Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Playful Perspectives: Is "Riding Bikes" Character Building?

Welcome to a new feature on The Toy Guy's blog. We're calling it Playful Perspectives and its the first of what we hope will be many partnerships with Ty's Toy Box and their tireless blogger the Toy Box Mommy. We give you two pespectives and hope to enhance your point of view so you can make choices that work for you and your kids. It's kind of like the "sparkling drop or Retsyn" that made Certs "two, two, two mints in one." (Remember that?) Or not.

Either way, since we're all about making the world a better place to play™, we're excited to be all on the same page, metaphorically, to share some insights that might be useful to you. We hope you'll let us know if we're doing okay, and what else you'd like to hear about.

So, as you can read from Ty's Toy Box Mommy, Cartoon Network has announced a new deal to make bikes based on the property and mega-hit show Ben 10. There is absolutely nothing new about this. For years companies have been putting their most popular characters on all kinds of products, including bikes. Such characters as Barbie, Dora the Explorer and othes have been staples of this business.They've owned the girls' licensed bike business, and there hasn't been that much for boys in this category. (Let's forget for the moment that Ben 10 has a very strong girl following. Typically, while both genders tend to like properties and watch the shows, products tend to skew towards one. In this case, it's boys that like the stuff.)

The thing about Ben 10 play that works is that it's all about roleplay. It's about fantasizing that you have special powers, and that you can summon aliens and overcome being a kid. This is a really important function of boys play. When your life is all about "Eat your peas." "Do your homework." and the parents are in control, it's great to fantasize having super powers. Ben 10 is just the latest in a series of properties that have allowed boys this imaginative power, and it's important because using it they can try on different personas, respond in different ways to situations all under the protective guise of play. We're particularly excited about Ben 10 because it gives a platform for this kind of play in a way that contemporary kids can relate to and a mythos that resonates with them.

The marketers and manufacturers and the good folks at Cartoon Network are betting that this deal will build their character franchise. And it might. After all, they wouldn't be making bikes if they didn't think they could sell. That is the magic of the free economy. There are all kinds of terrific Ben 10 toys that have made this one of the most successful show/product launches in years.

But do they need the bikes? Well, that's for you to decide. Certainly for a child who wishes to express an affinity for the character, this is a great way of doing it...kind of like an adult who wants to brand him or herself with a specific car. It's a natural human emotion: we communicate to the world about ourselves through the products we buy and use. That's an inherent part of our consumer culture. So it's really going to be a case-by-case decision.

However, we'd invite you to think about this: Children fall in and out of properties fairly often. So, consider whether or not this is going to be a long-term property and whether or not you're willing to replace the bike when the child grows out of the property. For starter bikes, this can be a good idea because kids outgrow them physically sometimes faster than they outgrow the characters. There are many ways to express an affinity with a character, and the imaginative life and relationship with the character is less dependent on a bike than it is on an action figure.

Now, the most important thing of all: bikes are great. Kids should have bikes. They get them active, they provide mobility, and they can work within the child's social structure. I don't know about you, but when I was a kid, to my friends and me, "riding bikes" was the activity. All we knew when we started out was that we were all going to be on our bikes. We could end up down by the river, or riding around the park, or creating imaginative adventures. (In my somewhat to the left of normal childhood, recreating the bike scene out of The Sound of Music was also something we did, with limited success, since Cathy Harris could never keep up on her little bike and ruined the formation.) I had the bike I got at age 12 through college. It was a black, three-speed English bike that we bought at Wilmington Dry Goods for not a lot of money, but it served me well. (I'd probably still have it if my younger brother hadn't "borrowed" it, left it out in the rain for a while and rusted it. AAARRGH)

I realize that today's tween kids don't necessarily have the freedom to just take off that we did. We all know that the world has changed, and safety is the paramount concern. Today's kids aren't likely to be able to take off at 6 A.M. on a summer morning and come home for lunch and then again for dinner. But the unstructured play, the freedom it gave us, and the mobility were all incredibly valuable lessons. It's important for kids to be able to create a social structure in which they can operate that is free from adult supervision. How else are they going to learn to be in community as they grow up? The lessons we learn on the playground help shape who we become as adults--and that's why they're so important. For us, it was the ability to take off on our bikes that allowed that. It's important to find and create those experiences for your kids.

The other amazing thing to consider about bikes is that the costs have stayed fairly stable over the years. Twenty years or so ago a good 10-speed bike cost over $100. (Obviously high-performance bikes cost a lot more.) Today, you can still get a very good bike for the same or less. That's pretty incredible.

So here's our final thought on this: bikes are great. Kids should have bikes. You can get a good bike for a very reasonable price. It's your decision whether you want to buy a bike with a character that your kid will outgrow, or spend your money on a bike that your kid can grow into and can keep for a long time. We can't advise you on that personal decision. What we do recommend, however, is that you seriously consider making a bicycle part of your child's play mix. As a springboard for imagination and an active, empowering play experience, there are few things more effective. Don't forget helmets and protective gear, and make sure that as much as they want the freedom of the open sidewalk, younger kids should always have adult supervision as they ride.

That's my take. Now go check out what Ty's Toy Box Mommy has to say. I think you'll like our freewheeling interchange!

- C. Byrne


Toy Box Mommy said...

Am I the Retsyn or the Certs? Wait, don't answer that.

Great point about bikes being a lasting investment. In my indignation over the snubbing of the girls, I hadn't even though of that.