Children’s brands have become too focused on ‘stuff’ versus play. Emma Worrollo, Founder of Playful Den, issues a call to action for how brands can improve the quality of kid culture.

There are always moments where industries need to radically ditch conventions, think bigger and step up. This change is ushered in both from a mix of commercial survival but also a pull on the moral compass which cannot be ignored. I believe that right now commercial organisations need to start prioritising how they can play a bigger role in ‘cleaning up’ childhood.

There’s a wealth of research you can look at that will point to many things not going well in childhood. From intense academic pressure to reduced play time outside to access to platforms and content that were not built with them in mind, there’s a lot to work on to protect and nourish all children. We now have a lot of evidence from Gen Z, aka the guinea pig generation who have emerged from a childhood with a smartphone and have the scars to prove it. Is this the fault of commercial kids’ brands? No. But this is the world that these brands operate in. To some extent that have some sway over kid culture and have the resources to do something with that. We have a responsibility to look around and say ‘hey, there’s something over there not right... let's help fix it’. Whilst kids' brands aren't always the start point of problems, I don't think they always help as much as they could. It’s time to move beyond charitable donations as a way of giving back and get stuck in deeper with creative ideas and solutions to protect the best bits of childhood.

I’ve written six actions and strategic behaviours commercial organisations who design for kids could take that will positively uplift the quality of kid culture. Will they solve everything? No. But they are what I'd describe as line-in-the-sand actions of creating a more enriching and sustainable space. They might not all be relevant to your organisation and this list is not exhaustive, but I hope it sparks a gathering point to connect over of thinking differently:

  1. Don’t always ‘go where the kids are’

Of all the frequent statements I’ve heard in meeting rooms over the years, this one is up there – ‘go where the kids are’. This used to make sense, but today it’s a slippery slope. I notice a hopelessness that kids are so consumed by TikTok and Roblox it’s hard to get a look in anywhere else. I empathise, it is very hard to get noticed, but trust that if your product/show/game is good enough, they will come. Radical imagination in how you get that across is needed. Invest in your brand and product more than your marketing, because populating unsafe spaces with safe brands, is major ick territory. Advertising in ways kids don't realise they are watching advertising is creating some seriously grey areas. We must not give up on bringing kids into safe environments. Making a decision to stay off spaces that do not invest in protecting kids’ interests matters – vote with your media budgets. Communicating in new creative ways that actually give some value back to kids is the future of creative marketing.

  1. Stop obsessing about digital, invest in IRL

Most brands I have worked with are moving their fun and play into digital experiences. Everyone now has their eyes on AI and VR in a race to not get left behind, but we've reached a point in innovation where backwards is as much of an opportunity as is forwards. When I speak to many parents they don’t want integrated digital and analogue integrations, they want to keep them separate, where the digital can elevate the real world but never distract from it. The consequence of trying to keep up in the digital play race is often a sacrifice of development of new real products, real play, and real experiences, they don't get as much budget or creative energy. The need to perform globally and at scale makes digital ideas winning ideas, but here’s the thing, from a kid's POV, their digital world is pretty epic. They have amazing games and digital experiences, but in contrast, their real life is more limited; many are lonely and lacking in social experiences. If you are a business with a product that can help them with that, keep focussing on it, having an impact here can really create memories and bring a lot of value; use digital to strengthen, but not dilute it.

  1. Produce less stuff and create more play

The toy market has become dominated by collectable merch versus actual toys with rich play experiences. At the Toy Fair this year I saw a lot of repetition and production of things that I knew in my heart would end up in landfill. Landfill toys are easy to spot; they’re faddy, can usually be played with in only one way, are hard to pass down or sell on and usually not designed well. The toy industry is great at things like safety testing and even creating products that are developmentally sound, but how do we get better at identifying what is likely landfill? I’m very much on team toy sales, I’d love to see the industry grow and flourish, but there is too much landfill merch right now. Focus and investment on quality brands and innovations done well is needed versus more merch and more blind bags. Create social opportunities, this is a real call to action to commune kids and parents together over play.

  1. Diversify kids’ role models

I really believe Gen Alpha can handle and are ready for more creative ways of playing with characters and stories. They are listening to and being influenced by content creators which is having both a positive and negative impact and this changes their expectations of characters. There is a lot to be learned from what they like about creators with associated opportunities in the development of new role models. I don’t want this to be misinterpreted, but I wonder if in the (rightful) pursuit of diverse representation, we have at times forgone evolving archetypal character presentation? We must keep pushing the boundaries on representation, it’s very important, but diversity for alpha is not enough to be the crux of the story or character; it’s a facet, but when overly focussed on, can make it feel predictable or tokenistic. In other words, diversity should be baked in and part of all stories, and not always the center focus, we need diversity within diversity! There really has been some great examples of new characters, but there is still so much more that’s needed. The next step is playing around with characters more, because despite evolution, we’re still fairly stuck with a lot of stereotypes and old-world presentations of gender, age, race and disability. I notice in these discussions that teams can be cautious about this and wary of getting ‘political’. This doesn’t have to be executed in any kind of political statement, as the kids say, ‘it’s not that deep’; break the rules and don’t overthink it, because they don’t.

  1. Create family fans, talk more to parents

Family dynamics have changed. Kids and parents are close, they play together more and spend more time together. Whilst it might take a village to raise a child, there are millions of families who don’t have one. They have a gap to bridge and they also seek out a deeper connection with their kids than prior generations. They want to know their kids and get on their level. That means they share fandoms and seek shared experiences. This is good news for brands and marketers, as you can really help them. Most kids' brands lust after being kid-demanded or kid-cool. But do you know what’s probably safer and going to lead to more ethical communication and possibly more profit? Being parent-cool. That is a viable strategy to go after today and if you’re still considering parents as ‘gatekeepers’, think again. The opportunity for family brands is huge and it can lead to a wholesome destination. Most of the brands in the kids' space that have longevity are also loved by parents, the scope for playing with this is massive. If I were investing in anything right now it would be developing playful cooperative digital experiences for parents and kids to have fun together in a space that is usually filled with a lot of tension and battles, this will be an important step in our evolution of living more harmoniously alongside technology – for everyone to play with it together.

  1. Design more stuff for tweens

Very few businesses innovate directly for kids around the 8 - 13 stage. The reasons I’ve heard in the past range from it being too hard to crack or probably more realistically, it’s not broad enough to commercialise. I couldn’t disagree more strongly about this one (as they say, this is the hill I’ll die on). If you design for this age well, older and younger kids at the edges get pulled in. Instead, what happens today (and has done for years this an age-old tale), is that kids emerge from experiences and brands that are very clearly signposted for them and then jump into things that they are not ready for. Because of access to content and influencers from social media and wider culture, this now happens earlier. There is a lot of assumption that ‘kids grow older younger’. Brands can feel lost in how to reach them within the context of what they are consuming. What is actually happening is that kids have a high need to participate in pop culture and trends and they jump into it fast via TikTok and YouTube with mixed results. They are also massively influenced by their millennial parents, especially girls. This balance beam between kids' world and mature teen content and experiences is very important to protect and is full of opportunities that no one is thinking about enough. From publishing to streaming to fashion and toys, this segment is ripe for a make-over with more cool but training wheels-type brands and experiences that are age-appropriate.