We went to Fisher Price’s Play Lab to find out how the toys are made

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For most adults over a certain age, the words “Fisher-Price” will immediately conjure up images of brightly colored plastic toys — or wooden toys, if you were alive before the ’50s.

For me, it’s the iconic Chatter phone (remember?), which has been fun to dial in since 1961 and, more recently, got a modern makeover with fully functional Bluetooth connectivity (!) for making calls. .

But the Chatter phone isn’t the only thing that rebooted. So is the Play Lab in Upstate New York, a child-led testing facility (the industry’s first) that continues the 92-year-old company’s long tradition of getting toy specialists working with little testers.

So how are you? Well, Fisher-Price’s headquarters, on the aptly named Little People Lane in East Aurora, can only be described as the toy-based equivalent of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

Do you remember the Chatter phone? It’s been entertaining kids since the 60s (Picture: Lucy Hedges)

The Play Lab was first opened in 1961 (Photo: Included)

Lucy got a behind-the-scenes look at the high-tech toy lab (Photo: Lucy Hedges)

Think: a giant slide between floors and a nostalgic heritage museum detailing every Fisher-Price toy, from the first official Disney license in 1935 and Rock-a-Stack from the 1960s to the hugely popular yellow roller skates from 1983 and 2007’s original Smart cycle-cum-baby Peloton.

The Play Lab and its formalized practice of observing children firsthand have come a long way since opening in 1961, when it occupied half of the office of co-founder Herman Fisher.

By using state-of-the-art technology to observe play patterns and by literally looking at toys through children’s eyes, it’s clear that there’s a lot more to finding the next big thing in toys than you might think. think.

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We stand behind a two-way mirror, watching a mother and her 18-month-old son play with a selection of new Linkimals (Happy Shapes Hedgehog, Lights & Color Llama, AZ Otter, Musical Moose and Smooth Moves Sloth), in what seems like in a fairly normal, if somewhat clinical, living room.

This is the Discovery Lab, one of four research areas connected to cameras, microphones, computers and facial recognition software that make up the Play Lab.

A team of researchers watches children play through a two-way mirror (Photo: Fisher Price Play Lab)

Facial recognition software helps recognize which toys kids like (Photo: Fisher Price Play Lab)

With an eye-tracking cap strapped to his head, one camera can track eye movements while another points out to capture the scene at the same time. Meanwhile, a researcher takes pictures that a designer or engineer may find useful, and monitors the live recording software on her laptop.

“We started using eye tracking to really understand what a child is looking at specifically,” says child education specialist Dr Lisa Lohiser. ‘Analysis software tells us that they are looking for something specific. So when they hear the word ‘red’, and they look at something else that’s red, it says they’re starting to understand it and they’ve made that connection.”

The technology has proven absolutely necessary to capture feedback from testers who can’t yet articulate feedback in their own words. Take the new line of Linkimals interactive toys, which connect with other characters to count, light up and sing together.

A recent eye-tracking study, conducted on 50 toddlers over a few months, provided statistical evidence that ‘they begin to make connections between when they see, touch, hear and what the toys do’.

Observation deck

Elsewhere in the Discovery Lab, the team uses heart rate monitors alongside something called Baby FaceReader Emotional Analysis.

A software tool used for children six months and older, it watches captured video to automatically identify facial expressions to measure babies’ emotions and aid in developmental psychology.

Before high-tech monitoring was introduced, Lohiser tells us, the Lab used to sit in a room and watch kids play and take lots of pictures. “Our cameras just got better,” she adds.

The Pre-Cool Lab has a great tree house for 3-5 year olds to play in (Photo: Fisher Price Play Lab)

There’s even a cool slide to play on (Picture: Lucy Hedges)

In addition to the Discovery Lab, there are three other areas that make up the Play Lab lineup. First, there’s the interactive Pre-Cool Lab cum playground, complete with a very cool tree house, for kids ages three to five.

Here, the team invites playgroups of about six children to interact with a bunch of toys or 3D-printed prototypes as they would in a preschool setting. The Wonder Lab, meanwhile, is primarily used for parent focus groups, while the Right At Home Lab is a simulated home environment for families.

Interestingly, the electrical engineering team uses sensors to record some of the data, such as how many times a button is pressed or how much a toy is picked up.

More: Connect


The team also works closely with designers, engineers, content producers and musicians to evaluate every detail of each toy, from play pattern to size and more.

Sound engineers, for example, work with the Play Lab to ensure that learning and pronunciation is developmentally appropriate and that voice prompts are timed correctly so children can understand.

They are also responsible for the repetitive beeps and beeps that earwigs cause in the brains of adults.

“There’s an expectation that music will be boring,” says Glen Tarachow, who studied music composition at the prestigious Jacobs School of Music in Indiana, then composed the music for Macy’s Christmas window displays in New York before landing at Fisher-Price.

While annoying, the music in children’s toys is meant to appeal to babies (Photo: Fisher Price Play Lab)

“I always try to make something that parents like too. I don’t write baby music, it is inspired by EDM and is typically gender neutral.’

Tarachow is responsible for the (ruthlessly insane) DJ ​​Bouncin’ Beats.

“It’s all about small nuances that make the toy unique,” he says. ‘Certain styles of music make a baby bounce up and down unconsciously. Not certain music.’

But from concept and prototype to fine-tuning and testing, what seems like a golden idea can change dramatically once a child gets their hands on it.

The original Chatter phone design did not include a drawstring, which was not added until designers noticed kids were dragging it on the handset cord.

Fisher price in numbers

137,250 babies and toddlers have tested toys in the Play Lab over the years

2500+ kids take part in toy tests in the Play Lab every year

Fisher-Price has a database of 10,000 families within 50 miles of East Aurora

450+ toy ideas are tested every year

Where magic happens

‘We follow what’s happening in the world of trends,’ says Domenic Gubitosi, director of product design.

After consulting with trend houses, for example, the team discovered that sloths and moose are in, and animals like elephants and lions are out.

Interestingly, different animals have different connotations in different countries. Owls, for example, are not well off in Italy, because many think they bring bad luck.

Animal trends affect product design. Penguins must be popular! (Photo: Fisher Price)

However, it’s unlikely that today’s little testers will care about hapless owls – after a brief bit of anxiety and a battle with the eye-tracker (which he pulled out twice), our Linkimals tester was engrossed, constantly pushing buttons and going from toys to toys, while another pitted one Imaginext Stomp & Rumble Giga Dino against another dinosaur.

It’s easy to see why the Play Lab is at the heart of the company and why it has been such a closely guarded secret.

“The Play Lab has always been seen as Fisher-Price’s secret sauce,” says Lohiser.

So why did Fisher-Price choose to throw open the doors of its secret testing facilities?

“Parents want to know what’s behind the making of toys and what the thought process is,” says Lohiser.

‘We also want to share how much thought, testing and effort goes into it. There is a reason behind every feature in our toys. We try to create that moment of joy that prompts learning. And just by telling the world it makes everyone feel good.’

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