Ever wonder what makes a good toy? So did Herman Fisher, who co-founded Fisher-Price Toy Company in East Aurora, New York in 1930. The son of a preschool teacher, Fisher made a practice of observing kids playing with toys so he could fine-tune the toys and see firsthand how kids reacted to his changes.
In 1961, he formalized this practice by creating an on-site Children’s Research Center. It was the first facility of its kind in the toy industry, and it remains in operation today as the Fisher-Price Play Lab in East Aurora.
“The Play Lab is the heart of development for Fisher-Price,” says Lisa Lohiser, Ed.D., manager of early childhood development research at Fisher-Price.
Each year, more than 2,800 children and 1,800 parents volunteer their time to play with new toy concepts or reimagined classics. Meanwhile child development experts look on to find what kinds of toys spark fun, prompt learning or enhance mental health.
“The goal of the Play Lab for every toy or baby gear item or content that we put out there is to provide the best possible play experience for the families that they’re intended for,” Lohiser says.
How Toy Testing Works
There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes research and development that goes on before an idea ends up as a toy on the store shelves — a process that takes about 12 to 24 months, depending on the complexity of the toy.
Each toy begins with brainstorming and ethnographic research before moving on to concept drawings. Children are brought in to test the toys starting from the prototype phase. Fisher-Price’s team of early childhood development experts, designers and engineers then observe as the kids play, uncovering critical details like how big should that dinosaur’s mouth be, what shade of purple is more eye-catching and what sounds keep tiny fingers pressing the keys.
The team also considers details such as whether the buttons intuitive, is the handle easy for little hands to grasp, is the pace of the music just right and so on.
At each milestone along the way, the concept or prototype toy is revisited and evaluated by Play Lab experts. “We might be showing parents some concepts to get their feedback, or we might be doing some competitive testing to springboard to the next thing,” Lohiser says. “We watch the [children’s] play patterns and as we observe them and learn what they’re liking, we iterate on that design and then we test it again.”
A single item could be tested multiple times in the Play Lab, “and we watch it every step of the way,” she adds.
For example, Meditation Mouse, one of Fisher-Price’s newer toys, was initially designed to help children ages 2 to 5 unwind at bedtime. Researchers noted that families used the toy with their toddlers during the day as well for calming meditation and mindfulness activities. So, before Meditation Mouse made it to store shelves, the length, cadence and speed of its exercises were adjusted to optimize it for both day and night use.
“I cannot think of a time in my 13 years [at Fisher-Price] that the first model or prototype of a product was put in front of a child and something wasn’t changed,” Lohiser says. “We’re constantly learning from the children.”
Evolution of the Play Lab
The Play Lab has come a long way since Herman Fisher began observing children play in his office. In 2021, in honor of the Play Lab’s 60th anniversary, the physical space was renovated, including updates to the four research spaces within the lab. Those spaces include:
- Pre-Cool Lab, an interactive play space for kids 3 to 5 years old
- Discovery Lab, a space to focus on one to two toys for in-depth observation
- Wonder Lab, an adult focus group area
- Right at Home Lab, a simulated home environment for families
Fisher-Price also added innovative research tools, technology and software to help its early childhood development experts better understand children’s play experience. Some of those technologies include:
- Eye-tracking. This technology allows Play Lab experts to better understand a younger child’s play experience even before they can articulate with words. Toy testers wear a specialized cap that enables researchers to observe patterns and experience toys through children’s eyes via live capture software. Teams can record and analyze the synchronized eye movements, scene images and audio as the child plays.
- Visio. The lab is equipped with new microphones and camera systems that can zero in on every detail, with event annotations and immediate playback.
- Baby FaceReader Emotional Analysis. This tool automatically measures facial expressions in infants 6-24 months to help address questions in developmental psychology.
- Observer XT Software. This technology annotates play quantitatively and visualizes it on a timeline. This enables experts to easily integrate, synchronize and visualize multiple data streams to identify play patterns, outliers, deviations or anomalies.
The new technology has also helped researchers identify learning and developmental benefits more positively. For example, researchers utilized eye-tracking technology to observe children playing with toys from its Linkimals line. Researchers found that when one Linkimal said “red” triggering the other Linkimals characters to light up red, the children’s eyes looked for the red button on the other Linkimals.
“Obviously, the babies weren’t able to talk yet, but [the technology] told us that they were beginning to make that connection between what was being pushed and what they heard. It shows that they’re starting to understand the lesson and that learning is starting to happen,” Lohiser says. “The eye-tracking actually allowed us to say yes, in fact, that the act of playing with the Linkimals has promoted learning in those early childhood years.”
Finding Toy Testers
There are about 10,000 families in the Fisher-Price Toy Tester database. Once families are entered into the database, they stay there until the children reach about 10 to 12 years of age. Most toy testers for Fisher-Price products are between newborn and 8 years old. Occasionally, the Play Lab will test some products designed for older kids from its parent company, Mattel.
Fisher-Price solicits volunteers to be toy testers through social media pushouts, local advertising and local events. The vast majority of its testers are in the East Aurora area. But more recently, thanks to increased interested in video conferencing, Fisher-Price has engaged in more at-home toy and product testing.
“What’s really exciting is that we’re starting to open that database so we can be on a more national level,” Lohiser says. “So, we have parents from all around the country who can participate virtually.”