IPG Media Lab
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The Future of Play: Emerging Toys & Play Trends of 2022

From the comeback of physical toys to the continuing popularity of digital playgrounds, the future of play is hybrid and educational

Photo by Stephen Andrews on Unsplash

There is no denying that the past few years have significantly accelerated the digitization of childhood. The play and learning experiences that dominate childhood have been largely moved online, with physical toys enhanced with digital elements and online platforms supplementing, if not outright replacing, real-world playgrounds for kids and teens to socialize with each other. As a result, the digital influence in the toy industry has been increasingly prominent. The dominance of video games, both as a media channel and a cultural force, is a good indicator.

Yet, at the same time, there’s a counter-trend developing that foretells a comeback of old school physical toys. Whether it’s the trainsets of the 1970s or Transformers from the 80s, an increasing portion of young adults are feeling overexposed to digital leisure experiences and instead are intentionally reconnecting with physical play. And toy brands have been taking notice. But digital play is not going anywhere either; instead, more toy brands are exploring a hybrid approach that leverages both physical components, as well as digital overlays and content, to complement each other and create next-level play experiences.

As with any industry these days, the prospect of slowing growth and recession looms over the toy industry as well. According to data from NPD reported by Toybook that compares 2022 performance with the pre-pandemic numbers of 2019, the compound annual growth rate shows that toy industry dollars grew 13% year-over-year in the first 4 months of 2022, driven by averaging selling price (ASP) growth of 11% alongside a mere 1% gain in unit sales. This means that people are not necessarily buying more toys, but they are opting for more expensive items. Still, the recent earnings from Hasbro and Mattel seem to indicate that the toy sector may be more recession-proof than others, as toys, games, and entertainment tend to be “small luxuries” that customers feel comfortable indulging in.

Nevertheless, to withstand the looming economic downturn and get ahead of the shifting consumer behavior, toy brands should take the following four emerging trends into strategic consideration.

Digitized Childhood

As the play and learning experiences that dominate childhood have been largely digitized, play itself has also become more digital than ever before.

According to a recent review of global studies on screen time, primary school-age children’s screen time increased by 83 minutes a day during the pandemic. In particular, the researchers found that leisure screen time, or screen time not related to work or study, also increased across all age groups. Children between the ages of six and 10 once again showed the biggest increase. Meanwhile, social media usage is also rising among kids as young as 8. A new report by Common Sense Media found a 17% increase in screen use among teens and tweens in the last two years — more than in the four years prior.

Yet, following the pandemic, parents and researchers have been gravitating towards a more nuanced approach to screen time. More people now acknowledge that it isn’t always clear what would be a one-size-fits-all screen time limit for kids. Instead, screen time needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, taking various factors into account.

Facilitated by the internet, offline play is also breaking out of a proximity-based unit and developing a more community-driven focus. In addition, esports and MMO games create digital playgrounds and social spaces online for new kinds of virtual hangouts. For example, Disney recently launched a Boba Fett-themed outfit in Fortnite to promote its Star Wars series centered around the character.

In contrast to Fortnite, which often hosts pop culture collabs geared toward teens and young adults, Roblox seems to be the platform of choice for many toy companies and kid-focused IP. For example, WowWee recently launched a line of collectible dolls based on the Twilight Daycare game on Roblox.

Meanwhile, the aforementioned resurgence of physical toys and nostalgia-driven play is gaining traction among the young adult demo. In the past year, roughly a quarter of all toy sales have gone to young adults aged between 19 and 29, per the Toy World magazine. Fisher-Price is embracing this trend with recent releases like a baby’s boombox, a toy Game Boy, and a baby’s mixtape, whereas Mattel plans to reintroduce three dormant toy lines, Major Matt Mason, Big Jim, and Pulsar, to court nostalgic young adults looking to recapture the magic of their childhood before every aspect of life became digitized.

Socially Conscious Toys Gaining Momentum

Educational toys received quite the pandemic boost, as parents scrambled to keep their children occupied during lockdowns. Working from home and acting as your child’s teacher at the same time has proven to be quite taxing, particularly for moms, and statistics show that this trend will likely continue even after kids have returned to schools. Between 2020 and 2024, the educational toy market is expected to grow by more than $24 billion.

As a key growth driver for the toy sector, more educational toys are branching out of the STEM education angle and are seeking to educate kids about social issues through play. Following the pandemic spike of educational toys, some toy-makers are putting sustainability and inclusion front-and-center in 2022.

Sustainability is a top-of-mind concern for many consumers, parents included. Toy brands are addressing this via two fronts: making the toys themselves more environmentally friendly, and designing toys that can teach kids about climate change and environmental responsibility. Brands are taking action to address this: Mattel has pledged to utilize 100% recycled, recyclable, or bio-based materials in its products and packaging by 2030; Hasbro has a similar commitment to sustainability. LEGO uses plant-based plastic for certain products, including its LEGO Treehouse set, and plans to make fully sustainable packaging by 2025.

