America's office workers are getting in touch with their inner child.
At their desks and computers, they are playing with toys - Slinkys, Nerf balls, Etch-a-Sketch keychains, plastic Godzillas, Star Wars action figures and squirt guns.Workers - and yes, even some bosses - have found that toys in the office add smiles and reduce stress. They are also, perhaps, a mild act of subversion against the corporate order.
"If you look at people who are straining to be individual in a cubicle jungle, toys are one way people do it," said Chris Byrne, who edits Playthings MarketWatch, an industry newsletter.
Sales figures aren't available because companies can't tell whether toys are going into children's playpens or grown-ups' briefcases. But talk to workers and the trend is clear.
Robin Corey, a vice president at the publishing house Simon & Schuster in New York, has found that toys can lighten up "the suits." Her Nunzilla, a wind-up, walking nun that spews sparks, cracked up her boss.
"He's a straight business guy who went bananas when he saw it," she said. "He was just laughing hysterically."
A 3-foot toy blimp was enough to persuade Web site developer Eva Bunker, 26, to take a job at a startup company in Dallas instead of at a more established business. The blimp arrived while she happened to be visiting, and employees started screaming with delight.
"It was really exciting," she recalled. "It was a celebration that they got their blimp. That was just kind of the deciding factor."
Aside from reducing stress, toys in the office can have other health benefits. Ergonomic experts say squeezing a soft ball provides beneficial stretching and give workers a break from the keyboard.
At some offices, employees are told to put away childish things. Some places frown on squirt guns in particular.
Steve Rotterdam once worked for a now-defunct promotions company in New York City where high-powered squirt guns and water balloons were kept around the office to keep things loose. In 1994, he and a client returned from a Friday afternoon business lunch and the client got soaked.
"I don't think it killed the contract negotiations, but it certainly didn't help," Rotterdam said.
In general, bosses seem more concerned about time being wasted surfing the Internet.