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The Fisher-Price Play Labs: Where WNY kids get paid to play with toys

Every year in East Aurora, thousands of children enter the Fisher-Price Play Labs and do something every kid around the world dreams of doing.

They get paid to play with toys.

Since 1961, play labs at the toymaker's headquarters have served as a testing ground for Fisher-Price products' toughest critics – children and their caregivers.

But it's not all child's play. The labs play a critical role in the engineering, development and marketing of every single Fisher-Price product sold around the globe, researchers at the company said.

The Right-at-Home lab simulates an in-home environment with a furnished living room, kitchen, bathroom and nursery. The rooms wrap around an observation room, where a two-way mirror allows researchers to inconspicuously watch children and their parents while they use Fisher-Price products or play with Fisher-Price toys.

Typically, a team of researchers is seated inside the observation room studying the subjects as they play; taking notes, and recording audio and video from discreetly placed cameras in the labs. The sound from the labs is piped into the observation room via microphones, and a feed from each room is visible on a monitor.

Afterward, the research is compiled into a full report with descriptions and analysis from the session, complete with images. Depending on a product's stage of development, there could be anyone from engineers and designers to psychologists and marketing personnel studying the subjects in the lab.

The decor in the Right-at-Home lab is attractive and comfortable – but also strategic. A closer look shows the living room has a rug and wooden flooring, with a transition strip separating it from the tiled kitchen. The different surfaces allow researchers to watch how well a child with a walker can travel over them, or how often a motorized toy car might get tripped up.

In the kitchen are island stools and chairs with different heights and widths, as well as different finishes like fabric, wood and leather, so researchers can watch how easily a mom is able to clip a booster seat in place with a toddler in tow. The toilet in the bathroom doesn't function, but the bathtub does fill with water, because there is no simulating a slippery baby when testing out bath gear.

On Thursday in the Right-at-Home lab, Elma 3-year-old Brynn Buckenmeyer and her mom Melissa gathered around the Think & Learn Rocktopus, a  new STEM-based toy that retails for about $60 and has been named to several of this year's "hot holiday toy" lists. Children drop brightly colored pods representing different musical instrument sounds into slots in the octopus for several different modes of play.

Buckenmeyer sorted through the neon plastic circles with her mom. She pressed one into a slot and it made the plinking sound of a piano.

"You pushed it down and it made a noise!" her mother said.

Deb Weber, director of early childhood development research, sat nearby watching what she called "the triangle of play" among Brynn, Melissa and the Rocktopus. Weber watched to see which pieces Brynn went for first and whether she knew intuitively that the pods fit into the slots. She watched to see which game settings Brynn returned to again and again. That would tell Weber which games were her favorites.

"If they can't stop playing with it, we know it's going to be a winner," Weber said.

Today there are four different play labs on the East Aurora campus (plus another in China), which are used to develop, test and improve everything from baby gear to dollhouses.

In the Master play lab, children ages 3 through 6 play with preschool toys like tea sets and action figures in a busy playroom-type setting. Often, the same kids are asked to return to play with the same toy, so researchers can see how children interact with it during several different stages of the toy's – and the children's – development. Those long-term observations help the company ensure a toy can hold a child's attention over time.

The Discovery lab is designed so researchers can watch a child's focused play with one toy and no other distractions. In the Play Lab Parents lab, parents and other caregivers come twice a week to give feedback to development teams about product concepts and existing toys, including toys they might have taken off-campus for in-home testing.

Observing parents with Fisher-Price products is just as important as observing children. They're the ones that make the purchases, after all.

Studying parents is especially important when it comes to baby gear.

One of Fisher-Price's breakout hits is its Rock n' Play Sleeper. It started with a designer at the company whose pediatrician had recommended putting her son to sleep with an elevated head to relieve problems sleeping because of acid reflux. After working with engineers to find a safe incline and a safe range of motion, they tested fabrics and added mesh to the sides of the sleeper for ventilation.

The company made several prototypes in its fabrication space on campus, watched parents try them and sent sample Sleepers home with them and made modifications to get things just right. But testing didn't stop after the product went to market. Fisher-Price kept working with parents to capitalize on the Sleeper's popularity. Parent testers said they wanted the sleeper to vibrate and play music. They came in to the Right-at-Home nursery to test different iterations, including making sure a night-light version projected crisp, clean images on the inside of the sleeper's canopy. Now, there are eight different models of Rock n' Play Sleeper, including one that can be controlled via a smartphone app.

Like Fisher-Price's photo studio, which photographs Western New York babies and children for its product packaging, website and advertisements, Fisher-Price's play labs are often lauded for the connection they keep with the local community.

But for Fisher-Price, what goes on in the play labs is serious business.

"Things do get changed dramatically after being tested in the labs," said Lisa Lohiser, associate manager of early childhood development research at Fisher-Price.

Take the Zoom n' Crawl Monster, for example. It wouldn't have been one of the hottest sellers last Christmas without them.

The motorized toy is designed to encourage crawling in babies by enticing them to chase after the toy, which drops balls and zooms across the floor. But after getting a prototype into the Right-at-Home lab with a real baby, researchers noticed the toy traveled more slowly on carpet, but then quickly on hardwood and tile.

When it went too slow, older babies got bored. When it went too fast, smaller babies couldn't keep up. Going back and forth with modifications and lab testing helped the company get the toy's speed just right.

Perhaps the biggest indicator of its importance: despite several rounds of job cuts, restructuring, outsourcing and cost cutting over the years, the play labs at Fisher-Price headquarters have remained untouched.

"Play lab testing is an integral part of everything we do at Fisher-Price," Weber said. "Just like every toy goes through safety testing, every toy goes through play testing."

To be a toy tester:

Fisher-Price is always looking for a diverse group of testers and panelists. To qualify, you should be within local commuting distance to East Aurora and have a child born after 2012. Send your name, address, cellphone number, email address and your child's name, gender, ethnicity and birthdate (or due date, if prenatal) to playlab1@mattel.com.

Toy testers are paid with Target or Walmart gift cards and receive a toy plus an "Official toy tester" T-shirt and certificate.

 

Deb Weber, director of Early Childhood Development Research at Fisher-Price, watches Melissa Buckenmeyer and her daughter Brynn play with some toys in the recently redesigned Fisher-Price Right-at-Home lab. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

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