Japan’s best toys are guiding kids into the future

It’s that time of year again: Freezing weather, family feasts and frantic holiday shopping. While there isn’t much we can do about the weather, we’re here to help you avoid the wish list woes this holiday season with a few expert-approved toy ideas for parents.

Back again just in time for the holidays, Rakuten Ichiba crowns Japan’s favorite fun, cute and educational toys with the third annual Rakuten Toy Awards supported by Rakuten Mamawari.

Toys for a digital age: New award categories were introduced to cater to a modern parenting experience.

The toys are chosen in a three-step process: First, toys with positive reviews are selected from Rakuten Ichiba to form the initial pool of candidates. The toys are then separated into categories such as cuteness or potential for collaboration, and voted on by Rakuten users. Finally, the winners are selected by a panel of experts.

This year, the awards were all about two things: coding and sustainability.

The Coding Kids are coming

From 2020, coding will be a mandatory part of Japan’s primary school curriculum. To meet demand from Japanese parents scrambling to prepare kids for this unfamiliar field, the 2019 Rakuten Toy Awards introduced an entirely new category: Coding Kids — toys that stimulate and strengthen a programming mindset.

Children’s author and panel member Toshiyuki Iwaki (right) demonstrates how to use the BorneLund Cyclone Marble Run, one of the candidates for the Coding Kids prize. 

“Toys have always been something kids aren’t allowed to play with until they’ve finished their homework,” children’s author and panel member Toshiyuki Iwaki told journalists at the award ceremony.

But the concept behind these toys is to teach kids how to think with a coding mindset without them even realizing they are learning. “There are two keywords that are extremely important here: independent thinking and non-cognitive skills. These are both very closely linked to play.”

The Scalino 3 Marble Run teaches kids how to think like a programmer without even realizing they’re learning.

The panelists chose the Scalino 3 Marble Run from Switzerland as the 2019 winner of the Coding Kids prize. The toy works by training kids to learn the toy’s “language,” build a course (or a “program”) and execute commands (send the marble down) in much the same way coders do.

Executing the “program” with the Scalino 3.

Toys with a sustainable story

Each year, the award ceremony highlights a new “trend,” or up-and-coming genre of toys. After 2018’s Toy Awards accurately predicted the rise of “coding” toys, this year the spotlight was on a relatively new idea: sustainability.

Takayuki Mamabe, senior manager of Rakuten’s Sustainability Department, explained the thinking behind the selection, touching on Rakuten’s commitment to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals through Rakuten Ichiba’s Earth Mall project.

Earth conscious: The Shifu Orboot augmented reality globe won the Eye-Catchingly Engaging award.

“These are toys that can be enjoyed in an easy, sustainable way,” Mamabe told reporters. “Toys that are ethical and environmentally friendly, not disposable. Toys that can be used again and again. Toys that aren’t over packaged, so they don’t produce trash.”

Mamabe listed some popular examples from Rakuten Ichiba: modeling clay made from 95% organic vegetable, fruit and plant materials; a dancing alligator made from the wood of a rubber tree, normally discarded after the rubber is extracted; stuffed animals (or rather, vegetables) made from organic cotton; and a reusable wooden Advent calendar.

Organic modeling clay and a “dancing” alligator made from rescued materials.

“Sustainability has become a keyword of the modern era,” Mamabe explained. “When you’re celebrating — giving someone a present, for example — you want to know that it isn’t a product of human suffering, that it has a sustainable story behind it.”

A little something for everyone

The full list of nominees and winners includes 51 different toys. Scroll on for a selection of our favorites.

The Train Car Slope from Germany was nominated in the Eye-Catchingly Engaging category.
A budding mechanic: The Kid’s Car Lab, which lets children take apart and put together toy cars, was nominated in the Collaborative Play group.
Instagrammers to be: This durable kids toy camera won the Absolutely Adorable prize.
Gone fishin’: This double-decker fishing puzzle was nominated for the Kids’ Favorite category.
A deserving nominee in the Absolutely Adorable category: the Mt Grace stuffed elephant. 
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