Opinion | History in the making… and playing: How the pandemic has shaped toy trends of the future

From hand-washing and mask-wearing within role-play and the renewed focus on child wellbeing through play, to the spike in the kidult market and the evolution of the STEAM and arts and crafts market, there’s not a category within the toy space that hasn’t been touched or influenced by the coronavirus pandemic.

Here, Steve Pasierb, president and CEO of the US Toy Association explores the wealth of trends and tones that have been set the pandemic and their likely impact on the toy space for years to come

After an historic year that saw U.S. toy sales skyrocket with millions of families stuck at home, in February The U.S. Toy Association unveiled the top toy trends that are expected to drive industry sales in 2021.

Typically, our annual trend forecast is presented at Toy Fair New York, but this year, with Toy Fair postponed until February 19th to 22nd, 2022, it was shared digitally. The trends team highlighted the ongoing impact of the pandemic on play, the toy industry’s commitment to helping kids become better global citizens, the rise of the “kidult” toy consumer, and the social-emotional benefits of mindful toys and games. 

We’re often asked how our team comes up with the trends. It boils down to spending several months previewing hundreds of innovative new products from toy and youth entertainment companies and paying close attention to wider societal trends impacting the economy and consumer shopping habits. Viral social media crazes and kids’ evolving tastes and preferences are also taken into account. Our predictions set the stage for the crucial Q4 holiday shopping season and offer a sneak peek at what kids (and adults) will be clamouring for. This year, the team is keeping a close eye on COVID-19 and its deep and continuing impact on family life and the future of play.

2021 is expected to be another historic year, as the effects of the pandemic continue to reverberate across every aspect of our lives. Kids and parents are using play as a tool to de-stress and reconnect with each other, and play itself is changing (did you ever think that mask-wearing, hand sanitizing, and COVID testing would be commonplace in children’s role play?) 

Because many kids are spending more time learning at home, STEM/STEAM and other educational toys continue to grow in popularity. We’re seeing this trend evolve, as it ties in new technology (coding, augmented and virtual reality, music composition, etc.), nostalgic brands and screen-free learning, and inclusive learning tools targeted to differently abled children. We’re also seeing a growing number of “socially conscious” toys (think dolls and plush that promote diversity and cultural awareness, eco-friendly designed toys and packaging, STEAM toys that feature renewable energy sources, play-sets with farm-to-table elements, and so on). Companies that want to leverage this growing trend are encouraged to check out our recently released STEAM Toy Assessment Framework, which can be used as a checklist for developing effective STEM/STEAM toys for kids.

Last year, we saw a huge uptick in sales of outdoor toys and various types of playground equipment to keep kids active at home. This year, we’re seeing a different sort of “wellness” toy take centre stage – products that help kids focus inward, understand and name their emotions, and engage in sensory and/or other mindful activities that reduce anxiety and stress. Fidget toys, which took a backseat in 2020 with fewer families heading into stores and making impulse purchases, are expected to make a comeback 2021.

In year one of the pandemic, adults (even those without kids) turned to play as a diversion and to socialize with friends from afar (e.g. Zoom game nights). The “kidult” trend is growing in 2021 with more adults seeking out complex building sets, high-end collectibles, board games, fidget toys, and puzzles to find joy, escapism, and connect with their own “inner child.” Play is beneficial on so many levels, which is something we talk about constantly at The Toy Association and through our Genius of Play initiative and research. But recently we have really seen these benefits come to life for those who maybe wouldn’t have carved out the time to play before the pandemic. Last year’s global shutdown gave us all a chance to slow down and enjoy the little things in life – and we expect that trend to hold, even as the world gradually returns to normal. 

In terms of licensing, with many theatrical releases moving to streaming services or taking a hybrid approach, there are new opportunities for original IPs bolstered by social media platforms (TikTok, YouTube, etc.) and non-linear channels (Disney+, Netflix, HBO Max, etc.) to cut through the noise and make an impact at retail alongside traditional entertainment licenses. Online shopping will continue to grow, and brick-and-mortar retailers will find new ways to get consumers excited about coming into their stores. Whether families are shopping in stores or online, we are continuing to educate parents and caregivers on how to identify and avoid accidentally purchasing unsafe counterfeits sold by unverified and illegitimate sellers. It’s an ongoing challenge that The Toy Association is tackling from both sides – advocating for IP protection in the halls of government, in addition to raising consumer awareness. 

These are just a few examples of what’s trending right now and what we’ll be seeing in the months ahead. Retail buyers are invited to visit www.ToyFairEverywhere.com, the global toy community’s only year-round digital B2B marketplace, for new business opportunities and to see and purchase products that are in line with the toy and play trends mentioned here.  

I also encourage everyone to check out our complete round-up of 2021 trends and watch the trend team’s Toy Trends Briefing at www.ToyAssociation.org/trends. With the toy, play, and retail landscape continuing to shift at a rapid rate, the team will also be providing a mid-year trend update this summer as we head into the all-important fourth quarter. Details on the digital release of that discussion will be shared in the coming months.

About Robert Hutchins

Robert Hutchins is the editor of ToyNews and its sister title, Licensing.biz. He has worked his way from Staff Writer to Editor across the two titles, having spent almost eight years with both and what now seems like a lifetime surrounded by toys. You can contact him by emailing robert.hutchins@biz-media.co.uk or calling him on 0203 143 8780 You can even follow him on Twitter @RobGHutchins if ranting is your thing...

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