Expanding Kids' Horizons

Makers of multicultural toys offer children new ways to see the world

Karito Kids Travel Charmers soft dolls

Karito Kids Travel Charmers soft dolls

'The world does not revolve around me." That appears to be the message of a number of manufacturers who have recently entered the multicultural toy market. While the category may have historically evolved as a movement to provide children of various ethnic backgrounds with toys that reflect their own traits and experiences, these days it seems the prevailing driver for many of the latest entrants into the multicultural toy market is an urge to provide all children with a base for understanding lifestyles that differ from their own.

Talking the talk

Ted Stoner of Denver-based Bongo Cats, maker of the new Bongo Bi-Lingual Buddy, tells Playthings that he sees his Spanish-English/English-Spanish teaching toy as way to provide kids with the chance to take a "first step toward being a global citizen." He explains that his product—which features a plush cat accompanied by an interactive PC game that gives native Spanish- or English-speaking elementary school children basic vocabulary lessons in the other language—represents a move toward "raising awareness of and celebrating the differences between" the English-speaking and Spanish-speaking children that so often comingle in U.S. classrooms.

Pani Rani from Restoration Gallery’s Global Green Pals line.

Pani Rani from Restoration Gallery’s Global Green Pals line.

"We can't be so isolated like we have been in America ... we have to celebrate our differences. This is a good first step," says Stoner.

Bongo first became available last fall at a suggested retail price of $22.

Bongo Cats isn't alone in its efforts to help kids become bilingual at a time in their lives when they are most receptive to learning new tongues.

Boca Beth, a Tampa, Fla.-based multimedia company founded by bilingual educator, filmmaker and songwriter Beth Butler, offers a suite of products designed to teach English-speaking children Spanish and Spanish speakers English. The company's Boca Beth Beginner Backpack (SRP $49.99) includes a music CD, a bilingual DVD, a 44-page coloring/activity book presented with Spanish and English on each page, a puppet and a child-sized maraca. Its learning system provides a foundation of more than 225 words and 100 phrases in both languages, the company says, with the help of music and movement. The product line "provides parents and teachers the affordable solution to introducing Spanish right alongside English—with no second language experience necessary on the part of the adult," Butler says.

Chicco’s bilingual Teddy Count With Me.

Chicco’s bilingual Teddy Count With Me.

Chicco, South Plainfield, N.J., is also expanding its bilingual offerings in 2009 with two additional products. The infant and preschool toy maker's Bilingual Talking Bear is a plush teddy that teaches children their first numbers and words in English and Spanish. Press the bright buttons on the bear's tummy to hear favorite nursery rhymes, count along with the bear and discover the names of fruits and animals. Squeeze the hands and feet for verbal encouragement to interact with the bear. Chicco's English-Spanish Talking Vacation Car (pictured on our cover) can expose kids to the names of objects and corresponding sounds, plus tell stories that kids complete by recognizing missing objects and solving riddles. Both toys retail for a suggested price of $49.99.

India from Alexander Doll’s International doll series

India from Alexander Doll’s International 
doll series

Other companies have taken a more direct route to the Spanish-speaking market. Indianapolis-based Fundex Games, for one, markets a line of games and a plush-with-DVD set based on El Chavo, an animated series based on a still wildly popular Mexican sitcom from the 1970s about a street urchin who lives in a barrel. Some of the products, like Fundex's El Chavo Board Game, are printed entirely in Spanish, with English instructions available from the company.

Playing with an open mind

Laura M. Rangel, CEO and president of KidsGive, tells Playthings that a desire to "teach kids about how to give back and to help inspire world-mindedness" inspired her and Lisa Steen Proctor, the company's chief operating officer, to develop their line of Karito Kids dolls, soft dolls and books.

The original Karito Kids were introduced in 2007. Each of the 21-inch dolls, which retail for a suggested $99.99, are designed to depict a character from a different country and culture. Each comes with a storybook featuring the doll's character, filled with information about that character's culture.

Bongo Cats

Bongo Cats' Bongo Bi-Lingo Buddy interactive plush

KidsGive drives home its message of world-mindedness through a charitable giving component tied to the purchase of the dolls. The company donates 6 percent of the wholesale price of each product to the Plan International children's charity. Customers use a special code that comes packaged with each product to log into Karitokids.com and specify an area for which they'd like their donation to be used; for instance they can choose to push their money towards funding education, healthcare, food or home expenses for children in other areas of the world who are in need.

Since its inception, KidsGive has expanded its lineup of multicultural toys with the introduction of its Travel Charmers line of smaller, softer versions of the initial characters. They retail for $19.99. This new line expands the reach of the original doll assortment by sending the characters on trips to explore new places and cultures, allowing children the chance to learn about these cultures and to continue their charitable involvement. Rangel told Playthings that KidsGive plans to expand its Travel Charmers lineup in the fall.

Several other new companies have also appeared in recent years to stake a claim in the market for dolls with multinational appeal.

Boca Beth

Boca Beth's Boca Beth Beginner Backpack set

The Global Green Pals, from New York's Restoration Gallery, are a new assortment of eco-friendly educational dolls for children ages 4 and up whose characters are an international cast of do-gooders—including Indian character Pani Rani (pictured)—who are determined to do their part to help save the planet's fragile environment. In partnership with 1% For The Planet, a portion of every purchase will go to environmental conservation efforts.

H. Lee Toy Company, Columbus, Ohio, offers Little Sis + International Friends, a line of multi-ethnic soft dolls in four hues, and in boy and girl versions. Each 13½-inch doll comes with an everyday outfit and a culture-specific traditional costume.

A not-so-new company, Alexander Doll, maker of the venerable Madame Alexander brand, offers a series of International collector dolls also dressed in the ceremonial attire of each doll's country of origin. The line includes collectible ethnic dolls dressed in ensembles representative of those worn in Africa, Austria, China, Croatia, India and Mexico.

Little Bridges doesn't focus entirely on dressed-up dolls. Instead, the Chicago-based company offers multicultural dress-up products for girls that match those of their dolls. The dress-up clothes include outfits from Japan, India, China and Botswana, each with an accessory from that country as well as information about what life might be like for a girl from that culture.

Fundex Games

Fundex Games' El Chavo Board Game

A new way to relate

San Jose, Calif.-based Cahoots is entering the multicultural marketplace this year with its new Culture Critters brand, which it introduced at Toy Fair in February. Van Le, one of the brand's creators, discussed the brand with Playthings, explaining that it will initially launch later this year with 11 characters that each hail from a different part of the world, such as India, Mexico, Brazil, China, North Africa and Brazil.

H. Lee Toys

H. Lee Toys' Little Sis + International Friends dolls

Le said the brand's characters—which will come to life through a line of vinyl figurines, plush and storybooks beginning in the fall—have been created to "promote cultural education and sensitivity." She explains that the company intends to package the vinyl versions of the characters with accessories that reflect the characters' interests, such as a skateboard or baking tools, and the characters' cultural backgrounds, like the tribal mask that comes with the North African character or the fan that comes with the Vietnamese character. Le said the decision to include both culturally specific items and interest specific items with each character stems from a desire on the part of the creators to provide opportunities for children to relate to the characters from either standpoint.

The physical lines of products will be complemented by an online component. Le says the company also plans to launch an interactive website where kids can go to learn more about their favorite character's culture and perhaps even submit information about their own cultures so that other kids using the site can benefit from their contributions.

Global connections

Similar to Cahoots, the new line of World Twinz Adventure Figures, set to launch in June from Ontario, Canada-based Worldview Toyz, are also heavily dependent on a complementary Web component.

Little Bridges

Little Bridges' Indian Market Basket role-play set for girls

Co-founders John Green and Michael Olotu tell Playthings that their company's new line of dolls, which represent a variety of characters from different areas of the world, will serve as a launching point to drive its targeted 7- to 12-year-old customers online to seek out an "identical twin" elsewhere in the world. These twins will be two children in different parts of the world who purchase the same doll around the same time; the two will find one another upon the completion of a collection of online activities.

Colleen Bohen | Contributing Editor

Covering the Gifts and Decorative Accessories sector.

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