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Amid a mental health crisis, toy industry takes on a new role: building resilience

NEW YORK (AP) — As more children emerge from the pandemic grappling with mental health issues, their parents are seeking ways for them to build emotional resilience.

And toy companies are paying close attention.

While still in its early phase, a growing number of toy marketers are embracing MESH — or mental, emotional and social health — as a designation for toys that teach kids skills like how to adjust to new challenges, resolve conflict, advocate for themselves, or solve problems.

The acronym was first used in child development circles and by the American Camp Association 10 years ago and gained new resonance after the pandemic. Rachele Harmuth, head of ThinkFun, a division of toy company Ravensburger, and resilience expert and family physician Deborah Gilboa, formed a MESH taskforce earlier this year with the goal of getting manufacturers to design toys with emotional resilience in mind and to have retailers market them accordingly.

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“We just need to educate parents and educators just a little bit to know that we could be using their play time a little bit intentionally,” Gilboa said.

The plan is to certify MESH toys by mid-2024 the same way the Toy Association did for STEAM toys, which emphasize science, tech, engineering, arts, and math. Adrienne Appell, a spokeswoman at the Toy Association, notes that MESH is an area it will continue to monitor as it evolves.

Many toys that could be considered MESH happen to already be in children’s toy chests — like memory games, puppets, certain types of Legos, Pokémon trading games, and Dungeons & Dragons. The concept was highlighted at the toy industry’s recent four-day annual show in New York, which featured an abundance of toys from the likes of hand2mind and Open the Joy that encourage children to express their feelings with mirrors or puppets.

James Zahn, editor- in-chief of the trade publication the Toy Book, noted the bulk of the new toys being developed with MESH in mind will be out starting next year.

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But some worry the MESH approach might end up promising parents something it can’t deliver. There’s also a risk of companies preying on parents’ anxieties about their kids’ mental 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 socially and emotionally. And that’s not really the job of the toy industry. ”

Experts say childhood depression and anxiety were climbing for years, but the pandemic’s unrelenting stress and grief magnified the woes, particularly for those already grappling with mental health issues who were cut off from counselors and other school resources during remote learning. Many educators began emphasizing social emotional learning in response, which teaches children soft skills like helping them manage their emotions and create positive rapport with others.

Dave Anderson, vice president of school and community programs and a senior psychologist in the ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute, applauded the toy industry’s efforts to likewise address emotional resilience. But he said parents need to be careful about claims that companies may be making. While there’s evidence that skills highlighted by the MESH taskforce can build resilience, there’s no evidence that the toys themselves will, he said.

“The concepts are evidence based; the toys themselves are not,” he said.

Bryne notes that the skills being highlighted by the MESH taskforce are the basics of play, whether it’s skateboarding that builds perseverance or learning how to share toys to help with conflict resolution.

“In my opinion, if you live in a healthy home and you’re having healthy play and your parents are engaged, the MESH stuff kind of happens automatically, ” he said.

The U.S. toy industry itself has been in need of a jolt following a weak year, particularly a lackluster holiday 2022 season when retailers were stuck with a surplus of toys after enjoying a pandemic-induced toy splurge by parents. The malaise has continued so far this year, with toy sales in the U.S. down 8% from January through August, based on Circana’s retail tracking service data.

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For its part, the MESH taskforce is initially working with specialty stores like Learning Express and small toy companies like Crazy Aaron’s, which has expanded beyond its Thinking Putty to add activity kits that teach kids problem solving like how magnets work with putty. One game ThinkFun is marketing: Rush Hour, a sliding block logic game that has kids battle traffic gridlock.

But large retailers like Amazon are also waking up to the MESH approach.

“The rising popularity of MESH toys speaks to the power of play and the important role that toys play in our lives,” said Anne Carrihill, Amazon’s director of toys and games.

Richard Derr, owner of the Learning Express franchise in Lake Zurich, Illinois, said that he trained his workers on helping parents this past spring to pick the right toys. But the challenge is not to scare parents.

“You don’t want to rush up to somebody and say, ‘Hey, how’s your mental health today of your kids?’” 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 noted toymakers can’t be overusing the word MESH without any meaning.

Sarah Davis, the 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 had delayed speech because he was wearing a mask during the heart of the pandemic, while her 9-year-old son has some issues with social interaction after being isolated and glued to his laptop.

“My kids don’t have an issue with anxiety in terms of school,” she said, but added. ”I still worry about the long-term effects of what that was like.”

More than the promise of building emotional resilience through MESH is whether the toys themselves will actually be fun.

“Are my kids going to ask for those kind of toys for Christmas?” Davis asked. “I’m going to be really curious and I will keep an eye out for them.”

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Follow Anne D’Innocenzio: http://twitter.com/ADInnocenzio

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This story has been updated to correct the name of the Toy Association.