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NEW YORK As more children emerge from the pandemic struggling with mental health issues, their parents are looking for ways to help them build emotional resilience.
And toy companies are paying close attention.
Although still in its early stages, a growing number of toy marketers are considering MESH or mental, emotional and social health as a name for toys that teach children skills like how to adapt to challenges new, resolve conflicts, advocate for yourself, or solve problems. .
The acronym was first used in child development circles and by the American Camp Association 10 years ago and has gained new resonance in the wake of the pandemic. Rachele Harmuth, head of ThinkFun, a division of toy company Ravensburger, and resilience expert and family physician Deborah Gilboa, launched a MESH task force earlier this year with the goal of require manufacturers to design toys with emotional resilience and let retailers market them. corresponding.
“We just need to educate parents and educators a little bit to know that we can be intentional about using their play time,” Gilboa said.
The plan is to certify MESH toys by mid-2024 the same way the Toy Association has done for STEAM toys, which emphasizes science, technology, engineering, art and math. Adrienne Appell, spokeswoman for the Toy Association, noted that MESH is an area they will continue to monitor as it develops.
Many toys that can be considered NETs are already in children’s toy chests such as memory games, puppets, some types of Lego, Pokémon trading games and Dungeons & Dragons. This idea was highlighted at the toy industry’s recent four-day annual show in New York, which featured toys such as hand2mind and Open the Joy that encourage children to express their emotions using mirror or puppet.
James Zahn, editor-in-chief of the trade publication Toy Book, noted that most of the new toys being developed with MESH will launch starting next year.
But some worry that the MESH method may promise parents something it cannot deliver. There is also the risk of companies exploiting parents’ concerns about their children’s mental health.
“I’m concerned 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 really not the toy industry’s job.”
Experts say depression and anxiety in children have been on the rise for years, but the ongoing stress and grief of the pandemic has added to the woes, especially for students who are already struggling. struggling with mental health issues have been cut off from counselors and other school resources during remote learning. Many educators are beginning to emphasize social-emotional learning in response, teaching children soft skills like helping them manage their emotions and create positive relationships with others.
Dave Anderson, vice president of school and community programs and senior psychologist in the Center for Behavioral Disorders and ADHD at the Child Mind Institute, also applauded the toy industry’s efforts in addressing emotional resilience. However, he said parents need to be careful about the claims companies may make. While there is evidence that the skills highlighted by the MESH task force can build resilience, he said, there is no evidence that the toys themselves will do that.
“The concepts are evidence-based,” he said; The toy itself is not.”
Bryne notes that the skills emphasized by the MESH task force are the basics of play, whether it’s skateboarding to help build perseverance or learning to share toys to help resolve conflicts.
“In my opinion, if you live in a healthy home and you’re having healthy fun and your parents are busy, then MESH kind of happens automatically,” he said.
The U.S. toy industry itself is in need of a boost after a weak year, especially a lackluster 2022 holiday season when retailers were stuck with a glut of toys after parents Enjoy the pandemic-induced toy rage. The unrest has continued this year, with toy sales in the US falling 8% from January to August, based on data from retail tracking service Circana.
For its part, the MESH task force is initially partnering with specialty stores like Learning Express and small toy companies like Crazy Aaron’s, which has expanded beyond Think Putty to add kits The activity teaches children to solve problems like how magnets work with putty. One game ThinkFun is marketing: Rush Hour, a sliding block logic game that asks kids to battle traffic congestion.
But large retailers like Amazon are also starting to adopt the MESH approach.
“The growing popularity of MESH toys speaks to the power of play and the important role toys play in our lives,” said Anne Carrihill, director of toys and games at Amazon.
Sarah Davis, mother of three boys ages 3, 6 and 9, was open to the idea of MESH toys. The Great Falls, Virginia resident said her 6-year-old child had delayed speech because of wearing a mask amid the pandemic, while her 9-year-old son had some social communication problems after being isolated and posted on social media. eyes on the computer. laptop.
“My kids have no problem with school anxiety,” she said. “I’m still worried about the long-term effects of that.”
More than the promise of building emotional resilience through MESH is whether the toy itself is actually fun.
“Will my kids ask for those kinds of toys for Christmas?” Davis asked. “I’ll be really curious and I’ll keep an eye on them.”
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