By Bailey Bowe
Flashing lights, bright colors and loud noises… When you walk down the aisle of a toy store, this is what you will see and hear.
Heavily-stimulated toys are currently dominating the toy market. While these toys are great entertainment for children, they are not the best at supporting language development and learning. A Wisconsin business is working to change this norm, one toy at a time.
Drift & Row LLC is a Milwaukee-based business, focused on designing and creating handmade toys that support language and learning in children. It was founded in 2018 by sole-owner Brenna Davis, a speech language pathologist.
“The meaning of ‘Drift & Row’ is a reminder about what play should be. ‘Drift,’ meaning freedom and unstructured time. ‘Row,’ meaning children need to work and fail in order for it to be play,” Davis said.
After working to support children and parents in her professional career, Davis saw the lack of toys parents could buy for their children that supported play for executive functioning and social skills.
“As a speech language pathologist, I was struggling with this disconnect as to good work happening in my therapy room and schools, and what was being translated into the home,” Davis said.
Rigorous multidisciplinary research confirms that play is an integral part of a child’s social-emotional, cognitive, language, problem-solving and self-regulatory development. However, many parents have become focused on developing their child’s academic and rote skills, such as counting, letters and shapes – skills that only target future school success.
Davis began handmaking the toys herself, specializing in three types of toys: felt dolls, puzzles and activity matts. All washable and travel-ready, these toys encourage childrens’ engagement in creative, symbolic and collaborative play.
In 2018, Toys ‘R Us closed its stores. To many observers, this was an indication both from a selection and a shopping environment standpoint that the needs and desires of toy consumers had shifted.
Current market trends show that toy stores offering the widest selection of toys is not enough for businesses to succeed. The selection has to be coupled with a “special factor,” whether that is expertise, eco-friendliness, inclusion, ease of selection, or enjoyable in-person shopping.
“In my experience, consumers are willing to buy the toy and not the brand. That leaves space for small toy makers like me to make an impact with great products,” David said.
Some of Drift & Row’s competitors that play off that “special factor,” taking over the toy market include Lola & Lark. Lola & Lark is primarily an online store that sources from all artisan makers, giving their toys an heirloom quality to their hand-crafted products. Another competitor includes Clover & Birch, which specializes in making wood toys, beautiful crafted and provide open-ended play. Both Lola & Lark and Clover & Birch are national brands.
In Wisconsin, Drift & Row is working to dominate the hand-crafted toy market, utilizing craft events and boutique retailers to sell her products. “Speech pathologists love talking! That’s why I like being at shows, and smaller events, because I can talk to my customers in person. This gives me great market research to see what parents and children are interested in,” Davis said.
Drift & Row’s average customer tends to be parents with children ranging from the ages of 2-12, searching for toys that offer engaging play opportunities for children both with and without disabilities.
“I haven’t met a parent that doesn’t want the best for their child,” Davis said. “Drift & Row is an attempt to remind parents about the importance of play for executive functioning and social skills.”
From in-person sales, Drift & Row is on track to reach $38,000 at the end of the year based on better than expected first quarter sales. Davis hopes to put this money back into her business by using it towards resources that provide more efficient production for her products. By May 2019, Davis hopes to launch an online marketplace with the goal of generating most of her sales online on.
Drift & Row is among the top 25 contestants in the 2019 Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest, which will culminate June 4-5 at the Wisconsin Entrepreneur’s Conference in Milwaukee.
“(The contest is) an incredible opportunity to not only raise awareness about my business, but also connect with people who have similar goals, dreams and experiences,” Davis said.
Bowe graduated in May 2019 from the UW-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication.