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Pavel Ovchinnikov: playing in the future – children’s toys in an unchildish world!

Pavel Ovchinnikov: playing in the future - children's toys in an unchildish world!
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Photo from the archive of Pavel Ovchinnikov

Psychologists say that around the age of 14 our childhood ends – with all the fantasies, excess energy and irrepressible desire to play. But we continue to live in a world of toys and games. Our almanac’s interviewee Pavel Ovchinnikov knows everything about toys.

For over 20 years his company KIDDISVIT supplies toys to the Ukrainian market. He believes that the theme of “human-toy” relations is inexhaustible. And it is almost as important as the relationship between man and God.


Man of action


Many people remember the wonderful phrase of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the author of The Little Prince, that we all come from childhood. Exupery tried to remind us that all adults were once children but have forgotten this.

Consequently, children’s play is what initially lays the foundation of the adult world and defines its contours. In fact, in our children’s games we play into our future. Toys are associated with a particular cultural tradition and worldview, with the psychological and intellectual development of the child.

Therefore, it is extremely important what and how one plays. Vladimir Dahl, for example, defined a toy as any object that a person uses to play. In a broad sense, growing up we do not leave the field of play – just our toys are transformed. It’s enough to remember the books by the eminent psychologist Eric Berne “Games People Play” and “People Who Play Games”.

Or game theory, which deals with very serious, “nonchildish” issues – economic behavior and optimal strategies. Sometimes people ask me: how is it possible to combine the romantic and bright world of childhood and children’s toys with business thinking, which involves sometimes quite tough, pragmatic decisions?

I answer that business is also a kind of game but for children who have grown up. In games and toys, images of our consciousness materialize. To exist as a species, as humanity, we are condemned to play. It is no coincidence that the great cultural historian Johan Heisinga renamed Homo sapiens into Homo ludens – “man of action”.


Toy and religion: do no harm!


When I began to engage in children’s toys as a system business, I realized at some point that it was impossible without realizing its mission and the role of children’s toys in our civilization and culture. The entrepreneur who invites a child and his parents to buy a toy assumes an enormous responsibility: for the future, for the way of thinking, for physical health, finally. The seller of toys, therefore, should have a motto that resembles the main credo of the doctor: do no harm!

Although toys are rarely neutral to humans. They can generate love and hate in our world, carry sorrow and joy, disease and healing. Laying the foundation of our culture and worldview, children’s toys are closely related to such concepts as morality and decency.

Historically, children’s toys were formed as an element of religious activity, ancient rituals. We can say that in the modern world the phenomenon of toys has not lost its religious dimension. The content of all world religions is the struggle between good and evil.

Our start was in 1997. We added toys to the assortment of floral store, which my parents founded. My brother and I saw that this niche was not occupied and the demand for modern high-quality toys in Ukraine was very big, so we decided to develop this direction. When we started visiting international exhibitions, a bright and exciting world of toys in all its glory and variety opened up before us.

Our first partner was the Italian company A.W.E.C.O., with which we scaled up the business, extending it to the whole territory of Ukraine. Of course, we were initially plagued by the question: which toys are acceptable to offer to children and which are not? After all, Ukraine in those years, as, unfortunately, now, was flooded with cheap consumer goods, dangerous for the health and psyche of a child.


Philosophy of the toy business


From imperial Ancient Rome we have inherited the saying that money does not smell. But in fact, of course, this is not true. Any business, any entrepreneurial activity has social consequences. And an entrepreneur can and should be aware of them.

One day my brother and I had a long and serious conversation on this topic. We were flying to another exhibition in Hong Kong and being between the sky and the earth for many hours we decided once and for all: we care how to make money.

Success at any cost, when the end justifies the means, does not interest us. It is important for us to follow a simple biblical rule: do not wish for others what you do not wish for yourself. This rule is the main criterion for choosing toys for the Ukrainian market.

First of all we ask ourselves: how will these toys affect our children’s health and psyche? That is how our business philosophy crystallised: we sell only those toys that we would let our children play with!

Thus, sometimes to the detriment of the business result, we immediately weed out low-quality toys made of toxic materials. Up to the fact that some product lots are destroyed if we find the danger.

