Our 50th Year: The History of Early Learning Centre

6 min read

Last Modified 8 May 2024 First Added 26 April 2024

As part of our 50th anniversary celebrations, let’s look at the history of Early Learning Centre, how it began and how it become one of the Great British retailers, from its innovative beginnings to where we are today.

Why Are Toys So Important To Us?

Toys allow children to learn about new ideas and concepts as well as countless other benefits that go beyond simply keeping them entertained. Toys encourage social interaction, exploration, creativity, imagination, and fine motor skills. Toys have been a fundamental part of growing up since the start of human history – toys such as spinning tops and figures have been found dating back to 1250 BC in Egypt. That’s over 3000 years of toy history!

In the 1974, ELC’s founder John Beale struggled to find inspiring toys for his own children. The market was more focused on fun than exploring any learning benefits, and many of the toys available from the leading retailers at the time had little to no educational value. His personal frustration and vision led to the birth of the brand we know today – and 50 years later, we are still going strong, with exciting new toys being developed based on the very latest in child development research. We have the same clear vision that John started the company with; to support parents with their child’s early years learning and development through play.

What Toys Were Children Playing With In 1974?

In 1974, top toys included Etch-a-Sketch, Spirograph and the board game Risk. Children were watching Bagpuss and The Magic Roundabout and The Wombles were in the charts that December with their hit ‘Wombling Merry Christmas’.

Originally called just “Early Learning”, our company had premises in London Street, Reading, where the first shop would open. In the basement, John started and ran his new toy business. Parents would sign up and receive a selection of toys suitable for their child’s age. Books were included too, and families didn’t have to pay unless they kept the products. Consumers were used to the mail-order model by this point, which took off in the late fifties, but this new concept of receiving toys, tailored to your child’s growing needs, was totally unique at the time.

John’s idea took off, and whilst the mail-order division was eventually closed, Early Learning Centre grew to over 200 stores in the UK + over 500 stores globally.

What Made ELC Unique?

ELC was one of the first toy retailers to employ a child psychologist to help develop toys that would offer more than just entertainment to parents who wanted an educational slant to their children’s play. Starting out with books, building toys, craft materials and puzzles, the mix of products has grown over the years to include everything from baby and toddler necessities to outdoor play equipment. We are proud of every product we sell and ensure all our toys exceed expected standards in quality and sustainability.

Letters from ELC founder John Beale to customers

For parents, Early Learning Centre has become synonymous with high quality, durable toys that last for generations. Many of the toys we sell today have been around in some variation for decades, and whilst the look, feel, and materials are regularly updated and upgraded, play patterns have remained the same since their original development. Here you can see 4-year-old Daisy using the iconic ELC double-sided easel in 2002 to paint a colourful masterpiece, just as a child expressing their creativity would on today’s iteration.

The High Street Years

At the peak of our high street retail operations, there were 215 Early Learning Centre stores in the UK. There are lots of great memories of our stores out there – they were designed with children in mind, offered lots of opportunities to touch and try toys, and had a friendly welcoming atmosphere that made them a destination store for children and adult toy-lovers alike. A train table in the play area was standard and larger stores even had play equipment like slides and play frames on the shop floor.

Look at these wonderful archive pictures of Early Learning Centre stores in the 80’s and 90’s which bring back so many memories:

We know our brand holds a place in many of our customers hearts. Parents buying toys for their children remember visiting the green-carpeted treasure trove of toys in their childhoods. Take a look at these 2 great memories:

Text of ELC memories

Some of our customers may even remember this classic stop-motion animation advert from 1986 which emphasises the importance of toys that make learning fun.

In 1984, Early Learning Centre was bought by Menzies, and over the next twenty years went through several changes of ownership, including a significant presence in Mothercare stores during the early 2000’s, eventually finding it’s forever home with The Entertainer in 2019.

We still have a High Street presence. Head to any Entertainer store and you’ll find all your ELC favourites available, and our full range is available online. You can also find our toys on the shelves in multiple retailers globally.

We are still just as committed as ever to helping parents choose toys that support their child’s development, growth, and learning. By continuing to keep fun and child development at the heart of everything that we create, we aim to help nurture curious, creative, and confident children that will go on to have happy, successful futures, just like John Beale wanted for his children.

What’s Next for Early Learning Centre?

Early Learning Centre has always evolved. From a mail-order company to a high street retailer, to the online and in-store global presence it has today, the fundamental aims of our brand have always stayed the same; to provide children with learning opportunities through play that support their development needs, generate laughter, develop curiosity, spark imaginations, and create joy.

There’s so much still to come. As we gain even more insight into child development and continue to use the very latest research to influence our toy designs, we strive to create safe, well-made toys that offer lasting value for money in a durable and sustainable way.

We hope you’ll continue to be part of our journey as we strive to produce more wonderful, enduring toys that excite and educate, and keep checking back for more exciting 50th anniversary content this year!

You may also like