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Matters of the mind: A look at the emerging wellness and mindfulness trend in toys

One of the noticeable trends to have emerged from this year’s Toy Fair season was the growing awareness around wellness, wellbeing, and mindfulness among children. Robert Hutchins takes a look at how the topic is casting off past misconceptions and finding credibility in the children’s sector

At the start of last month, Mattel detailed a new partnership with the mindfulness app and wellbeing platform, Headspace, that saw the US-toymaker join the current Wellness craze through the medium of its Barbie fashion doll range.

As a US-focused partnership, the initiative has no plans for the UK as of yet – and believe me, ToyNews has already been wrapping on that door – but it is, however, reflective of a very real trend that has started to emerge across the children’s sector. 

Whether it’s within the parameters of the kids’ entertainment they engage with, or via the toys they play with, wellness is starting to make itself known within these circles; raising awareness around the topic seen by many as a much-needed antioxidant in a world so deeply social media-centric.

At the time of writing, the UK’s media and social media has been placed at the centre of a nation-wide scrutiny into the impact and effect it can have on an individual’s mental wellbeing. In the wake of the tragic loss of the British TV presenter Caroline Flack, whose death went to again highlight a number of underlying issues surrounding today’s social platforms, online trolling and bullying has by and large been called into account.

In 2018, it came as little surprise to anyone when Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England issued a warning that the children’s mental health crises was and continues to be fuelled by social media. It, in turn, prompted the mental health awareness charity, YoungMinds to issue its own guide for parents on how best to navigate their child’s interaction with social media and the increased anxiety levels that children – from as young as primary school years – are experiencing because of it.

It’s true that modern commodities such as social media, have opened a lot of doors for the coming generations, and its ability to connect audiences across the globe should only be celebrated; but at the same time, the strains, stresses, and isolation that it can cause have rarely been more severe.

But it’s just one of the many aspects of modern living guilty of applying pressure on kids at a younger and younger age; and it’s perhaps in response that we now find the idea of wellness and wellbeing being brought into the children’s market. 

Could mindfulness be the best method for safeguarding a generation of digital natives from – or arming them with the tools to implement change across – a world of social stresses that they are about to inherit?

Last year, the World Health Organisation formally recognised ‘burnout’ as a medical condition, prompting a rise in the attention being paid to the the topic of mindfulness. Now that Mattel’s partnership with Headspace has witnessed the launch of a range of Barbie dolls promoting the topic of self-care, including a meditating Barbie – titled Breathe with Barbie – that offers a guide to mindfulness and meditation in combination with Headspace’s digital content – can we assume that it’s a topic that’s here to stay?

Mattel wasn’t the first to broach the mindfulness scene. Two years ago, Moshi Monsters made clear its plans for an industry comeback when it took its concept off onto a new trajectory, bringing storytelling content to the sleep app, Calm – co-founded by its co-CEO, Michael Acton Smith nonetheless – and helping to pave a credible path for the toy industry and the conversations around self-care.

Today, the conversation around mindfulness in the children’s space is in full flow, and one to be at the centre of much of it is Max Mindpower, a mindfulness-inspired children’s brand that comprises a range of plush toys, a book series, and a new app, all developed by Max Mindpower managing director – and creator of the Max Mindpower brand (and its flagship meditation bear) – Nikki Collins.

Nikki Collins, founder of Max Mindpower

“The topic of mindfulness in children is incredibly important, not only because it’s something that the consumers are actively looking for and want, but because it’s a real issue in society today and not something that is going to go away today or tomorrow,” Collins tells ToyNews.

“It’s certainly something that is being taken more seriously than it was maybe two years ago, but like anything it takes familiarity before people can take it on board. The more we talk about what is affecting children and what they need, the more the industry will listen and respond.”

Perhaps this is what we are seeing gradually seed in now? Max Mindpower has had a very busy last few years itself, having met with investment from CHF Media and recently appointing the licensing specialist Valerie Fry as its commercial director. Max Mindpower – now on the cusp of some big things in the licensing space with brand-building initiaitives spurred by ‘incredibly rapid growth’ – has certainly come a long way since first appearing in the pages of ToyNews way back in 2017.

It surely goes some distance to highlight just how big a topic mindfulness has become in the children’s space.

“Max has certainly made an impact on the toy industry and brought mindfulness to the forefront after winning an award at its launch at London Toy Fair,” continues Collins. “I notice a lot of the trends in toys since have been more towards wellbeing, which is so heartening as it shows that this is something which is becoming increasingly important throughout the industry; not just a nice idea.”