In addition, there is no place in our assortment for destructive toys that preach aggression and violence and distort a child’s psyche. Our business philosophy is shared by all company employees. In 2012 we formalized it through a series of events related to the transformation of our corporate culture.

Today our product range includes not only toys, but also clothes and hygiene items. However, the main focus, as before, is on toys, which help parents to develop their children and shape them as healthy, harmonious and comprehensively developed individuals.


Who chooses toys and how?

We regularly conduct surveys to study the consumer preferences of our store visitors. It should be noted that the priority in the choice of a toy still belongs to mothers: 76.8% of purchases are their decision. Therefore we can say that in spite of the emancipation, women are still responsible for children’s upbringing. 13% is the initiative taken by fathers. The rest falls on other relatives: grandmothers, grandfathers, uncles, aunts.

It is interesting that mothers declare as the main goal of buying a toy development and creativity. But in the overall sales structure of educational toys account for no more than 15%. Most buy traditional, classic, trendy – dolls, cars, etc. They, like any toys in general, are also developing.

Children can come up with one car a few games – it has a positive effect on the development of imagination, scenario thinking. However, developing toys of direct, purposeful action are still in the minority. Therefore, we work with mothers, fathers and children: we educate, tell about the endless possibilities that lurk in the games and toys.

Developmental issues become relevant to the child around the age of 3 years – this is the target audience for which our communication is primarily directed. From age 2 to 4, children begin to show the ability to make informed choices and, when they come to the store, they know exactly what they want.

They begin to immerse themselves in the adult world and socialize through play. They get acquainted with adult professions, master role-playing games, play doctors, cooks, drivers. Cars, dolls, children’s dishes, shovels, houses are the most popular at this age. The first experience with a book belongs to this period. Further, by 4-5 years,   designers, puzzles, colored crayons and felt-tip pens are relevant – anything that develops creative thinking.

The older the child gets, the more realistic toys should be. They relies to please the baby, not scare. Therefore, various monsters, mutants, cartoon villains, aggressive monochrome – not the best choice: they can traumatize the immature child’s psyche.


The “toy fashion” industry

It should be taken into account that in today’s world, trends that shape children’s desires come not only from the adult world and offline communication with peers, but also from the digital world: the blogosphere, YouTube, TV, etc. The movie industry has a huge influence on the creation of demand.

Traditional toys are increasingly competing with computer games because “advanced” parents consider it their duty to provide their children with various gadgets as early as possible. This, of course, leads to some distortion of the usual view of the world of childhood, which existed in society 10-20 years ago.

When we first started doing toys, our main consumer was in the age range from 0 to 12. Now the upper limit is on average 8 to 9 years old. That is, we can say that today’s children are growing up earlier. Although it is clear that everything is very individual.

In addition, as I said, there is no age that is indifferent to the games. And after 10-12 years the desire to play is not lost – you just need to offer the modern teenager a new format that will be interesting to him. We closely follow the global trends, which, by analogy with the fashion industry, change every 2-3 years, and in our stores the range is annually updated by 50-60%.

In the world of toys, just like in the world of high fashion, there are its own trendsetters, such as LEGO, Hasbro, Mattel Inc. and MGA Entertainment. Their “couturiers” create toy models, which then the rest of the world looks up to. Today we offer toys from about 100 global brands.


Coronavirus brought us back to the “classics”


There are toys that are interesting to everyone: children from 1 to 10, and those who are 14 and even 16 years old. For example, we have wonderful sets of collectible toys, interactive and board games that are popular with older consumers.

Recently, the world has seen a trend for ecological toys, although it has not yet fully reached Ukraine – it is still too expensive for our market. The coronavirus pandemic has significantly changed consumer preferences. Quarantine and lockdown were marked by a return to the “classics” – in the first place went the well-known cars, dolls, Easter eggs, slides.

Children in general took to the streets thanks to quarantine! The demand for outdoor toys has increased significantly. In general, the world market for children’s toys is not as conservative as it may seem at first glance. It is very dynamic and innovative because the world around us is changing with kaleidoscopic speed.

And our corporate culture also embraces innovation and constant manageable change. The only thing that remains unchanged are the requirements for quality and safety, as well as the moral basis of our business philosophy.


