How can they tap into the minds of toddlers and school-age children to create toys that both stimulate and provide hours of fun? Curve editor, Belinda Stening, asks leading designers and manufacturers for their views.

Good toys can play a significant role in a child’s emerging growth and development, according to toy expert and author, Don Levis. In his book, Australian Guide to Good Toys, Levis says the more opportunities a child is offered during the course of play, the more likely new learning will occur.

While there is no one toy that is best for all children, Levis believes there are some guidelines that parents, designers and manufacturers might consider. He says good toys should:

• maintain a child’s interest over a long period of time – a child will keep on coming back to these toys at different age stages.

• be used in more ways than one, for example, when children use construction toys they are able to explore the attributes of the pieces and make a wide range of buildings from them.

• be durable so that they stand the test of time and frequent or heavy play.

• be safe, and without sharp edges – a toy or game that may be safe for older children may not be safe for young children.

Shaping up for learning and fun “Suitable for ages 4 to 104”... It might sound like a wild claim and a stretch of the imagination, but when it comes to Geoshapes, the construction toy that challenges everyone from kinder kids to grandparents the statement is validated.

For someone looking to purchase a toy that will take their child or favourite niece or nephew well into their teens and beyond, the range of products from GeoAustralia appear to meet any criteria that includes safety, education and durability.

GeoAustralia is a medium-sized toy manufacturer with headquarters in Sunshine, Victoria. The company has been making educational toys for all ages for many years and has been exporting to the United States since 1996.

Company director, Peter Madner, believes the success of his Geoshapes range both here and overseas is to do with the exploration and discovery of maths in a fun way. “In the US our market penetration was below our expectations until the introduction of the half-sized ‘Mini Geofix’ line in 2003, attractively packaged and priced for the retail market,” he explains.

Geoshapes or Geofix, as the product is called in the US, is a geometric construction system for children to explore and discover spatial relationships and geometric shapes. The system consists of fourteen different interlocking geometric shapes that simply snap together to create an endless variety of 3D models.

Triangle, square and rectangular panels clip into like shapes, adding another feature to 3D models created.

According to Madner, observations made by members of the Mathematical Association of Victoria, using 3D Geoshapes with primary and secondary students, confirm that the special properties of Geoshapes are beneficial in developing an understanding of two and three-dimensional objects as well as creative and manipulative skills, spatial awareness and problem-solving techniques.

Geoshapes are said to encourage development of the three learning domains – intellectual, creative and psychomotor, by helping pupils to:

• visualise and construct three-dimensional structures

• use logic to solve problems

• discover area and volume relationships

• explore geometric concepts

• improve their manipulative and motor skills

Management and staff at GeoAustralia undertake a range of research activities to ensure their product range is consistent with all requirements of good design.

Madner explains the company’s extensive experience in contract moulding gave him insight into various educational products, and it was an extension of this involvement that led to the conceptualisation of Geoshapes and Geofix.

“Other products using geometric shapes represented in a solid form were available before Geofix,” he says. “But the key distinguishing feature of our product from its competitors is the skeletal design and the realisation of the intent to give form and substance to what might otherwise be a mere line drawing of geometric objects.

“For many years we had a close working relationship with Mr Bill Peers, of Rosenhein, Lipmann and Peers, who had a vast knowledge of this field and was experienced in importing selected teaching aids from Europe.

“He alerted us to the importance of these kinds of materials in modern teaching as well as the niche high-quality specialty toy market. Bill Peers provided the first ideas of some new articles we went on to develop, including some components for Construction Sticks and Peggy, the popular pegboard.”

Madner said his plastics injection moulding plant had always been equipped with tool-making facilities, allowing the company to experiment with various new designs and to prototype product for evaluation.

Both John Langford, the technical director, and Peter Madner have been able to bring some basic understanding from a shared engineering background to the toy manufacturing industry.

GeoAustralia has a number of world patents on its products with two registered trademarks for the same product, Geofix being the only one the company was able to register in the US.

The privately-owned company, with an annual turnover of around a million dollars, manufactures millions of shapes every year. It has a workforce varying between eight and thirteen employees. The entire product range is manufactured in their Sunshine plant in Victoria.

“To a large part, this is a lifestyle decision of the directors,” Madner says. “We decided to go against the trend of offshore manufacturing as we wanted to retain a truly Australian quality and image.

“We realise that on a volume turnover basis, more could be achieved by utilising cheap labour in Asia, but we enjoy doing what we are doing right here in Australia and are pleased with the feedback concerning our efforts.”

The range of Geoshapes are all compatible with each other and are made of tough, yet flexible, long-lasting polycarbonate. The design of Geoshapes takes full advantage of the properties of polycarbonate, which ensures secure engagement overcoming the problem of breakage that occurs in similar products.

The construction of geometrical models or polyhedra has exercised a great fascination in the minds of mathematicians of all ages, among whom are some of the greatest names in mathematics – Plato, Archimedes and Euclid.

Building with Geoshapes allows children to experience this fascination by discovering patterns and relationships that exist between geometric models such as the Platonic and Archimedean Solids.

A bit of doinky doink

With a company mission to make children happy, the team behind one of Australia’s most successful toy manufacturers, Moose Enterprise, is committed to designing and developing toys that are all about fun and imagination.

The Melbourne based company was founded in Richmond in 1985 and quickly became a market leader with its product offerings now extending to plush toys, action figures and stationery for kids.

Manny Stul and Jacqui Tobias, a husband and wife team, took over the company six years ago, developing export opportunities along with licensing agreements for major products from around the world.

As director of product development, Tobias runs the creative side of Moose while Stul manages the ‘big picture’ financial side.

“When we took over the company our major focus was to look at export, obviously for a larger market share while still keeping our distribution in the major toy retailers here,” Tobias explained.

