Playing by ear: How audio storytelling toys are crafting a new category in the global market

Growing up, we’re told not to play with our ears just in case the wind changes direction. Well, those winds certainly have changed and today, children are using their ears to engage in play more than ever before.

Modern sensibilities couldn’t fly in any greater opposition to the beliefs of generations gone by, and, thanks to a new wave of innovators in the audio toy and storytelling sector, children these days are both seen and heard on a multitude of play platforms. 

We are well and truly in an age of multi-media play, and aural engagement has become an integral part of it.

It’s technology that has put us there, of course. Thanks to the advancement of NFC tech – the kind that was trail-blazed by the toys-to-life movement of the 2010s and the Skylanders and LEGO Dimensions that lived within it – the space between storytelling and play-time is becoming ever the more blurred.

At the same time, there’s a distinct line that this new generation of storytelling devices takes against technology to present what the sector bills, by and large, as its own revolt against the creeping influence of screen-time on children’s play-time. It’s a paradoxical stance at best, and a wonderful summation of play in the 21st century.

Lunii general manager, Thibault Decker

“There’s no doubt that children are over-exposed to screens – through their phones, tablets, and televisions – so there is a real need for engaging audio content that helps them develop their imagination,” says Thibault Decker, general manager North America of Lunii, a newly launched audio story-telling platform that recently rocketed up the best-sellers charts in the US.

“Lunii provides that through its immersive, yet active, device that leaves children in control (active and independent) and through which they can access quality audio stories.

“With the pandemic we are all going through, audio storytellers with quality content are even more important for children who are socially distanced. We need to keep them busy, developing their social skills and having fun at the same time.”

The pandemic has, in fact, given more than a little propulsion to the popularity of audio storytelling devices. According to the NPD Group, the creative storyteller segment is one among the strongest toy categories within the industry of the past year. The sector is filling up fast with very strong innovators, the likes of Lunii, the award-winning Yoto Player, the internationally successful Tonies and Toniebox, and the upcoming Storyville storyteller from Vivid, included.

There’s small doubt that socially distanced play-time, school closures, and families working and playing within closer proximity of each other throughout a year of lockdowns and restrictions has fuelled the success of this sector that operates not only on the level of educational play and engagement, but self-sufficient play-time for children, too.

“I think parents are realising more and more the damaging effects of screen or even Wi-Fi emissions,” continues Lunii’s Decker. “They also want to expose their children to more diverse and eye-opening content. They are focussed in fuelling their child’s thirst for knowledge. It’s about learning and being creative as they play.”

For Lunii, it all began with the simple idea of “creating a responsible toy” that would help children develop: imagination, curiosity, vocabulary, language and social skills.” That idea quickly evolved into a screen-free, Wi-Fi-free ‘companion’ that could be carried easily and host “thousands of inspiring stories in different languages.”

“We set out to create a fun learning toy where children could magically create their own inspiring stories, and, with thousands of curated and immersive stories to open their eyes to the world.”

An international hit, with availability within the UK and Europe as well as in the United States, Lunii has already struck up licensing partnerships with the likes of Peanuts and Mr Men and Little Miss, as well as an extensive library of audio and story content, spanning genres such as STEM, Earth Rangers, Animal Discovery, and more.

Evidence of the growth of the children’s audio storytelling market isn’t difficult to come by. Since the launch of its second generation audio platform, Yoto Player in February last year, the Yoto team has ‘been overwhelmed’ by the positive response that, between June and December 2020, witnessed sales grow by more than 1,400 per cent.

“Since then, we’ve launched Yoto in the USA, built the Yoto App into a hub of kids’ audio content and family features, launched our audio subscription service in the UK, and so much more,” Ben Drury, Yoto’s CEO tells ToyNews. “It’s been a surreal experience, but we’re only just scratching the surface of what we’re hoping to achieve.”

Yoto founder, Ben Drury

A company now blooming into a global brand from a close community beginning, Yoto’s evolution and development in the audio toy space has been very much at the charge of its customer base.

“They’ve been instrumental in spreading the word about Yoto, and also in guiding our product and service offerings by suggesting new features, recommending audio titles, and generally holding us to a high standard.”

The result of this mass collaboration is a Card Store that is now brimming with audio content to fuel engagement and sales of units on a global scale. Some of the biggest names in children’s storytelling now populate the Yoto Card Store, including collections from Julia Donaldson, Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, and a library of titles from the children’s publisher, Ladybird.

The appetite for audio storytelling – particularly now, as the UK stares down another lockdown period – is the platform it offers children to play, and learn, on their own while families across the country tackle another period of school closures. But this isn’t a trend that owes its success purely to the pandemic. The appetite for this multi-media engagement in children’s stories has been growing over the course of the last five years. 

So, what is it about the sector that has captured the imaginations of children and parents the world over, and held the attention of retailers and manufacturers tapping into the space, too?

“The word imagination really is an apt one here,” says Drury. “By only providing so much information, audio creates the outline of an idea and invites our imaginations to fill in the blanks. And as we all know, children are brilliant at this.

“Many recent studies show that audio can develop kids’ creativity, and this couldn’t be more relevant than in our current climate of screen saturation. We’re not anti-screentime by any means, but we do feel that screens, and the content that kids are exposed to on them, do little to foster real imagination.

“Audio is an engaging format which frees kids’ hands and minds up for creative thought, expression, and play. This is a breath of fresh air for many parents, regardless of their views on screen-based devices.”

As Yoto continues its upwards trajectory as a major player on the global stage, so too does it continue to expand its portfolio.

Drury continues: “Yoto has always striven to curate the best kids’ audio and create the best ways for kids to listen to it. Audio is a powerful tool with applications well beyond playtime, and we’re excited to launch some new products and features in 2021 which realise that potential.

“That includes a tonne of new audio that we’re licensing and developing with our partners, as well as the content we’ll continue to produce in-house under our Yoto Originals umbrella. There’s so much fun to be had when content and hardware can work together and that’s the beauty of a company like Yoto.”

What it all indicates, of course, is that the power of storytelling within the children’s entertainment and toy market, will never be diminished. Audio play remains as strong a category today as it ever has been, and while the technology through which it is accessed has evolved, it’s a sector that holds firm on to the traditional values that shaped its look today.

“While being an innovative product, the Toniebox still ties into the physical interactivity and imagination of toys of old,” Lucia Kreuzer, managing director, Tonies UK and IE, tells ToyNews.

“The songs and stories that come with the tonies are only the beginning – children can listen, or get involved in creative play and a whole new imaginary world when they engage with the product.

“Parents are now searching for alternative ways to entertain, educate and inspire their children to allow their palpable minds to grow. The natural evolution of multi-media play has inevitably played a role in the success of tonies around the world – particularly because the conscientious parent always wants what’s best for their child,” Kreuzer concludes.

About Robert Hutchins

Robert Hutchins is the editor of ToyNews and its sister title, Licensing.biz. He has worked his way from Staff Writer to Editor across the two titles, having spent almost eight years with both and what now seems like a lifetime surrounded by toys. You can contact him by emailing robert.hutchins@biz-media.co.uk or calling him on 0203 143 8780 You can even follow him on Twitter @RobGHutchins if ranting is your thing...

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