A Christian view of the world

I believe that entrepreneurs, as people with an active lifestyle, are capable of exerting a great influence on society. How positive this influence will be depends on that “moral law in me” of which Immanuel Kant spoke. A religious ear is like an ear for music-some are perfect, some are worse.

At some point I realized that religion informs one’s view of the world with a positive, creative lens. The religious feeling of a deeply religious Christian determines my attitude to children and adults, to business and society in general. Our charitable projects are an attempt to push the boundaries of creative activity beyond the confines of my family or the salesrooms of our network.

We try to make the adult world, in which children live, a little kinder and better. Our charitable foundation helps orphanages, Sunday schools and individual children who have serious health problems. The company develops social projects aimed at promoting healthy lifestyles, such as a children’s regatta and children’s soccer.

But perhaps the most cherished project for me is the St. John of Kronstadt Center for Rehabilitation, Physical Therapy and Inclusive Education, which we opened in 2019 in the city of Podgorodnoe, Dnipropetrovsk region. The idea for this institution came to me under the influence of the books of this saint.

I was struck by the “hard-working homes” that he cared for, his approach to the upbringing and development of children in the very difficult pre-war time. Inspired by the saint’s example, we found like-minded doctors and decided to create a children’s rehabilitation center unparalleled in the region.


St. John’s Center: Following the Saint’s example

Initially the center was planned as an exact copy of the aforementioned “homes for labor,” where street children, children from disadvantaged and poor families could lead a normal life, develop some skills and talents, do something with their hands and even earn a little money on it.

But Ukrainian law prohibits child labor. Unfortunately the law does not differentiate between exploitation and labor education and development. So the idea of the John Center had to be transformed into a rehabilitation center. We emphasized inclusion and social adaptation of children with disabilities.

At the center they communicate freely with elders, with each other, with healthy children, preparing themselves for a full-fledged life in the adult world. Together they acquire a variety of useful skills, for example, they learn to cook different dishes, work on computers, etc. Of course, social rehabilitation is combined with medical rehabilitation – a unique combination for Ukraine. 

The staff of the Center consists of 40 highly qualified medical and social workers. This is a rather expensive and non-profitable project. The social part is financed by the Foundation’s donations; the medical services are provided from different sources: budgets of different levels, sponsorship and parental contributions.

Our goal is to make St. John’s Center financially independent so that it will eventually be able to earn money for its social projects, service improvements and development programs without sponsor support.

Of course, everything we do, we do with God’s help and we are grateful to Him for the opportunity to help our neighbors. By the way, any child in the John Center can turn to God. There is an inclusive church specially equipped for people with disabilities: you can easily get there in a wheelchair and take part in the liturgy.

The church service is duplicated by sign language interpretation – it is conducted by a priest who is fluent in sign language. Now we have begun to implement another important project for us – the construction of a Sunday school for children, where children will be able to study the Word of God in greater depth.


Be like children!

It is my deep conviction that we adults need to stay as close to Christ as possible so that our world and the world of our children will be much brighter and purer. All of us, according to the word of the Gospel, should be like children. I love children and everything that has to do with children’s attitude toward the world.  For example, I am thrilled to be able to ride around the office on a scooter.

Almost all the toys that our company offers have been through my hands. You could say that I personally play with each one. A toy is a thing far from indifferent, not neutral to morality and public morality. At one time I even considered creating “religious” toys in Ukraine.

Such as there are in Catholic Europe, where various figurines of saints are very popular. If children can play astronauts and knights, then why not play saints? Admittedly, certain difficulties have arisen here. For Eastern Christianity sculptural images in general are not traditional. And it is unlikely to be correct if the figure of a saint is broken during the game and then thrown away.

And yet any toy can become a vehicle for spirituality, a symbol of interconnectedness and mutual assistance between people. So, for example, during the lockdown we prepared Easter gifts for the children of medical workers of the Dnipropetrovsk City Clinical Hospital № 21 named after Professor E.G. Popkova and the Alexandrovsk Hospital in the capital – toy sets. This is how we wanted to show our gratitude and respect for the work of doctors who are at the forefront of the fight against coronavirus.


If we define our species as Homo ludens, implying that our whole life is a game, then let’s all play together! But surely in something good and light, something that brings happiness and harmony to our lives.

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