"Toys, Teaching, and the Joy of Play: An Interview with People of Play's Executive Director, Jenna Stirling"

by Jenna Stirling | 22 Apr 2023

Biographies and Interviews

(Mary Couzin) Hi, Jenna! We are so excited that you have joined our POP team! We have a few questions for you so that our readers get to know you (if they don't already from your work in our industry).  What was your favorite toy growing up?

(Jenna Stirling) Hmmm, tough question. I think my most dominate play personalities are “the collector” and “the explorer” so my favorite toys were probably my collections. I collected Barbies, California Raisins, Mattel Cuties, Muffy Vanderbears, Boxcar Children books, baseball cards, rocks, shells, and arrowheads.  


What are your favorite toys now?

As a mom of two daughters with neurodivergences, my favorite toys are the ones that teach and help them build their skills. Games like Q-bitz, Spot It, & Tenzi are great play equalizers. With no reading components, they can play competitively with each other despite their 5-year age gap. Jenga is great for building their impulse control, forcing their bodies to slow down and think before acting. ANYTHING with a sensory component helps my little with ASD practice processing stimuli in a controlled and predictable way, so when she experiences similar sensory input from the world around her, she’s more equipped to feel comfortable.



Did you always want to be in the toy industry?

I had no idea that toys were a career path. There were never any toy industry representatives at career fairs in my small hometown of Siler City, North Carolina.


It's so true that few young adults know that the toy industry is a possibility - whether you are from a big town or a small one! Tell me more about growing up in a small town.

Well, my parents were both raised on farms, dairy and tobacco. We spent weekends at the farms with my grandparents. My first job was picking tobacco in my grandfather’s fields. I spent a lot of my time playing outside, fishing, collecting rocks and being mischievous. I go home often, being there is a natural battery recharger for me.




What did you think you would be doing for a career?

I got my degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in Biology. I started teaching programs on animals, bugs, dinosaurs and chemistry at The Museum of Life and Science in Durham, NC. When I saw the kids’ faces light up when I brought the animals out for demonstrations, informal education became an instant new passion. It’s amazing how engaged kids become when they are having fun while learning.



So, how did you find your way into the toy industry?

I entered the toy industry because I was poor. The museum didn’t pay very well, but I absolutely adored it. I started a part-time position as a sales associate for a Learning Express toy store so I could afford to keep teaching. From there I became a buyer for those stores and got my "hands-on" MBA from my mentor William Meredith. I went on to “curate” toys at Marbles Kids Museum in Raleigh, NC and during that time I served on the Board of Directors for ASTRA. During the pandemic, I took on a staff position for ASTRA as their memberships and programs specialist, and now I’m thrilled to be with People of Play as their first ever Executive Director.



What are you most excited about in this new position?

I am excited about so many things. Specialty retail, toys that teach and informal education have been my heart throughout my career and POP allows me to serve folks in those spheres. I already have the gears turning on an initiative to bring inventors and retailers together to promote products that I think will be extremely impactful, so stay tuned!



Also, I am REALLY excited for the expansion of the Young Inventors Challenge program. I was introduced to this program while I was at Marbles and I instantly fell in love. This program guides kids ages 6-18 through the toy and game invention process and they get feedback from an experienced toy industry mentor. It’s such an amazing learning opportunity for the kids and a great way for our industry to get involved, share their time and experience, and inspire the next generation of toy industry professionals.

I'm happy to head up the partnerships with both ASTRA retailers nationwide and Happy Camper Live with a network of over 4400 camps to rollout a “Young Inventor’s Challenge- Summer Camp Edition”. My heart is so happy to be expanding the reach of this playful educational experience to so many more children.


Thank you, Jenna, for taking time for this interview... I know you have a full plate with many inititatives - we are very excited to have you part of our team! 

#Peopleofplay younginventorchallenge museum learning express #toy Inventors #Barbie #Barbie Collector young inventor challenge astra

Tait & Lily, Inventors of Betcha Can't!