On the inclusion front, toy brands are also making strides to address gender equality and representations in toys. There are more STEM toys that are specifically designed for girls, such as Magic Curie, a thematic programming kit in the Alpha Girl series, to correct the long-standing gender bias in STEM toy design. Similarly, Lego has promised that it is working to eliminate all gender bias from its toy packaging design and marketing messaging, striving for a more gender-neutral stance. Transgender representation is also entering the mainstream, as Mattel recently released a Barbie doll based on trans actress Laverne Cox.

In order to transition from faceless “toy manufacturers” to trusted “edu-tainment providers,” toy brands will need to incorporate more educational and social elements into their products and marketing to encourage more purposeful play]time. Beyond educational purposes, wellness-oriented play and toy design is another common goal for parents and kids.

Mindful Play for Wellness

The pandemic has created a tough couple of years for everyone’s mental health, and kids are not exempt. Research suggests that the global prevalence of child and adolescent mental illness has increased considerably during COVID-19. Estimated global rates of clinically-elevated child and adolescent depression and anxiety hit 25.2% and 20.5%, respectively. In response, more and more people are seeking out wellness and mindfulness toys to actively balance things out.

Whether it’s the emergence of stress toys designed for kids, or new K-12 schools incorporating wellness rooms and natural trails into their premises, there is no doubt that mindful play is on the rise. Jumping on this trend, Mattel struck a new partnership with mindfulness app Headspace and co-created a short video series in which an overwhelmed Barbie is guided by Eve, the female voice in the Headspace app, through various guided meditations designed for kids to relax and recharge. In addition, Mattel has also created a “wellness” Barbie collection of dolls designed to teach children the value of self-care.

Moreover, millennial parents’ fitness and wellness choices are seeping into their children’s playtime. Beyond family workout or meditation sessions, they are seeking out mini-exercise toys that can ensure their kids don’t turn into couch potatoes. ​​Little Tikes released the Pelican last summer, a “Peloton-like” stationary exercise bike for 3–7-year-olds that includes a screen attached for viewing videos. For instance, Fisher-Price released a Baby Biceps set, which features 4 gym-themed infant toys, which includes a mini-dumbbell with clacker beads, a pretend protein shake, and a lightweight kettle bell with rattle beads inside. B4Adventure is coming out with a play stones sensory steps set that allows kids to stimulate sensors within their muscles and joints to spark activity between their brain and skin.

But as we’ve pointed out before, there has been a growing backlash to wellness culture, especially in regards to how it has commodified self-care and packaged it as a luxury experience that excludes a large section of the consumers. Similarly, there is an argument to be made for the bubbling pushback against bringing this type of commercialized, often data-driven, “wellness culture” into children’s spaces. For brands looking to jump on the wellness toy trend, finding an organic, authentic way to incorporate wellness and mindfulness design will be a key imperative.

Next-Level Toy Retail

Following the general shift in retail, toy shopping is moving online: A 2021 Forrester report shows 68% of US online adults reported buying toys and games online (on a computer, smartphone, or tablet) in 2021, up from 47% in 2019. By contrast, US online consumers who purchased these products in person decreased from 37% in 2019 to 29% in 2021. Still, don’t count out the brick and mortar stores just yet, as many toy stores reinvented themselves to become immersive playrooms for kids and parents to discover new products hands-on.

In response, toy brands and retailers are testing out new digital tools to boost their omnichannel capability. For instance, Canadian toy retailer Mastermind Toys leveraged AI to grow its digital sales by 300% year-over-year in 2020. Using an AI-enabled shopping optimization platform developed by Fast Simon, the retailer was able to better understand shopper intent to match them with unique product collections.

For the sustained relevance of offline toy retail, look no further than the revival of Toys “R” Us. After declaring bankruptcy in 2017, the iconic toy retailer is now on the rebound under the new ownership of brand management firm WHP Global, especially after scoring a partnership with Macy’s. Through this team-up, they brought the Toys “R” Us brand back with an online store and plans to roll out shop-in-shops in over 400 US Macy’s locations this summer. This partnership has increased Macy’s toy sales by 15 times in the first quarter of 2022 compared to the period prior. Meanwhile, Toys “R” Us gets to build out its retail footprint again without any of the overhead of opening its own stores.

Of course, kid influencers continue to drive toy sales with their “unboxing” videos. Ryan’s World, Dude Perfect and Guava Juice are among the toy brands founded by YouTubers and promoted on their respective websites. YouTube marketing opportunities will continue to play a major role in driving toy sales, as more than 67% of U.S. children enrolled in schools have at least one smartphone at home, according to a 2021 survey. Figuring out an effective influencer marketing strategy that harnesses the power of creator-led content should be a central consideration for toy brands in 2022 and beyond.

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Richard Yao

Richard Yao

Manager of Strategy & Content, IPG Media Lab