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That's Edutainment!

The market for toys that teach turns shops into playgrounds for young minds.

April 29, 1999|KAREN NEWELL YOUNG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Remember your parents hissing "Don't touch" every time you stepped into a store? Now "touch" is the mantra as toy sellers lure families to spend the afternoon playing with the merchandise.

These days educational toy stores are designed as giant playrooms, and each weekend crowds of kids gather at computers and crafts tables. Toddlers chase inflatable balls through the aisles, and parents drop off their kids as they head for Brookstone or Victoria's Secret.

The stores attract families looking for quality merchandise that offers more educational bang for the buck; nonviolent and gender-neutral items that emphasize a genuine learning experience.

Of course, these toys take time to figure out. So these stores are becoming hangouts for youngsters and destinations where families gather for free entertainment on the weekend.

They're filled with globes that talk, cash registers that teach and chemistry sets that create simulated mucus and other bodily fluids. Brainy baubles and mind-challenging gizmos are a fast-growing part of the $20-billion toy industry. Analysts even have a name for it: edutainment.

This niche includes museum shops and aquarium gift stores, but educational toy stores are a big chunk of the 16,000 "edutainment" retail outlets in America, according to Museums and More Magazine. These stores constitute an annual growth rate of 25%, the magazine says.

In the past four years, more than a dozen educational toy stores have opened in the area.

Leading the trend in Orange County are Learningsmith, Zany Brainy, KCET's Store of Knowledge, the Discovery Channel Store and the granddaddy of them all, Imaginarium--the New Jersey-based chain that debuted in the county in 1987.

Newcomers include Zany Brainy, which opened five stores in the county last year, and Learningsmith, which has two stores in the area. KCET's Store of Knowledge at Fashion Island opened in 1994; a new Store of Knowledge is expected to open at the Mission Viejo Mall in September. They join several independent specialty stores already established in the county.

"I think what we're seeing is parents are becoming much more interested in the educational aspect of what their kids are playing with," said Eric Johnson of Vanderbilt University, who studies toys. "Educational toy stores are driving a growing segment of the toy industry."

Perhaps because children have less time for play than in the past, parents want to make sure playtime is productive, he added.

As for kids' preferences, they may still want Barbie and G.I. Joe, but they will play with whatever their parents buy. The current top-selling toy (as of December 1998) is Hasbro's Talking Teletubbies ($24.44).

"Parents want to feel good about buying toys," said Chris Byrne, editor of Playthings Market Watch. "Boomer parents want to buy quality merchandise that will last and teach their kids something. And the kids like the idea of playing with something for free."

That's true if the gaggle of preteens at Store of Knowledge in Fashion Island this month is any indication.

"I come here every weekend because I don't have a computer at home," said 9-year-old Marcos Salcido of Santa Ana. "We have this stuff at school and I want to get good at [using] it."

KCET Store of Knowledge pulls in buyers with clownish jugglers. Zany Brainy organizes craft and reading programs nearly every day. According to parents, the entertainment value is as important as the merchandise.

"I came back [to this store] for the activities," said Beatriz Omilianowski, 27, of Santa Ana, who visits Zany Brainy with her son Jason, 2. "I pulled out the calendar of events and brought my son for the chalk drawing."

"It's entertaining," said Wayne Payne of Anaheim Hills, who brought granddaughter McKenna Crosby, 2. "Yesterday I was here and bought her a harmonica. Today we're playing with chalk. She can play with whatever she wants, and nothing in here will blow up or hurt anybody. It's educational; that's what I like about it."

Eleanor Blenz of Irvine takes her grandchildren--Caitlin, 6, and Paul, 7--to the Zany Brainy in Newport Beach.

"I like the relaxed atmosphere. It's not like the craziness of a Toys R Us," said Blenz. "My little grandchild was allowed to sit and play, and nobody bothered her. For me, that was entertaining."

Some families find more stimulating activities in the stores than at the local library, which in these post-Proposition 13 times can't match the volume of current books, software and CDs that large retailers stock.

Many of the toys are products kids have never seen before: I Dig Dinosaurs excavation kits ($19.99), cake decorating kits ($12.99) and a Smithsonian Environmental Test Kit ($19.89). Parents don't seem to mind spending a bit more than discount stores charge when the variety of merchandise and creative environments can keep the kids entertained while they shop. Prices are typical of what you'd expect at small toy retailers or independent book stores.

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