On the outside, toys still look like toys, but designing them today is much more than child’s play. Not only do the “elves” have to be skilled with a hammer and saw and a couple dozen programming languages, today they also have to be handy with ergonomics.
According to Kathleen Alfano, Ph.D., Director of Child Research with Fisher-Price, ergonomics is one of the two deciding influences, residing side by side with play value, that determines how a toy is designed. Alfano’s team of toy designers are busy year round factoring ergonomics into toy designs by looking at how a child fits the toy, how he or she will use the toy and how well the child interacts with a toy.
“Ergonomics plays a big factor, that’s one of the main things,” says Alfano. “Two or three designers might work on one particular toy. It’s definitely hands on at all times,” Alfano says.
Turning out Fisher-Price’s 300 or so new toys per year and making them fit their intended audience – growing, active children in all stages of mental and physical development – takes time. Designers work with models, sort of like crash-test dummies, says Alfano, to create toys that physically fit a child’s size. They use charts and data books that cover a child’s ability and the amount a force that a two-year-old, for example, can exert. They consult dimensions of fingers and feet, how long is too long to wait for a response, even how a growing child will fit into a toy two months down the road. And they consult the children themselves.
“We have children who come in every day, and teachers and people who are working here with children in play situations,” says Alfano. The children perform their own kind of work by testing the new toys while the researchers and designers watch, make notes, and work on improvements. Some toys, like this year’s Rock&Play piano, require extensive studies regarding ergonomics.
“We had so many ergonomic studies on [the Rock&Play piano],” says Alfano. Tests with different children, different sizes, different styles of play. “We even had the same baby play with the same product but in a different way,” Alfano says. For the Rock&Play piano, a toy piano with an adjustable seat to accommodate children from one year up, designers had to contend with ever-growing children and the adjustable seat, the amount of force that a small child could expend while pushing the keys, and even a rocking function to appease the younger child. In every toy, each component has to be tested not just for fun and functionality, but to make sure it fits and works with the child. And the end result should be one that Alfano, the parents and, most importantly, the child is pleased with.
“Parents want to have a toy or product that grows with a child; we try hard to make sure they fit well,” Alfano says of her own team of toy-making elves. “Toys have changed. But I know we do a good job.”