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f the phrase educational toy sounds a little dull, you probably haven’t been to a museum or zoo gift shop lately. Toys that blow up, emit loud whistles or hatch into reptiles are so much fun, kids don’t realize they’re learning too. Retailers around the country said they rely on engaging displays, exhibit tie-ins and hands-on demonstration to sell toys that teach.
In Springfield, Mo., Joanna Hillburn organizes parent-child robot workshops to move robot toys at the Discovery Center of Springfield, a science museum where she manages the gift shop. “At the end of the workshop, they have a fully functioning robot,” said Hillburn, who credits the technique for making robot kits - which retail for $20-$30 - her top-selling educational item.
At the Sci Store of the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia, Assistant Director Stacey Brown-Carter relies on similar engagement to sell the much-coveted plasma lamps, which teach about electricity and cost $20-50, depending on size. “We have a demo team that roams around the store, demonstrating what it does, talking to customers throughout the day,” said Brown-Carter. A giant plasma lamp in the Sci Store is the initial draw for many children; they touch it, then give each other harmless little shocks from the charge.
The social vibe also sells toys for Mike Murphy at Lockport Locks and Erie Canal Cruises, his family-owned attraction in upstate New York. After an information-packed cruise through the locks, “the adults come down to the shop, they always start singing, ’Low bridge, everybody down,’ and then we start selling the CDs” with recordings of the iconic canal song, Murphy said. Kids clamor for wooden boat whistles, which at $4 are an easy splurge and his most popular souvenir.
That local connection is another way retailers get youngsters excited about educational toys. Murphy’s youngest customers, excited by what they’ve learned about canal cruising, corral their parents into buying a book about boats or a toy boat - both among his top sellers. Buildable toy boats are also favored souvenirs at the Connecticut River Museum in Essex, Conn., said Helen Davis, the longtime gift shop buyer, “since we are right on the river.”
Right now, shoppers at the museum are buying a lot of toy trains, which ties into a wintertime railroad exhibit. “A lot of these toys are fairly large and take up a lot of space, and they require staff to explain and demonstrate,” said Davis, who groups the educational and children’s merchandise in one easy-to-see section of the store. Many of these items sell well because they correspond to seasonal exhibits and school programs. And like other museum retailers, Davis has found that her best-selling educational toys are the ones that double as souvenirs - kaleidoscopes, globes, compasses and other nautical mementos.
At the Tybee Marine Science Center in Tybee Island, Ga., Gift Shop Manager Joy Joyner does a brisk business in shark teeth, turtle hatchling kits and life-like figurines of turtles, dolphins and other fauna on display at the center. “Many children collect the Safari Ltd. Incredible Creatures,” said Joyner of the figurines, “and they are popular with the boys” - though she also emphasized the importance of carrying merchandise that will appeal to both genders. The amphibian exhibits at the Center inspire sales of the best-selling hatchling toys, which feature eggs that kids immerse in water and watch as they “grow” - a hands-on science experiment that reinforces learning.
Hands-on, in the most literal sense, is a trait that characterizes most of the top selling educational playthings, as the survey of retailers made clear. One of the biggest hits at the Franklin Institute Sci Shop, according to Brown-Carter, is a kitchen science kit, which has youngsters mixing household chemicals like baking soda to make a tabletop volcano.
And at the Discovery Center of Springfield, Hillburn’s most popular items include $10 crystal growing kits - to which users add water to grow crystals back home in their bedrooms - and a spy science kit, which can be used to construct an alarm for the doors of those bedrooms. Museum shoppers also frequently spring for dino excavation kits, which have tools to dig out bones that can then be assembled into a dinosaur skeleton.
“It’s something tactile that kids can do with their hands,” said Hillburn, who promotes the toys on social media as well as through store demonstrations. “They’re building and doing things.”