Last month, my four-year-old visited with Santa Claus on Zoom, where she told him what she wanted for Christmas. “There’s this toy dog,” Ella said. “He comes with a leash, so you can pretend to take him on a walk.” So far so good. “The amazing thing about the dog is that he poops. He poops so much. You can pick up the poop in a scooper and put it in a little pouch.” Santa nodded seriously. It clearly wasn’t the first time a child had asked for a pooping toy.
In a kind of metaphor for the year we’ve had, many of the top holiday toys of 2020 involve poop. The toy Ella wants, Poopalots, is made by Hasbro. There’s also a flamingo that takes a poop on a tiny toilet while singing, “Uh oh, gotta go!” from Australian giant Moose Toys. Crayola just dropped brown silly putty designed to look like poop. The list goes on.
So why are toy designers rushing to make defecating toys? And why are kids so irresistibly drawn to anything poop-related? We got the scoop from experts.
Designing a poop toy
Pooping toys have existed for a long time. In 1973, American toymaker Kenner released the Baby Alive doll that pooped into a diaper. But over the last five years, there’s been a distinct shift toward toys that don’t just treat poop as a normal part of life but revel in how gross and hilarious kids find it. In 2015, the market was flush with toys that looked like the poop emoji (which was the most popular emoji that year). In 2018, both eBay and Toy Insider named “gross toys” a top trend thanks to toys such as the Doggie Doo board game, where the goal is to collect poop, and Stink Bomz, which were plush characters designed to smell like farts. All that is to say, pooping toys are big business in the $27 billion toy industry.
Dean Carley, head of product development at Hasbro, has spent three decades designing toys. “Kids have always loved making poop jokes and playing with toys that poop,” Carley says. “But we’ve noticed a shift in culture about how comfortable people are with the concept. In the past, it was more taboo, but now parents seem more accepting of their kids playing with these toys.”
It was clear that Hasbro, a $4.7 billion company, needed to get in on the pooping action or risk losing market share. But given how many other toys try to elicit a cheap laugh, Carley’s challenge was to find a way to move beyond the gag and encourage prolonged engagement. The natural place to start was with its Fur Real brand, which are robotic pets that hit the market in the early 2000s. Every year, Carley’s team tweaks the toys to give parents a reason to buy the latest version. As technology has developed, they’ve made the creatures bark and let kids walk them on a leash. “Then we thought: What if we made them poop?” Carley says. And thus, Fur Real Poopalots were born.
At the company’s “fun lab,” designers created prototypes of pooping cats and dogs, then brought in groups of kids to interact with them. He found that children are immediately delighted by the pooping creatures, mostly because it’s silly but also slightly taboo. “We let the kids tell us what is working through their facial expressions and their behavior,” he says. “Their instant reaction is humor: One laughs, and they all start laughing.”
The team sat down to answer some serious questions: Should the pooping be a one-time event, or should the animal poop continuously? Should they poop at random or should there be a method to the pooping? In the end, they decided that the child would feed the animal little pellets, then as they took the pet for a walk, it would poop as it went along. “If it’s a one-line joke–and let’s be honest, a lot of toys are–it’s not going to do as well,” he says. “We want that initial surprise, but we also want them to be able to shift to the nurturing and caring play pattern with the animal.”
The trauma of toilet training
In talking with child development experts, nobody is surprised that children are so drawn to pooping toys. Dr. Doris Bergen, a professor of educational psychology at Miami University of Ohio, says that at age four or five, children are fascinated with poop toys because they’ve just gone through the major ordeal of toilet training. “Their parents made a relatively big deal about it,” she says. “By four, many children feel like they have mastered it. Humans are interested in thinking about and playing around with things that were once hard for them but that they have already mastered.”
Part of this is very culturally specific. In America, learning to use the bathroom is often an intense, drawn-out experience that looms large over a child’s toddler years. That was certainly true for Ella. We read her books about it; potty time was part of her day at preschool; grandparents gave her high fives when she made progress. “It’s been on their mind for years,” Bergen says. “They saw it as a challenge, had successes and failures.”
But there is also an element of trauma in learning to control your body. Children quickly get the message that the stakes are high when it comes to figuring out how to use the bathroom. Yet it is extremely common for them to make mistakes, which can create feelings of shame. “Young children realize that the performance around their body is being evaluated and they are constantly anxious about making a mistake,” says Maya Coleman, Ph.D. a clinical psychologist. “As adults, we forget how hard it is for kids to go about their day worried they might poop and people will laugh at them. The way they offload some of this tension is through jokes and play.”
Playing with toys that poop can allow them to gain a feeling of control. With a toy such as Poopalots, they might even play-act the role of the parent, helping the animal work through its pooping challenges. And more generally, it makes this overwhelming, highly emotional experience less terrifying. Carley observed this when kids played in the Hasbro lab. “Kids really like showing off what the toy can do to their friends and parents,” he says. “They like being in the drivers’ seat.”
A cruelty of modern parenting is that we constantly talk to toddlers about pooping, but when the child finally masters the act, we stop them from doing so, telling them not to talk about it in polite company or at the dinner table. Pooping toys allow kids to safely explore the boundaries of what’s acceptable.
The child development experts I spoke with are thrilled that there are so many pooping toys on the market, because they can help children process their complex relationship with their bodies. Coleman says parents can even work through this tension with their kids by playing along with them. This will allow them to understand that, while it may not be acceptable to talk about poop everywhere, the act of pooping is not inherently shameful.
I will admit that I had never considered the psychological forces that were pulling Ella toward these pooping toys and was horrified when she brought them up to Santa. But I’ve completely changed my perspective. I think pooping has been on Ella’s mind a lot lately, since she needs to show that she can use the bathroom by herself in order to get into kindergarten. And a toy such as Poopalots may help her work through those anxieties.
And this is why there are currently two versions of the toy–a dog and a cat–neatly wrapped up in the basement, ready for Santa to deliver on Christmas.