In order to flourish, museums, national parks and other destinations need to entice families with young children as well as young adults. Children — including those with special needs — use play in order to learn, so a key to welcoming families who visit the museum, zoo, national park or aquarium shop is to offer toys that any child, neurotypical or not, will enjoy.
By keeping these audiences interested in coming back, retailers can help captivate these lifelong learners for more than their first visit: these young people will want to come back and eventually want to bring their own children to build new memories.
One way nonprofit retailers can entice repeat visits is to offer on-theme toys and trinkets. Toys that reflect exhibits and the mission of the institution will remind children not only of what they learned while visiting but also of the excitement and wonder the exhibits created.
At museums, for example, toys should be more than just replicas of exhibit items. They can be themed for the location of the museum or historical events of the same era, or things the museum exhibited in the past or will possibly exhibit in the future. Toys could allow children to build things they saw in an exhibit or to color pictures of items they saw.
Educational playthings are a natural choice for nonprofit stores, and these can be included regardless of how they fit into the mission of the museum, zoo, botanical garden or aquarium.
A maker of toys geared towards nonprofit retail, Channel Craft, creates what they call “edu-tainment” toys that work for any shop. Plus, some of them are great for all children — not just neurotypical kids. For example, ZIGZOIDS are accessible to any child. They are five-inch trapezoids that can be locked together to create sculptures. The size is perfect for young children with small hands or those who are working on fine motor skills.
“Each set includes an educational S.T.E.A.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) handbook with interactive prompts to help increase cognition skills,” said Katherine Secleter, graphic designer for Channel Craft. This toy is well-positioned to work in almost any nonprofit retailer and for any child, including those with special needs.
Dr. Stevanne Auerbach, Ph.D., who is known as “Dr. Toy,” has written extensively about how educational toys can work for any child. She founded the San Francisco International Toy Museum, which is an interactive toy museum. We spoke to her about choosing toys for children of all types, including those with special needs such as those with Down syndrome, autism or other cognitive or non-neurotypical disorders.
“There have been many improvements in products for special needs across the spectrum of issues. Ideas and improvements that are helpful to children and adults, (such as) adaptive toys, are very useful to help even-out the playing field, adding enrichment and benefits,” Dr. Toy said.
With the trend in children’s museums of redesigning exhibits for interactive and adaptive play, many destinations are creating spaces where children in wheelchairs can access the exhibits. Designers are also including tactile and sensory elements so that children with or without special needs can equally enjoy the exhibits.
Nonprofit retail stores need to mirror changes like this by considering all children when ordering toys for the store. Educational toys should increase motor skills, apply engineering skills such as building, allow children to be creative and solve problems, and perpetuate the organization’s theme and goals.
Categories of toys nonprofit retail stores can offer
• Toys like Channel Craft’s ZIGZOIDS for fine motor skills, dexterity, and creativity.
• Building toys to create a love of engineering, but also to work on fine motor skills.
• Puzzles for problem solving, including some with knobs that young or special needs children can play with.
• Coloring books and drawing prompts to foster creativity, a love of color and art, and fine motor skills.
• Games to promote memory, cognition and the museum’s theme.
Dr. Toy recommended that buyers seek toys from manufactures such as Brio, Duplo and PlayMobil, or search for any adaptive toys on the market, in order to cater to young children and kids with special needs, alike.
To keep families and young people coming back, stores must cater to every visitor. Children who love to play with toys their parents purchased in the store become adults who bring their own children to create new memories.
By catering to every child, none will face disappointment when there isn’t a toy for them. And just because a toy is purchased for the store with special needs in mind doesn’t mean many other children won’t find enjoyment and learning from that toy. Children are the future of museums and other nonprofit organizations. Offering toys that serve as a memory of their experience ensure these children will ask to return to the museum or to visit other museums, zoos or nonprofit institutions in the future.