Drift & Row aims to improve the value of play

Flashing lights, bright colors and loud noises… When you walk down the aisle of a toy store, that’s what you will see and hear. 

Highly stimulating toys currently dominate the market. While these products are great entertainment for children, they generally don’t aim to improve language development or learning. A Wisconsin business is working to change this — one toy at a time.

Drift & Row LLC is a Milwaukee-based startup focused on designing and creating handmade toys that support language and learning in children. It was founded in 2018 by 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 a need for toys parents could buy to support social skills and education.   

“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.

Research confirms that play is an integral part of a child’s social-emotional, cognitive, language, problem-solving and self-regulatory development. However, Davis says many parents have become too focused on developing their child’s academic and rote skills, such as counting, letters and shapes. 

Davis began making the toys by hand, specializing in three types: felt dolls, puzzles and activity matts. She says these toys encourage childrens’ engagement in creative, symbolic and collaborative play. 

“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.”

In 2018, Toys ‘R Us closed its stores. To many observers, this was an indication that the needs and desires of toy consumers had shifted.

“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,” Davis said.

In Wisconsin, Drift & Row is working to enter the hand-crafted toy market, visiting craft events and boutique retailers to sell 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 was among the top 25 contestants in the 2019 Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest, held by the Wisconsin Technology Council. This year’s contest culminated June 4-5 at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs Conference in Milwaukee.

By Bailey Bowe  

Bowe graduated in May 2019 from the UW-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication.