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Popular this year: Toys that soothe, comfort and pop

Toymakers are seeing growing demand for products like Pop It! that help children make sense of emotions and calm their anxiety.

Pop It! has become a mainstay of grade school classrooms and birthday party goody bags. (FoxMind)

This Christmas, McKinzie Craig is squarely focused on toys that will show her daughters, ages 3 and 5, how to convey what they can’t put into words. Her shopping list sums up a tough two years: kinetic sand for sensory play, plush dolls with emotive faces, and T. rex and alligator figurines so they can act out their emotions.

“The pandemic has been a reminder that children have really big feelings and no way to express them,” said Craig, a political science professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “That’s become a real focus for us: It’s okay to feel sad or angry. But how do you address that and move forward?”

Toys focused on social and emotional development have become big sellers during the pandemic — initially to support kids whose daily routines went sideways during the outbreak and now to calm their anxieties as they ease back into in-person schooling and playdates. There’s Big Feelings Pineapple, a modern-day take on Mr. Potato Head with dozens of emotions, including silliness, confusion and disgust; TeeTurtle reversible plushies, a line of stuffed unicorns, cats and octopuses that go from happy to angry (and back again); and Pop It! — a silicon fidget toy that’s become a mainstay of grade school classrooms and birthday party goody bags.

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“Right now the focus is on products that can help kids express their feelings, name their feelings and react appropriately,” said Sari Winick, chief marketing officer for toymaker hand2mind. “We’ve gone into overdrive developing toys to meet the needs of the times.”

Its latest offering, she said, is Pawz the Calming Pup, a light-up dog that guides children through breathing exercises and doubles as a night light. The $22 toy hit shelves this month.

The new crop of toys comes at a time of record-high sales for the industry: Revenue jumped 16 percent, to $25.1 billion, last year, according to market researchers NPD Group, and swelled 19 percent the first half of 2021. The most popular items, particularly early in the pandemic, were sports toys such as scooters and skateboards, as well as dolls and building sets, as parents looked for ways to keep their kids occupied without screens.

Hand2mind, which specializes in classroom toys, doubled down on social and emotional learning in early 2020, Winick said, and the year’s most popular product turned out to be a set of four sensory fidget tubes that sell for $35. This year, the company hopes its Pawz the Calming Pup will help it find a wider audience.

Classic toys are making a comeback during the pandemic

With children transitioning back into classrooms after nearly two years of remote learning, parents say they’re rethinking what they buy. The premium is no longer on keeping children entertained for as long as possible, but on helping them make sense of their emotions.

As a result, more companies are developing “fidget toys” and other products aimed at building focus and regulating emotion. In the past, such items were largely marketed to children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or anxiety, but researchers say toymakers are creating more commercial versions, with brighter colors and unusual shapes.

Breathe With Me Barbie, released last year by Mattel, guides children through meditation exercises and is part of a broader line of wellness dolls that practice yoga and other forms of “self-care.” Other toymakers, like WowWee, are concentrating on items that allow for more make-believe.

“There are so many toy trends coming out of the pandemic that are going to shift the way kids play for years to come,” said Sydney Wiseman, the company’s vice president of brand development. “There’s a new focus on well-being and keeping kids entertained without screens.”

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It took nearly 50 years — and a global pandemic — for Pop It! to make a splash.

The toy, which resembles bubble wrap and offers the same satisfying “pop,” was invented by a married couple in Israel in 1974. Ora Coster got the idea after a dream about a field of breasts, shortly after her sister died of breast cancer. Her husband, Theo, created a rubber prototype — but nobody was interested.

In 2008, they pitched the idea to David Capon, a toy executive who took the product to Canada, where it sat.

“Finally, in 2012, I said, ‘Look I’m the president of my company, I can make mistakes,’ ” said Capon. He “removed the connotation to breasts” and his company, FoxMind, began marketing the gadget as a two-player logic game called Last Mouse Lost.

It first caught on with special needs educators, who found that it helped calm students with ADHD or on the autism spectrum. Target began selling the toy as Pop It! in 2019, but Capon said it wasn’t until February 2020, just as the pandemic was taking hold, that demand took off.

“It’s was like a nuclear explosion: Sales went completely berserk,” Capon said, adding that FoxMind is on track to sell 20 million Pop It! toys this year, though overall popper sales are probably many multiples of that. “When is the last time a toy sold more than 1 billion units in one year? It’s exceeded every expectation.”

Now poppers are showing up on earrings, purses, phone covers, even acrylic nails. Its appeal, he says, is its simplicity: “It doesn’t take up space, it doesn’t take batteries and it requires zero setup.”

Anna Maria Caruso hadn’t given much thought to poppers until this fall, when her third-grade students began bringing them to her classroom in Brooklyn. She worried they might pose a distraction, but says the opposite happened: The act of popping bubbles helps many of her students stay focused during lessons. She recently added popper toys to her class prize basket, alongside Rubik’s Cubes, Slinkys and wooden blocks.

“In the past, fidget toys were usually more of a distraction and only worked for children who really needed it,” she said. “But now I’m seeing a lot more children who need that extra help. Kids are struggling socially and emotionally. They need more movement and more help to stay focused.”

Kids love those fidget spinner toys. But are they too much of a distraction?

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Whether it’s counting prayer beads, clicking a ballpoint pen or tapping their fingers, “people have been fidgeting with things basically forever,” according to Katherine Isbister, a professor of computational media at the University of California at Santa Cruz, whose work focuses on games and play. But, she and others stressed that parents should be discerning in how they use toys, particularly electronic ones, to support social and emotional development.

“It’s important that caregivers aren’t just putting something in front of a child and thinking toys will be able to teach them emotional skills on their own,” said Erica Schepp, director of the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater Children’s Center, where enrollees are 3 months to 6 years. “Children are coming back to school with many more social and emotional needs, but a lot of the toys I see, particularly the technology-related ones, are missing the point. Children don’t need dumbed-down options.”

One of the biggest challenges, she said, has been helping children and families wean off increased screen time during the pandemic. Medical professionals have long warned that too much time in front of TVs, tablets and phones can delay language and social skills. But the pandemic introduced new challenges and complications. Zoom schooling suddenly became the norm for children as young as 3, and with much of the country shut down, people of all ages reported spending more time scrolling their phones or watching TV.

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“Increased screen time has affected children’s ability to be creative thinkers and get deeply involved in play,” Schepp said. “When they first come back to school, they need more support entering play with their peers and knowing how to manage big emotions in an appropriate way.”

As a result, she said, the center is more focused on open-ended play and teaching children to engage with items for longer periods of time.

But it isn’t just children. Americans of all ages are reporting higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression as a result of the pandemic, fueling a surge in comfort items, including weighted blankets, massagers, even Lego sets.

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Back in Louisiana, Craig’s children are back in school. But playdates, birthday parties and family trips to the trampoline park are still largely off the table, which means she’s had to find ways to entertain and engage at home. She’s bought more toys and recently turned a playroom closet into a calming space, with LED lights, plush pillows and squishy balloons.

“I’ve already seen progress in the few months that we’ve been prioritizing social-emotional learning,” she said. “Watching them articulate their feelings and squeeze a ball instead of their sister’s face? Well, that’s made things more manageable for all of us.”

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