“We are the only major toy company designing and developing our own toys in Australia.  

“We manufacture ninety per cent overseas. We have offices in China and Hong Kong and staff there manage our factory, sourcing and quality assurance. We do a small amount here, but would like to do more.

“When we research a new toy program one of the criteria is always whether or not we can develop and manufacture it here.”

Tobias says it is important for Moose to stay one step ahead when it comes to introducing innovative and quirky product ranges.

“Our vision is to have young people driving the company, young product designers and engineers. Our creativity really comes from the young and dynamic people we employ.

“There is no one person that we can say takes personal credit for any toy design, it’s a team effort.”

The company’s international sales manager, Paul Solomon, is acknowledged by Tobias as a driving force behind the success of the company. 

“Paul is the one who drives most of the product ideas and works closely with inventors in seeking out new ideas. Before he joined the business we did not have much of an export market, he took us to a new level by relationship building.

“While we do use inventors mainly from overseas, our long term objective is to use Australian inventors and designers although we do have trouble reaching them. There is not a lot of access, other than our website.”

The export part of the business is continuing to expand as Moose Enterprise takes its inspiring new toys to international markets.

“The United States is now our largest export market,” says Tobias, “but we are also selling to Europe, Israel and Arabic countries where they have different cultural requirements in toy design.

“When we took over the company we were doing a lot of our own engineering and internal design for the domestic market. If you are designing for the local market, it’s harder to take risks and put money into larger projects. The quantity is just not there and tooling costs can be very high.

“So our major focus was to get the export markets so we could get into larger volumes where we could justify tooling costs.”

When it comes to defining what makes a good toy, Tobias says the company is not as educationally focused as other companies.

“We believe children need ‘time-out’, although today’s focus is on keeping children educated and all their toys, play and outside recreation have to be educationally focused. We do a lot of this in our programs but the focus is more on making sure children are happy, which is reflected in a lot of the toys we design.”

Good toy design will include quality, and adherence to safety standards, says Tobias. “Another important consideration is that it should provide mental stimulation and then it needs a creative angle.”

Extensive research and focus groups involving children and psychologists are an important way of keeping in touch with trends in toys at Moose.

According to Tobias, the company’s marketing division conducts its own research and international distributors also provide input.

“We work with our distributors to find out what the market is after in other countries. Paul will return from overseas with a lot of ideas.

“For example, he might note that the trend is for children to get into collectables, so we then go on to develop a new collectable. From there, we run a brainstorm session, and the results go to the product design team.

"The design team takes it to a more defined technically detailed idea. It then goes back to brain-storming... this cycle might happen five times, as the product is finally approved by a team of up to ten people.

“It’s not ego driven by one person, and at each stage it goes through market research. So if someone comes up with an idea, we always go out and find out whether this is what children want.

“We like to work closely with our retailers. So they are working with us right from the beginning, telling us what is needed in the market and what trends they see emerging. In the end, the retailers decide which way new toys need to go.

“One of our major objectives for the next five years is to get behind charitable organisations so we can give back to the community. We have just completed a large plush toy program called an Adopt A Dog, which supports the RSPCA.”

According to Tobias, Moose toys are about setting trends as well as responding to what children want.

“For our focus groups with children, we give them images of our ideas and they express verbally what their likes and dislikes are. Moose is trying to set trends so sometimes a focus group can be about finding out what children are into now, not what may interest them in a year’s time.

“We might show them something that we are doing in a year’s time. But because it’s not what is popular now, they won’t quite get it.

“There is a lot of risk in design work, when you want to set a trend. It’s very different to designing a toy for what children like now.

“We have a couple of big projects coming up at the moment. The biggest one is Totally Glam stamps. It’s based on the existing trend of craft and scrapbooking. We contracted a fashion designer to assist the design team.

“So we have ‘cooled up’ a stamp set to create high end ‘fashion stamp shops’.

“For a product like this, the risk is not high because we know what fashion is in at the moment and what will be in twelve months from then.”

Moose Enterprise is excited about the future for not only its export opportunities but also an intensive licensing program for external companies to leverage their product offerings under the Moose brand.

“The company is focusing on the export market, however we are also starting to pick up a lot of agency lines. So when a company in the US develops a program, like a new Barbie line, we distribute in Australia.

“We now have good placement in toy stores so we are well positioned to distribute other manufacturers’ products. However, it’s much more exciting to work with products you have developed yourself.

“One of our newest range this year in Australia will be Crystal Ponies.

“This range was very technically challenging to detail. It has many moving parts and components... but it has that ‘doinky doink’. If we are doing brainstorming one of the first things I’ll say to our product designers is – What’s the ‘doinky doink’?

“Doinky doink is when children play with a toy and imagine they are in another ‘world’ where they talk for the toys and really get engrossed in an imaginary game.

“It’s very important for girls to have lots of ‘doinky doink’. So with the Crystal Ponies we give girls a pony with its own crystal, with lots of accessories. He’s a dress up pony. There are lots of moving parts and small features, such as magic doors that open and close and light up. It has its own castle, that opens and closes like a book.”

Creative talent is a number one factor when it comes to finding the right designs for the ever-popular plush toys made for young children.

Tobias says that while it appears easy to manufacture plush toys, it is much more challenging to get the design right.

“It’s important to get the faces right and to get the right look. Children are attracted to toys by the expressions on their faces, if they look happy or sad.

“Anyone can go out there and manufacture a plush toy, but to design one that looks very different relies on the talent of your creative people. We have specialised illustrators who work with plush toys. It is all about the design and fabric quality.”

To show some technical aspects of toy design, Curve spoke to Joost Poulus, technical manager at Moose. He explains the manufacturing processes involved in creating one of the company’s latest products, a Totally Glam Stamp. 

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