Collins’ move into mindfulness toys for children was, in fact, inspired by a number of culminating factors, not least the recorded rise in mental health issues in children today and the fast-vanishing downtime that children have at their disposal in modern day living. But not only this, Max Mindpower was inspired by Collins’ own life experiences, following a hit and run incident that left her with disabilities and mental health issues at the age of 19.

“I was given a very poor prognosis in terms of recovery and was actually recommended mindfulness as a way to come to terms with how my life would be, but I actually got better. It gave me a completely different outlook on life and made me fascinated with psychology, which I went on to study,” she explains.

It was while studying that Collins was struck with the idea of developing an all round children’s toy that ‘conveyed mindfulness through a mainstream children’s toy.’ From then on, Max Mindpower, a toy which “encompassed emotions and coping skills and tricks that children could learn from a young age and use in every day life,” was put into development.

But let’s apply the brakes slightly here, for wellbeing, wellness, and mindfulness, as we know can cover a multitude of sins, and it is with thanks to the Instagraming celebrities – the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and her Goop brand (and it’s more than questionable line of candles… go on, give it a Google) that ‘wellness’ has copped its fair share of bad press.

So, what do we mean when we talk about mindfulness?

“Mindfulness essentially is focusing our minds on our present experience, such as thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations, without identifying strongly with it,” explains Collins. 

“Children should be aware of it because the mind naturally wanders to either a past experience or a future worry or concern, and we miss out so much on what’s happening around us now. 

“We can train our mind to stop wandering using mindfulness and also have benefits like less anxiety, better emotional resilience and better cognitive skills. It actually can even make you smarter, which is no real surprise, considering that it allows you to think and focus better.”

Of those activities known to in the search for mindfulness (alongside the likes of breathing excercises and sleeping aids), journalling – the act of keeping a daily journal – has been pinpointed as an effective method for children to focus their minds. 

It so happens that it is also the basis of the Happy Self Journal, a business established and run by Francesca Geens, who believes  that by writing down the day’s experiences, children are opening a gateway to better conversations around their own mental health.

“The Happy Self Journal is a beautiful, bound, A5 notebook that introduces children to the concept of daily journalling,” explains Geens. “It introduces various things like gratitude practice, a little checklist where kids are encouraged to think about acts of kindness, promoting a growth mindset and a resilience, and an approach to handling problems and setbacks, and the realisation that life is about learning.”

Steeped in researcher findings which denote that 40 per cent of a person’s happiness is self-perpetuated (50 per cent is genetic and 10 per cent is circumstantial), the idea of the Happy Self Journal is that children reflect on their day each day and focus their minds on its positives, while feeling encouraged to be open about the day’s negatives.

“I noticed that there was a lot of attention on the rise of mental health issues in children – brought about by the unstoppable digital age, social media, and modern day pressures – but nothing by way of prevention or something to aid parents and children to reflect upon it all,” Geens continues.

“We are starting to become more aware of the virtues of self-care in adults, but my point was ‘why wait until you’re an adult to know about this kind of stuff?’ Why shouldn’t we be introducing this to children at a younger age?”

Each page of the Happy Self Journal features a quote or an affirmation, as well as mindfulness challenges and emojis that kids are encouraged to circle to illustrate their feelings on the day. 

“This all helps to prompt really good conversations with the parents. Children feel they can talk more openly about the things that have affected throughout the day. It’s proven to be a good method of uncovering revelations about bullying, or alleviating worries and stresses,” says Geens. “On top of that, it’s really lovely quality, so that kids will want to cherish it and make it special to them.”

It’s with a certain degree of thanks to the high profile media around mental health awareness that mindfulness is coming into its own. Schools are beginning to bring wellness into the curriculum and into daily classroom routines, while it helps that individuals like the Duke and Dutchess of Cambridge are themselves stimulating conversation around the topic and helping to bring it into the open, free of its stigma.

Meanwhile, reception to the Happy Self Journal, has been nothing short of “amazing,” and the book is currently enjoying a popularity that has put the business well on course for further expansion, including the publication of its seventh language edition, a teen edition, and further product ideas that Geens is confident will all come into fruition this year.

It’s a similar story for Collins’ Max Mindpower which has been at the centre of ‘phenomenal response’ from consumers and retailers alike.

“It’s actually overwhelming,” exclaims Collins. “In terms of retailers, we have some that champion and support us so much, but the consumer reaction is the best. We often get emails, letters, and videos from people letting us know the difference it has made to their children. We are so grateful that people take the time to write to us, and they probably have no idea how much getting these responses means to us.”

Fair to say that the move towards wellness among the modern day consumer is pretty apparent. And it’s with thanks to the likes of Max Mindpower, the Happy Self Journal, and Mattel’s partnership with the Headspace app, that it’s become a very credible movement for the toy space to embrace.

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