NEW YORK (AP) – As more and more children emerge from the epidemic of mental health issues, their parents are looking for ways to help them stay resilient.
And the toy industry is paying close attention.
Although it is still early days, an increasing number of toy retailers are embracing MESH – or health, mind and social – as a name for toys that teach children skills such as how to deal with new challenges, resolve conflicts, stand up for themselves, or solve problems.
The term was first used in child development and by the American Camp Association 10 years ago and gained new attention after the pandemic. Rachele Harmuth, CEO of ThinkFun, part of the Ravensburger toy company, and fitness expert and family doctor Deborah Gilboa, created the MESH group earlier this year with the goal of getting manufacturers to create bold toys and for retailers to sell them. thus.
“We just have to educate parents and teachers a little bit so they know we can use their play time to be intentional,” Gilboa said.
The plan is to certify MESH toys by mid-2024 as the Toy Association did for STEAM toys, which emphasize science, technology, engineering, art, and math. Adrienne Appell, spokeswoman for the Toy Association, says MESH is a sector that will continue to monitor its growth.
Many toys that can be considered MESH are already in the chests of children – such as memory games, dolls, other types of Legos, Pokémon trading games, and Dungeons & Dragons. The idea came to light at the recent four-day annual fair in New York, which featured a range of toys from hand2mind and Open the Joy that encourage children to express their feelings with mirrors or toys.
James Zahn, editor-in-chief of trade publication Toy Book, said many new toys being developed with MESH in mind will be released starting next year.
But some worry that the MESH approach could make promises to parents it cannot deliver. There is also the risk of companies preying on parents’ concerns about their children’s health.
“My fear is that MESH will be used as the next marketing gimmick,” said Chris Byrne, an independent toy analyst. “It will create a culture of fear that their children are not developing morally and emotionally. And that is not the real job of the toy industry.”
Experts say childhood stress and anxiety levels have risen over the years, but the ongoing stress and grief of the pandemic has exacerbated the problem, especially for those already struggling with mental health issues who have been cut off from counselors and other school resources during remote learning. Many teachers began to emphasize social learning in response, which teaches children soft skills such as helping them manage their emotions and build positive relationships with others.
Dave Anderson, vice president of school and community programs and senior psychologist at the ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute, praised efforts by the toy industry to also address aggression. But he said parents should be careful with what companies say. While there is evidence that the skills demonstrated by the MESH team can be resilient, there is no evidence that the toys will, he said.
“His opinion is based on evidence; toys are not,” he said.
Bryne says that the skills demonstrated by the MESH team are important in sports, whether it’s skateboarding that builds endurance or learning to share toys to help resolve conflicts.
“In my opinion, if you’re living in a healthy home and you’re playing well and your parents are in a relationship, the MESH stuff just happens automatically,” he said.
The US toy industry itself is in need of a shake-up after a weak year, especially for the 2022 holiday season when retailers are left with a surplus of toys after enjoying an epidemic of toy sales by parents. The slump has continued so far this year, with US toy sales down 8% from January to August, according to Circana data.
For its part, the MESH team is working with specialty stores such as Learning Express and small toy companies such as Crazy Aaron’s, which are expanding beyond its Thinking Putty to add tools that teach children to solve problems such as how magnets work with putty. One game ThinkFun is promoting: Rush Hour, a racing game with a car challenge for kids.
But big retailers like Amazon are also waking up to the MESH approach.
“The proliferation of MESH toys speaks to the power of play and the important role toys play in our lives,” said Anne Carrihill, head of toys and games at Amazon.
Richard Derr, owner of the Learning Express Franchise in Lake Zurich, Illinois, said he trained his staff last spring to help parents choose the right toys. But the problem is not to scare the parents.
“You don’t want to run up to somebody and say, ‘Hey, how are you thinking about your kids these days?'” Derr said. “That’s why local toy stores are a great place to start because of our relationships with the community, customers and teachers.”
But he also said that toy manufacturers cannot use the word MESH without meaning.
Sarah Davis, mother of three boys ages 3, 6 and 9, is open to the idea of MESH toys. The Great Falls, Virginia resident said her 6-year-old son has delayed speech because he wears a mask during the pandemic, while his 9-year-old son has social isolation issues and bonding with his parents. laptop.
He said: “My children have no problem with school anxiety,” he said, but added. I still worry about the long-term effects of the situation.
Beyond the promise of establishing resilience through MESH is whether the toys will actually be fun.
“Are my kids going to ask for these kinds of toys for Christmas?” Davis asked. “I’ll be very interested and I’ll be watching.”