There was a time when toys were for playing with and not just unwrapping. Are surprise toys depressing, or tapping into a real play pattern?
Geriatric millennials (sorry) spent their childhoods coveting everything from Barbie dolls to Teddy Ruxpins. We loved them; we had to have them. So, because we’re nostalgic like that, we wanted to take a look back at some of our most beloved, extremely popular ‘80s and ‘90s toys and explore why we obsessed over them and where they are now. We turned to veteran toy expert Jessica Hartshorn, who has spent her career writing about all things parenting and toys, to do her due diligence and get to the bottom of some of our most-wished-for favorites. Behold, Scary Mommy’s nostalgia & toys extravaganza. All week, we’ll be looking at the toys that made us. You’re welcome.
You would think, since I have covered the toy market for a couple of decades, that I could put my finger on exactly when surprise toys took hold and became an entire category at Target. Probably with Hatchimals in 2016? Or LOL Surprise! toys the following year? But you only need to think about your own childhood to remember: Unwrapping has always been a fun part. It's just that in this century, thanks to a giant nudge from YouTube unboxing videos, the toy industry has leaned into the surprise as the main moment, the sort of pinnacle of playtime happiness.
Our Own Childhood Toys Were Not Such A Surprise
Back in the day, it was a delight to collect all the My Little Pony characters, but you probably had a favorite and were clear that you wanted, say, Minty, amiright? You loved unwrapping that package, but the whole time you thought, This better be the right pony. The drama was in making sure that your parents nailed it.
The closest things we had to surprise toys were Cabbage Patch Dolls. Each one was unique, so there was no asking for anything specific. We were just lucky if our parents got their hands on one! Then we unwrapped and found out what we got. And yeah, that was fun.
Even though Cabbage Patch dolls hinted at a surprise being a thrill, the '90s and early aughts had us kids wanting very specific toys. We saw ‘90s toys commercials with silly jingles and wanted exactly that Hungry Hungry Hippos game or exactly that Easy-Bake Oven. Or we wanted all four original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and all five Power Rangers that we saw on the matching cartoons.
Our Kids Get Mystery Toys. This Means Us Buying A Lot Of Them.
By contrast, our kids accept the blind-bag concept: They unwrap a present, then unbox the mysterious packaging and adopt whichever pony, LEGO figure, doll, or superhero is inside. As parents, we don't even know what we are giving them! You hand over an LOL Surprise! egg, and who the heck knows what will be in that thing. (Spoiler alert: Kind of garbage toys. But most of the reviews begin with, "My daughter loves...”)
There is a world in which this could be a good thing. Our kids learn, “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset!” Hahahaha. We all know that isn’t true. What these mystery toys mean is we buy 10 of the $5 blind bags and sincerely hope that one of them has the favorite or “ultra-rare” figurine inside. It’s almost like we’re training our kids to play the lottery. And it’s a far cry from us wanting Totally Hair Barbie and our parents only having to buy exactly that.
YouTube Probably Changed Everything
Ryan’s World launched in 2015 and is as good a marker as any for when the unboxing craze took off. Bored kids watching other kids open toys on YouTube became, and still is, a very big thing. Adam Bugler wrote on Fatherly that these videos glorify “the vicarious surprise and excitement of opening something.”
Today’s kids, instead of just watching cartoons and toy commercials (though they still get plenty of those!), watch unboxing videos and learn how to mimic delight when they unwrap a mystery gift. There are now millions of YouTube videos featuring kids mugging with big, open mouths and loud squeals as they unwrap toys. At this point, toy makers put out their own unboxing videos — in addition to families cranking them out — hoping to be the next Ryan’s World-esque millionaires. No shade for trying. Kids unboxing are actually kinda cute, and making the videos is maybe a fun family project.
The Kids Are Alright. Really.
Our parents probably hated us watching commercials for toys of the ‘80s and ‘90s just as much as we hate our kids staring at unboxing videos. Each generation gets their toy obsessions from somewhere, be it a toy-store window, a catalog, the TV, or the internet. Let’s be clear: There is no educational value, really nothing of value, in unboxing videos. They just drive consumerism. But so do commercials and old-fashioned toy catalogs.
Even if your kid doesn’t watch YouTube, they’ll encounter unboxing toys because they are everywhere. So while there are plenty of traditional toys flying off shelves — LEGO sets, those adorable Squishmallows, anything Crayola — kids will also want things like the Magic Mixies Magic Cauldron, which trades on surprise.
Most of these surprise toys are meant to be played with as traditional toys after unboxing. Whether your kid actually uses their two dozen Hatchimals CollEGGtibles creatures after breaking open all those tiny eggs is up for some debate. Did you play with your two dozen Beanie Babies, or was the play pattern in the acquiring and collecting? Likely it was a little of both.
In the end, surprise toys are part of a long history of kids wanting to unwrap a toy with some drama and suspense. Parents and grandparents are happy to give them that little thrill. But hopefully, they’ll also discover the fun of using the toys for pretend-play narratives. Why not have the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles befriend a pony named Minty and see where that story goes?