BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE

This year’s 9-year-olds have never lived in a world without tablets and are, for many of them, more immersed in digital products from birth than any kids before them. For huge numbers of these kids, devices, if not right in the hand, have never been far away. Since their introduction, smartphones and tablets have transformed play, to a certain degree, and they are still something kids clamor not just for their intended use as a handheld computer, but also as a cultural marker, a social necessity, a communication device and, of course, something to play with.

Even in recent years as we’ve seen a resurgence in classic toys, board games and collectibles, three decidedly non-tech types of toys, kids have depended on their devices as a critical component of play. Digital devices have made the toy box bigger, and despite concerns about screen time and the advisability of giving kids access them and the small, media-driven concern about whether or not kids should have smartphones and tablets, they’re not going to go away. This is a topic for another column, but suffice it to say that kids are growing up in a digital world and a facility with digital experiences is as important as any basic play that has to prepare kids for the world their growing up in.

In 2019, the digital play is maturing in many respects, and that bodes well for both the products and the play experiences. Gone are the days when just having a device was a thrill for kids, and developers could put out average (or worse) apps that kids would adopt. Gone, too, are the days when an app served primarily as a promotional tool for a property, such as a doll line. With so many apps and choices to choose from—and with limited free time to enjoy them—the competition for the share of the toybox is more intense than ever. Quite simply, the play has to be worth the kids’ time. While games like Fortnite and communities like Roblox continue to dominate much play for older kids, and while such trends like wearables, health monitors and smart home devices were trends coming out of CES, across the Pacific, digital play for the youngest members of the family was on display at the Hong Kong Toys and Games Fair in January.

As part of the maturation of this sector, the biggest trend we’ll see this year in digital play is integration between a physical toy and a digital platform. I know, we’ve seen that in the past, but this year, there’s a lot more sophistication in how that’s achieved. Whereas in the past a child’s attention might be divided between the physical and the digital interface, basically two concurrent play experiences, some of the more advanced toys coming out make that integration more seamless and interdependent. Companies like Eastcolight are integrating devices into their science kits to provide more in-depth information and as a way of continually updating the content, so that there are more reasons to return to the physical toy for a new, expanded play.

There were fewer Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality concepts for toys than in recent years. Virtual Reality remains a problem for toys for younger children as their perceptual abilities and, of course, shutting out of the environment, doesn’t work very well yet. Augmented Reality, on the other hand, offered some cool options. Mostly these worked well when the technology was integrated into the play. The Plugo System, which is launching in the U.S. this year, combines a silicone mat with a variety of objects so kids can learn counting, problem-solving and more. What makes this toy, and others like it, effective is the combination of kinesthetic (or tactile) learning with screen-based feedback. Both experiences are integral to the play and learning. This is also an example of how much visual technology is being integrated into toys to provide a seamless play experience for kids.

STEM and STEAM toys continue to be huge. (What we used to simply call “educational toys.”) These are perhaps even more important to the Asian markets than to the U.S. There are two important differences in 2019. The first, and most significant, is the increasing number of toys that offer STEM without screens. Many of these have embedded electronics, and some have complementary apps that can provide more information. As opposed to the integration mentioned above, the toy provides a full and discreet play experience on its own, with an app available if needed. The second, and highly welcome, the difference is that STEM as a marketing tool is being used more judiciously and strategically than before. As opposed to recent years where manufacturers were simply slapping “STEM” on virtually any package, manufacturers are being more precise in identifying concepts for parents. As the concept of STEM matures in the culture, it’s important to go beyond the buzzword. All play, particularly for toddlers and preschoolers arguably has some level of STEM in that it offers some level of experience and discovery (and the resultant cognitive development) that provides a basis for learning in a more structured curricula. Helping consumers navigate the myriad product choices is both necessary and strategic.

One of the consistent properties of the toy industry is that it reflects the culture at large. Trends are seen at CES this year, such as the growth in wearable tech, will likely be reflected in toys in the years ahead—probably sooner rather than later as tech becomes more possible to integrate into toys at an attractive cost. As much as the digital landscape changes, this speaks to one of the things that have driven play for millennia: kids want to be big. They want what the grownups have, and as the grownup world continues to evolve so will toy, and many of those toys you’ll find at the Hong Kong Toys & Games Fair in 2020.