Before my son was born, I was given two nearly identical rattles: minimalist white, wool, plush animal shapes, a rabbit and a moose. I adored both but, alas, my son showed no interest. These gorgeous toys were barely used, and I’ve since passed them along to another new parent.
That’s the thing about toys: what an adult likes and what a child likes can be completely different things. Which means that if you’re making toys, you have to please two audiences, not just one, making your work doubly harder as a business owner.
Here, I share seven toy makers I love, all of whom seem to have figured out the formula. Their products appeal to the adults — who are willing to spend their money on them — and to the kids who will actually play with them.
Tree Fort Toys
What: Memory games and learning materials made of laser-engraved wooden discs, blocks and dice.
Why we love ’em: At the heart of Tree Fort Toys is learning and exploration. Many of owner Amy Richards’ products are intended to help build literacy and numeracy skills, while also being fun for little ones to play with. Beyond her eco-conscious toys and games, though, we also love Richards for how she’s building her business through strategic partnerships with other toy makers, such as pairing up for Instagram giveaways.
Workshop’s favourite: The sign language alphabet and number discs, which feature images of ASL hand gestures, speak to my personal desire to learn ASL, while I know my kid would have loved the rainbow hand kite and insect memory matching game when he was younger.
What: Colourful miniature clay creatures with adorable faces and personality to spare.
Why we love ’em: Screaming avocados, perturbed gorillas, toothy bananas, pineapple unicorns and two-headed “radioactive” (glow-in-the-dark) sheep are just a few of the strange yet cute menagerie created by makers Nick Sianchuk and Kevin Yip. The Nugs website is a master class in how to write engaging product descriptions, and the DIY kits, books, magnets and ornaments show how to take a simple idea and extend a product line with a few tweaks.
Workshop’s favourite: I can’t decide whether I’d prefer to bring home the mischievous Devil Pig or dinosaur-wannabe Ridgeback as our new best friend.
What: Handmade felt play-food that’s so cute, you just want to eat it up! (But please don’t.)
Why we love ’em: Maker Joanna Cacao is an author and illustrator who cooks up pretend food as a side hobby. From pancake stacks to sausage links, broccoli to Brussels sprouts, the charm of Cacao’s creations is in the details, like the hand-stitching on the banana slices. Wannabe grocery clerks, aspiring restaurateurs and pint-sized chefs are certain to appreciate these additions to their cupboards.
Workshop’s favourite: As a sushi-lover, 100 percent the bento box set, which includes a riceball, shrimp tempura and maki.
Alex & Cora Toys
What: Natural wooden animals cut and sanded by hand and finished with kid-safe stains and oils, plus “blanks” you can paint yourself.
Why we love ’em: Like many of us during the pandemic, Jahzel Hintay Misner has turned her eye to the things that matter in life: family and doing what she loves. The mother of two designs apps and websites during the day, and in her “spare” time, turns her attention to crafting long-lasting, eco-consious toys. Her children give each design rigorous tests, such as subjecting dinos to a five-foot drop.
Workshop’s favourite: The mermaid and magic pony for little ones who like to create fantasy worlds.
Wylde & Whim
Where: Langley, B.C.
What: Whimsical fabric tiaras and crowns, magic capes and pocket wands for imaginative play.
Why we love ’em: A crown is a crown is a crown, right? Except that owner Jessica has developed so many variations of this one dress-up item, every prince and princess is bound to find one that seems made just for them. Crowns with long braids or bunny ears, tiaras in colourful rainbows or animal prints, headpieces of sparking sequins or soft velvet — how to choose?
Workshop’s favourite: The Oakleaf Deer Crown is a little bit Narnia, little bit Midsummer’s Night Dream and a little bit Where the Wild Things Are, and all of my childhood fantasies in one.
Where: Angus, Ont.
What: Colourful sensory rice and lightly scented play-dough in delicious aromas like mint chocolate, butterscotch and pear.
Why we love ’em: Sensory play is a staple in day care classrooms across the country, helping toddlers and preschoolers learn through their senses, encouraging brain development, building motor skills and more. Little Dreamers brings this all-important play experience into the home, with seasonally themed products and accessories. Their Instagram account is filled with guides and inspiration to help customers get the most from their purchases.
Workshop’s favourite: The holiday-themed November Playbox — which is certain to get little tots in the Christmas spirit — holds Little Dreamers play dough in two scents, red-white-and-green sensory rice, a scoop for the rice and a storage basket, plus more.
Where: Oakville, Ont.
What: Crochet stuffies made with 100 percent natural, Canadian wool.
Why we love ’em: Dedicated to reducing plastic, Stacy, the maker behind Atelieh, gave up acrylic yarn in favour of all-natural wool. Now she sources wool from local farms and works with local dyers to colour the yarn, supporting both the environment and small businesses.
Workshop’s favourite: While kids may enjoy the octopus or bunny, I personally prefer the contradiction of a plush ceramic succulent.
Did we leave out your favourite Canadian toy maker? What other types of goods should we feature? Let us know in the comments!