In the Face of Rising Mental Health Concerns, the Toy Industry Adopts a New Mission: Fostering Emotional Resilience

by Ethan Kim
MESH in toy industry

As an increasing number of children cope with mental health difficulties in the aftermath of the pandemic, parents are exploring methods to help their offspring cultivate emotional resilience.

The toy industry is keenly attentive to this shift.

Although it remains an emerging trend, a burgeoning number of toy manufacturers have started to adopt the MESH concept—standing for mental, emotional, and social health. This categorization indicates toys designed to impart vital life skills such as coping with change, resolving disagreements, self-advocacy, and problem-solving to children.

Originally coined a decade ago within the sphere of child development and by the American Camp Association, the term MESH has garnered renewed significance following the pandemic. Earlier this year, Rachele Harmuth, who leads the ThinkFun division at Ravensburger, along with family physician and resilience expert Deborah Gilboa, inaugurated a MESH task force. Their objective is to encourage the production of toys aimed at enhancing emotional resilience and to guide retailers in marketing them accordingly.

“The focus needs to be on informing parents and educators to utilize playtime more purposefully,” commented Gilboa.

The aspiration is to standardize the certification of MESH toys by mid-2024, akin to how the Toy Association has done for STEAM toys, which highlight science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics. Adrienne Appell, a spokesperson for the Toy Association, remarked that MESH remains a subject under active observation as it continues to develop.

Various toys fitting the MESH criteria may already exist in many households. These include memory games, puppets, specific Lego sets, Pokémon trading games, and Dungeons & Dragons. The recent annual toy industry show in New York drew attention to an array of such toys from companies like hand2mind and Open the Joy that promote emotional expression in children.

James Zahn, editor-in-chief of the industry journal the Toy Book, indicated that a considerable number of new toys formulated with MESH principles in mind are slated for release starting next year.

However, there are concerns that the MESH initiative might generate false expectations among parents. There’s also apprehension about companies exploiting parental worries over their children’s mental state.

Chris Byrne, an independent toy analyst, expressed reservations. “My concern is that MESH could become the latest marketing buzzword, fostering a climate of anxiety that children are lacking in social and emotional development, a responsibility not inherently incumbent upon the toy industry.”

Indeed, childhood mental health issues like depression and anxiety have been on an upward trajectory for years, exacerbated by the chronic stress and emotional toll of the pandemic. This has led many educators to lay emphasis on social-emotional learning, which aims to teach kids softer skills such as emotional management and positive interpersonal relationships.

Dave Anderson, the vice president of school and community programs and a senior psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, lauded the toy industry’s effort to contribute to fostering emotional resilience. However, he cautioned that while the skills advocated by the MESH task force have been scientifically validated to boost resilience, no proven evidence exists to confirm that the toys can achieve the same effect.

“The principles are grounded in empirical evidence; the efficacy of the toys in achieving these outcomes is not,” he stated.

Bryne observed that the skills highlighted by the MESH task force form the core tenets of play, whether it’s an activity like skateboarding that nurtures perseverance or the practice of sharing toys that aids in resolving conflict.

The U.S. toy industry itself has been languishing, especially following a subpar holiday season in 2022. Sales data shows an 8% decline in toy sales from January through August of this year, as per Circana’s retail tracking service.

Initially, the MESH task force is partnering with niche stores such as Learning Express and smaller toy companies like Crazy Aaron’s. One such product from ThinkFun is Rush Hour, a logic puzzle game involving navigating traffic congestion.

Major retailers like Amazon are also becoming receptive to the MESH paradigm.

“The increasing demand for MESH toys underscores the critical role that play has in our lives,” commented Anne Carrihill, Amazon’s director of toys and games.

Richard Derr, the owner of a Learning Express franchise in Lake Zurich, Illinois, trained his employees this past spring to guide parents in selecting appropriate toys but cautioned against causing undue alarm.

Local toy stores, with their intimate community connections, can serve as an ideal starting point, Derr noted. However, he cautioned that the term MESH must not be overused or rendered meaningless.

Sarah Davis, a mother of three young boys, is amenable to the MESH concept. Her children have experienced social interaction challenges and speech delays, exacerbated by the pandemic.

“I do have concerns about the long-term impact,” she admitted.

Ultimately, Davis questions whether the toys, despite their educational promise, will also succeed in being engaging and enjoyable for children.

“I am particularly interested to see if these types of toys will make my children’s wish lists,” she added.

This article has been updated to rectify the name of the Toy Association.

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

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about MESH in toy industry

What is MESH and how is it related to the toy industry?

MESH stands for Mental, Emotional, and Social Health. It is a concept that the toy industry is increasingly adopting to design toys that help children build emotional resilience. The aim is to impart essential life skills to children, such as coping with change, problem-solving, and self-advocacy.

Who initiated the MESH task force in the toy industry?

The MESH task force was initiated earlier this year by Rachele Harmuth, who leads the ThinkFun division at Ravensburger, and Deborah Gilboa, a family physician and resilience expert. Their objective is to encourage toy manufacturers to design products that foster emotional resilience in children.

What is the purpose of certifying MESH toys?

The goal is to standardize the certification of MESH toys by mid-2024, similar to how the Toy Association has certified STEAM toys, which focus on science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics. The certification aims to guide retailers in marketing such toys and to assure parents of their educational value.

Are there existing toys that could be categorized as MESH toys?

Yes, many toys that could be considered MESH, such as memory games, puppets, certain Lego sets, and trading games like Pokémon, may already be present in children’s toy chests. These toys aim to promote emotional expression and other soft skills in children.

Are there any concerns about the MESH approach in the toy industry?

Yes, some experts worry that the MESH initiative might generate unrealistic expectations among parents and could become a marketing buzzword, exploiting parental anxieties. There are also questions about the empirical evidence supporting the efficacy of MESH toys in improving mental health.

How has the pandemic influenced the focus on MESH in toys?

The pandemic has heightened concerns about children’s mental health and emotional resilience, thereby giving renewed importance to the MESH concept within the toy industry. Parents are more attentive to the emotional and social well-being of their children, making MESH a timely focus.

What is the current status of the U.S. toy industry?

The U.S. toy industry has been experiencing a decline, particularly following a weak holiday season in 2022. Toy sales in the U.S. are down 8% from January through August of the current year, based on Circana’s retail tracking service data.

What kinds of companies are initially working with the MESH task force?

The MESH task force is initially partnering with specialty stores like Learning Express and smaller toy companies such as Crazy Aaron’s. Their products aim to teach problem-solving skills and other essential life lessons to children.

How are major retailers responding to the MESH approach?

Major retailers like Amazon are becoming increasingly receptive to the MESH paradigm, recognizing the growing demand for such toys and their potential educational benefits.

Are parents open to the idea of MESH toys?

Some parents, like Sarah Davis, are open to the concept of MESH toys, especially considering the social and emotional challenges their children have faced due to the pandemic. However, questions remain about whether these toys will also be engaging and enjoyable for children.

More about MESH in toy industry

  • MESH and Child Development
  • American Camp Association and MESH
  • Toy Association and STEAM Certification
  • Mental Health and Pandemic Impact on Children
  • Emotional Resilience in Childhood
  • Learning Express Specialty Toy Stores
  • The Toy Book Trade Publication
  • Child Mind Institute on Emotional Resilience
  • Circana’s Retail Tracking Service Data
  • Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty and Activity Kits

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Gerry_F October 14, 2023 - 6:45 pm

the toy industry adapting to the times, as usual. But let’s not forget toys are supposed to be fun first.

Tony_R October 14, 2023 - 7:58 pm

The toy industry needs a boost, sure, but not at the expense of creating anxiety among parents. tread carefully, I say.

John Smith October 14, 2023 - 8:47 pm

Wow, MESH in toys? Never thought I’d see the day. But hey, if it helps kids, I’m all for it. Just hope it’s not another buzzword.

Nina_Q October 14, 2023 - 10:22 pm

I’ve been to Learning Express and they have some pretty good stuff. Looking forward to what they come up with in the MESH category.

Sarah_D October 15, 2023 - 12:26 am

As a mom, I’m curious but skeptical. Will keep an eye out for these so-called MESH toys but they better be fun too. Kids won’t play with ’em otherwise.

Mike_Olson October 15, 2023 - 12:39 am

Interesting read, especially the part about how many toys we already have that could be MESH. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

Linda_McCoy October 15, 2023 - 6:13 am

I’ve seen the STEAM toys and they are actually good. If MESH is anything like that, it might be a good thing.

Anne_W October 15, 2023 - 6:19 am

So we’re training kids to be emotionally resilient now? Interesting but I wonder what actual psychologists have to say about this.

Raj Patel October 15, 2023 - 11:35 am

great concept, but isn’t playtime supposed to be, well, playtime? worry that pushing too much education into it might take away the fun.

Emily Williams October 15, 2023 - 1:48 pm

I like the idea but it’s kinda scary how companies might just use our kids mental health for marketing. gotta be careful out there.


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