following them on Twitter). And while there are many reasons why adults might critique their particular brand of fame, we’re endlessly curious about the reasons why these girls have connected with today’s teens.
- They defy the script. Despite being part of the most scripted unscripted family of all time, the youngest Jenner sisters consistently seem to speak in a different tone, in a different way than their older counterparts. Kylie dyes her hair blue. Kendall prefers to portray herself as awkward and anti-social versus gregarious and polished. They publicly criticize their celebrity family (all the while, reassuring listeners that they’re all about familial love). They sometimes shun the camera (all the while, continuing to post selfies of all sorts).
- They eschew entitlement. Like their older sisters, these girls seem to engage in deals across multiple domains. But the image they’ve cultivated is one that suggests that they are workers. Beyond constantly praising the work ethic of their parents, they have served as “interns,” designers for a line at Pac Sun (who, in the “fashion” of the day, claim to be hands on, and they’ve written a fictional novel). Even Kendall’s recent success as a model feels like it’s fueled more by the kind of flow she gets from pursuing a lifelong passion (even though, in early episodes of the series, she buckled under the pressure her older sister put on her to take modeling classes).
- They have issues. But they have the right kind of issues – teen angst, sibling rivalry, a little bit of narcissism - but they’re not known for promiscuity, overindulgence, or insensitivity. Remember, their young fans are much more morally self-righteous than we might expect. Tweens, in particular,are quick to feel uncomfortable when their idols make ill-advised decisions.
- They care about creativity. They represent a kind of creative class of youth that feels both age-appropriate and consistent with the ethos of their cohort of youth. It’s unlikely that teens will read the countless scathing reviews of their newest endeavor, a novel entitled Rebels: City of Indra, and instead will see them as “authors” of a form that feels different than the memoirs of their famous sister and mother. They treat fashion with reverence that helps to elevate their occupation as “designers” and models to a respectable height. And their boho style, while fueled by designer labels, feels more earthy and relatable to today’s teen girls who see themselves as more creative than luxury-laden.
- They’re connected. It’s not just about tweeting or posting a never-ending stream of images on Instagram. They’re connected to each other – they come as a pair like so many popular kid and teen characters (remember Mary Kate and Ashley?). They are surrounded by people and have a built in social club in the form of their siblings. This reassurance that these stylish, attractive girls are also part of a larger team is critical to keeping them within reach.
Later this week, 20th Century Fox will release the highly anticipated Fault in Our Stars (FiOS), a teen romance based on the best-selling 2012 Young Adult novel by John Green. Social media has been buzzing over this movie for years, and the excitement is getting even more intense as the premiere date gets closer. The trailer for the film has nearly 20 million views, and John Green has been popping up all over social media promoting the film.
The success of FiOS might seem surprising. There are no supernatural creatures, it’s not set in a dystopia where teens must fight to the death, and it lacks much of the dark, fantastical elements we’ve come to expect in teen media. It’s a realistic story about two terminally-ill teens who meet and fall in love. The story isn’t new to Young Adult fiction (or “YA” among the indoctrinated!), but Green’s story has made a huge impression on teen and adult readers. A lot has already been written about what makes FiOS so successful (its raw emotions, its universal story of love and life, its compelling characters, etc.), but we thought of a different reason as to why FiOS is not only so wildly popular, but also why it’s popularity isn’t that surprising.
Teen culture has always been about balance. For every bad boy, there is a boy next door; for every nerd, a jock; and if there’s heartache, there’s a new romance. The list could go on. Even popular culture aimed at teens balances itself. The crazy stunts and outrageous antics of Lady Gaga are balanced by Taylor Swift’s wholesome good-girl.
After years of supernatural creatures and murderous teens, FiOS balances YA literature and teen culture. For years, teens have been bombarded with (and rabidly consumed by) dark fantasy, paranormal romance, and dystopia. Just when it looked like the scale was beginning to tilt a little too far, along came FiOS with its human, fallible characters, its awkward romance, and its gritty exploration of a very real and very human issue: illness and death. FiOS provides teens with something different, something to offset the media they’ve been consuming for so many years.
Even John Green himself is vastly different from other YA authors. Green was one of the first major vloggers on Youtube, a platform he has used successfully to speak to teens and promote his books. Green tweets and takes to Tumblr. His celebrity status and willingness to engage with teens has led some to call him the "teen whisper", unlike Stephanie Meyers and Suzanne Collins, neither of whom have actively engaged with their audience in the ways Green does.
While it might be easy to talk about the importance of tension in teen products or offerings, we think a bit of balance might be a better formula for success. Extreme might make for a headline, but balance makes for a bestseller.
Predicting the next kid or tween craze or collectible is far from easy, and assessing a contender often requires a highly tuned gut more than a simple list of rules. Still, practice makes perfect and we thought we would give you newbies to the kid space a starting point, and you vets a compelling case study to add to your own collection…Watchover Voodoo Dolls.
Watchover Voodoo Dolls are keychains featuring little people made of string. The characters range from ninjas and karate pros to little girls shopping and to test-taking students. Each one comes attached to a tag which provides the character’s name, but more importantly, the way it will watchover its owner…Keeper, a soccer player, promises to be “your last line of defense against all those who try to beat you at your own game.” The Student purports to “help you enjoy the best days of your life and ensure your future is as debt free as possible.” They’re
sold in novelty shops, on eBay, and on Amazon.
