Chicago-Area Toy Buyers Have Seen Rise in Toy Representation

When Keewa Nurullah decided to open Kido, a children’s retail store in Chicago’s Roosevelt Collection, she started searching for the kinds of toys she as a mom wanted her kids to play with. 

Toys that were sustainable, made with long-lasting materials and with a world of representation topped her list. 

“The way I curate my shop, I go along with my taste and what I would pick for my kids,” Nurullah says. “In that way, I’m picky. I never want to have a store that’s a bunch of everything.” 

Finding toys that represented her Black children and culture made early buying a little harder. 

She took to Instagram and started finding independent or international brands, bypassing the standard toy brands that didn’t always diversify toys and dolls to represent kids of all colors and sizes. She fell in love with makers like Harper Iman Dolls, Puzzle Huddle and Cuddle+Kind.

“There have been some toy makers and doll makers that have seen this gap and make (representative toys) on their own,” Nurullah says. “To get toys that feature more diversity, most of those companies are more independent.” 

Cassandra Forcier has been a buyer for Building Blocks Toy Store – that has locations in Lincoln Park, Wicker Park and Lakeview – for most of the 12 years she has worked for the company. She says that she has seen an impressive rise in the diversity of toys recently, for children of color and for those with special needs. 

“I felt like just a couple of years ago we’d have customers come in looking for more specific things, like books that represent Black lives or blended families, and oftentimes I would feel like we had such a small selection to offer,” Forcier says. “Just to see this level of change, whether it’s in advertising or in the catalogs we’re getting, to be able to see (toy makers) paying attention to what people want has been amazing.” 

Forcier points to the independent companies creating representative toys as a motivation to force larger companies to follow. 

She notes that Lego’s female scientist series came after independent companies began to highlight girls in STEM environments. 

Other companies used the recent stay-at-home orders of the pandemic to promote toys for all kinds of kids. Djeco, which uses art from all over the world to brighten its toy lines, introduced a “Joy Box” for families stuck at home. Each box came with toys picked by Djeco, and in many, kids of all abilities were introduced to toys that might otherwise be overlooked. 

“People automatically got things they might not have ordered for themselves, whether it was representing another world culture or toys that are sensory based,” Forcier says. “Just because it’s a sensory toy or a toy that represents a different culture doesn’t mean your child can’t enjoy it, and that Djeco put it out there bridges this gap of feeling like, oh, if that child has a sensory need my child won’t get enjoyment playing with it. They do have so many things in common, and that opened a door for so many families.” 

Toys like Lottie Dolls represent children of all colors and abilities, including dolls with Dwarfism, autism, hearing aids, glasses and one recent addition to the collection is the Kid Activist Doll, based on real-life kid Mari Copeny who is working to draw attention to the water crisis in Flint, Mich.

Finding books and clothes that represent a diversity of families is also tops for toy buyers. 

Nurullah says that she is also picky with the books curated at Kido to include heroes and heroines of all colors in everyday scenarios. 

“Honestly, our biggest sellers in the store are books and clothing and I’m always making sure there are faces of color and protagonists of color in those items,” she says.

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