It’s been very long and difficult couple of years for all of us since the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic. During that time, we, as a global society, have had to endure a magnitude of challenges, from annoying inconveniences to heart-wrenching tragedies. Even as we emerge from the pandemic, it’s becoming clear that its impact on our way of life will be everlasting. And, while we’re left trying to determine what the “new normal” will look like as we move on with our lives, we’re beginning to take note of how we’ve been affected mentally by the increased stress and emotional unrest caused by the crisis.
It has certainly had its negative effects on adults, but consider how the pandemic has altered every aspect of the lives of our children. The challenges of home-schooling, the strangeness of social distancing from friends and family members, birthdays and other celebratory events having been dramatically altered or canceled, a non-stop emphasis on hand-washing and mask-wearing and an endless focus on COVID-19 in the news have all contributed to a sense of fear and anxiety among kids of all ages, everywhere in the world.
A rise in mental health cases leads to a new trend in toys
It’s no surprise that the coronavirus pandemic has caused an increase in the number of mental health cases among children in the form of anxiety, depression and social issues. As mental health professionals work with parents and children to address these concerns, we’re seeing a proliferation of toy products in the marketplace designed to help our youth cope with stress, instill emotional intelligence and promote social-emotional learning (SEL) skills.
These toys are part of a new trend, dubbed “In My Feelings,” which includes a wide range of products in a variety of categories that help children get in touch with their own emotions as well as recognize the emotions of others. They also help build their capacity to be aware of, control and express their feelings. These skills are not only the key to interpersonal relationships as kids progress through childhood, but they can lead to both personal and professional success in adulthood.
Packaging plays a critical role in conveying emotional benefits
The toy aisles at retail can be utterly chaotic, with the colorful array of brands in energetic packaging of just about every conceivable configuration appealing to both kids and parents alike. Brands with an educational slant need to work hard to convey their benefits to moms and dads, while ensuring that they’re fun and engaging for kids. This can be a fine line to navigate, and it’s best to do so through visual storytelling to establish a quick read.
Learning Resources’ Big Feelings Pineapple, which comes with 26 different face pieces, allows kids to explore SEL in every facial expression they build. Whether they choose to create a happy smile or a worrisome frown, the Big Feelings Pineapple provides an opportunity for kids to identify their emotions and describe what they’re feeling and why. There are two sides to the pineapple, so kids can create, identify and compare two emotions at the same time.
The Big Feelings Pineapple package design is a lesson in straight-forward simplicity. It imparts an undeniable educational appeal with its white front panel and large Learning Resources logo. But, the fun play pattern is clearly communicated with one large smiling facial expression and three smaller expressions surrounding a call-out that reads, “What faces can YOU make?” Another call-out lets parents know that this product “develops social-emotional learning and fine motor skills.” The top and side panels bring more fun into the design with bold color-blocking in blue and green. And the side panel provides parents with the Learning Resources mission statement and their 30-year history of having “empowered kids all over the world to build educational skills.”
Setting a meditative tone through package design
Learning about self-care is an important part of growing up in today’s world, particularly when it comes to one’s mental well-being. Mattel’s Breathe With Me Barbie, one of the Barbie wellness dolls, is a meditation-themed doll that teaches the benefits of mindfulness meditation with lights and sounds. Kids press the button in Barbie’s necklace to activate one of five guided meditation exercises that use lights and sounds to encourage kids to practice as well. Barbie’s puppy is there to assist with visualization. Insert one of four different cloud emojis into its head to give it a meditative thought bubble. Breathe With Me Barbie is extra-flexible for realistic posing in her cozy loungewear.
The package design perfectly depicts a soothing, quiet space needed for meditation, with Breathe With Me Barbie sitting on the floor in the cross-legged, Burmese position to calm her mind and align her body. The platform structure simulates a room with plants in the corners and soft, pastel pink and warm beige décor. The four cloud emojis are blistered to an insert below a call-out that reads, “I Feel…” to convey the various mindset options. A call-out in the upper left corner communicates the “Lights & Sounds!” feature as well as conveying the “5 Guided Meditation” exercises. In this case, the package design tells the story by creating a literal meditative environment, instantly connecting with consumers on an emotional level.
Promoting positivity and empowerment on-pack
The Loyal Subjects, a collectible toy company, has created For Keeps, a new line of 6” fashion dolls that carry a powerful message of positivity and self-empowerment. According to a press release on theloyalsubjects.com, For Keeps was inspired by “the impact technology and social media have on kids’ perceptions of self-worth, gender stereotypes, and the imprinting of critical thought patterns by age 4.” The brand promotes the idea that less screen time leads to more human engagement and better social skills.
The For Keeps characters are relatable professionals in positions of power: there’s a filmmaker, a journalist, a veterinarian, a music producer, a choreographer and the Creatrix Twins who run a cosmetics empire. The For Keeps packaging is brilliantly designed, with the most dominant communication being powerful, positive messages like, “YOU ARE RADIANT,” “YOU ARE BRAVE,” “YOU ARE TALENTED” and “YOU ARE AMAZING” emblazoned across the top of the window box front panel, each in a unique, bold color. The overall background is a city skyline in tones of blue and the For Keeps logo and character illustration appear to float on a rainbow-sparkle wave emanating from the Cupcake Keepsake, a secret stash box for note passing. Affirming messages in three heart-shaped call outs tell kids “YOU ARE UNIQUE!,” “YES, YOU CAN!” and “YOU ARE LOVED!” The positive messaging continues on the side panel with different statements for each character, such as “Radiate positive energy for others!” and “Show friends just how much you care.” Given the uncertainty kids are currently facing in today’s world, these dolls are absolute confidence-builders.
Communicating calmness through beautiful imagery
What better way to reduce stress than to assemble a puzzle? Combining that activity with soothing sounds from the Calm app! Spin Master has partnered with the #1 sleep and meditation app, Calm, to create Calm Mindful Puzzles. The entire family can get the stress relief that they need by assembling these puzzles, which feature beautiful imagery of zen landscapes, while listening to peaceful audio content. Each puzzle is designed to be completed in 2-3 hours and comes with an offer for a free 30-day subscription to the Calm app.
The visually soothing Calm Mindful Puzzles packaging features edge-to-edge artwork with a large, blue Calm app icon centered within it, establishing an immediate connection between the beautiful puzzle imagery and the app. The remaining communication – the puzzle name, 300-piece count, 2-3 hour completion time and a smartphone with the 30-day Calm app subscription callout – reside within a horizontal white bar across the bottom. The package design itself instantly puts you in a relaxed mood!
It’s great to see so many toy manufacturers treating the mental well-being of our children and our families not only as a necessity, but as a priority, as they bring new products to market. We may not be able to shelter our children from the stress and anxiety of a global pandemic. But, we can address it openly and collectively through conversation and through the development of innovative playthings that build the skills necessary for good mental health as we move forward in a post-pandemic world.