So what does our latest favorite kid/tween collectible get right? Here’s what we think…
- Cute+cool. For kids and tweens, the best collectibles are the ones you can show off to your friends…and most of the time, you see your friends outside of school. So collectibles for this age are, not surprisingly, small. Little can inherently lead to cute, and cute, depending on your age, can be a bit uncomfortable. So what do the best collectibles do? They combine the cute with the cool (subscribers can see our JFM 2013 Trendspotter for more on this timeless and timely trend, inspired by the work of scholar, Gary Cross). These dainty dolls deal with strong feelings and emotions, making statements that might be wise beyond the years of their young owners. But containing these weighty sentiments within these tiny trinkets makes for just the right juxtaposition. They are safe but bold, mature but manageable for the developing kid and tween psyche.
- Material matters. As scholars like Robin Bernstein contend, the material that children’s toys are comprised of conveys a “script” for the play experience. Are these toys or objects of desire to be treated gently? Are they precious or rare? For kid and tween collectibles, a little bit of breakability isn’t all bad….This might seem counter to the wishes of
protective parents, but might that not be the point? The best collectibles tend to feel like they require cherishing – much like the dirt-attracting fibers of these miniature Voodoo figures. They aren’t fragile in the traditional sense, but they do require more careful handling (the notion of protection put back in youth’s hands) than the average keychain.
- A dose of danger. So many of kids’ collectibles are relatively benign. But for kids and tweens, a bit of subversiveness often makes for a more salient item. This encroaching on the occult is an evergreen theme in kid culture – think Ouija boards and magic eight balls. But collectibles often have an air of the rare and mysterious to them too. Pokemon cards have their exotic look (especially when they first emerged on the scene, in the early day of the anime explosion). Or the mischievousness of Garbage Pail Kids. Or the taking of a regular top and overlaying it with slightly threatening personas, as in Beyblades. Watchover Voodoo Dolls do a great job fulfilling kids’ and tweens’ fascination with the mystical and dangerous (voodoo), while keeping things light and positive (watchover). These dolls serve as symbolic mantras that kids can carry around with them. More like a lucky rabbit’s foot than an actual voodoo doll, the power behind these objects comes from the ideas they represent more than just their aesthetics.
- Priced right. A collectible might have an air of preciousness about it, but to incentivize a trend, it’s important to get the price point right. In the U.S., these dolls linger between the $7.50 and $10 price point. They are just expensive enough to matter (something has to be at stake for a collectible to “count”), but cheap enough that they’re within the range of many tweens’ allowance.
Recently, our family spent spring break in Italy with two boys of our own, and two nephews all under the age of six. While technically “off the clock,” I couldn’t help but bring my researchers’ eyes along for the ride. This is by no means a scientific study, but this fresh look at youth and this, admittedly, random collection of observations and reminders has left me with ideas and inspiration for the past few weeks. I hope they do the same for you!
- The slides are steeper. In the town where we stayed, the fountain at the piazza’s center was backed by a modern playground comprised of colorful slides, bridges and tunnels, and climb-able trucks and trains. By all accounts, this play space looked like it could have been in Chicago or New Jersey, or anywhere else in the world. Except for the slide. It was STEEP! As if our American-ness wasn’t already apparent in this off-the-beaten path town, the way we gawked at the tall yellow slide signaled that we were not from “around here.” But what insight can possibly be gleaned from the slope of a slide? Like so many European TV programs (if you ever have the chance, see the brilliant David Kleeman’s presentation on the big risks that children’s television takes in other markets around the world), risk looks a little different outside our borders. There was hardly glass on the ground, and no dangerous characters lingered by the swings, but this playground didn’t have signs signaling appropriate ages, and it had one heck of a drop from the top. The fun for kids from this whizzzzzzzz came from taking off, however tentatively, one’s cloak of nervousness to experience the joy and
bravado that comes from tackling a phobia. More was at stake on this slide than on their safer American counterparts. Too bad for all the undercover superheroes in the U.S. just waiting for their chance to fly.
- Play is a language. The highlight of our vacation, at least for me, came not from watching the sun set over a grove of olive trees (although that was nice) or a glass of vino with family (nice as well) but watching my six year old son negotiate a game of tag with a new friend. Beyond a “bon giorno” and a cautious “hello,” the two children had little to discuss. But they were able to gesture and smile their way through a fairly recognizable game of tag (with my son’s new Italian friend sometimes hugging instead of simply tagging!). It reminded me that play is a language all its own, and it travels. The impulse to play is something that adults sometimes try to manage, promote and steer, but the desire to connect in un-productive leisure represents something more powerful than many adults can understand or facilitate. Play pushes its way through barriers of all sorts, including language barriers, to become the language itself.
- They have the same Legos everywhere. Globalization and consumer culture are weighty issues—and ones that marketers often view very differently than the many critics who consider the loss of local flavor (in addition to many other potentially deleterious effects). But there was something amazing about the way that characters and properties bond children across the globe. Beyond Cartoonito’s decidedly dark rendition of Heidi, many of the shows on Italian TV were familiar to our kids. This universal culture might have its downsides—and in the least, suggests we should treat these ubiquitous exports as sacred symbols—but it also serves to make children comfortable across strange lands. When my son saw his favorite Legos in the window of a toy store in downtown Chiavari, he was home.
- “New” can be nice. It could be these specific kids, or it could be this cohort of youth, but the differences in pizza, ice cream, language, and environment and even in other people didn’t seem to faze our young travelers. The excitement came from the same sources it typically did—from really, really good gelato. Or a particularly challenging playground bridge. Or that steep slide. But without making a big deal about what was different, our kids seemed to think that most things were pretty much the same. Kids are shockingly adaptable if we allow them to be. For all the concern that modern parents face about fixing schedules and helping children adjust to new experiences, kids not only survive but often thrive when they must encounter and integrate the “new.” It goes without saying that this is where learning and growth live—not just for kids, but for adults as well.