family playing board games

How COVID is changing play patterns

The return of family game nights, familiar brands and narrative-building toys are prime opportunities for lockdown growth, say play experts.
May 12, 2020

Thanks to COVID-19, the way kids are playing is changing, and some of these effects will have longer-term implication on business.

Looking at the pandemic’s immediate effect on toys, total toy sales in the US grew by 26% at the end of March, according to the NPD Group, with the games and puzzles (up 228%), building sets (76%), arts and crafts (70%) and sports toys (20%) categories growing the fastest. On top of this, board games have doubled in popularity among kids between five and 18 in the last month, becoming one of the most popular categories, Kids Insights find in its recent “AC After Coronavirus Report.”

Digging into these trends, the products that families are turning to during the pandemic signal the return of family game night, says Jim Silver, an industry vet and CEO of toy retail website TTPM. However, this rising tide won’t benefit all toycos equally, he adds.

“Families are turning to established brands more than ever because they want what’s familiar,” he says. “As a result, smaller ones aren’t going to be able to break through right now,” he says. (Beyond board games, this trend is being reflected generally across all toys, with Disney’s Frozen, LEGO Star Wars, Toy Story and Pokemon taking the top-gaining spots among all toy properties, according to the NPD Group’s recent report on global toy industry’s Q1 sales).

In short, this isn’t the best time to launch new IP, Silver adds. To catch buyer attention now, and in near future, toycos should be trying to offer kids and families products they can enjoy together, says Silver.

Looking ahead, Silver expects the traditionally popular toy category of action figures, dress-up and trading cards will see some big declines as the theatrical releases that usually drive their sales are pushed back because of COVID. However, he’s optimistic that spending will return to usual levels once things get back to normal, he says.

“The toy industry isn’t recession-proof, but it is recession-resistant,” he says. “Things will flip back…not all the way to what they were, but they’ll get better.”

Children’s play expert Sandra Stone also predicts that action-figures and dolls tied to shows and movies could see a decline in sales as kids turn to toys that let them create their own narratives and better reflect their reality, she says. 

Beyond families wanting products they can play with their kids, what children need from toys is also changing, says Stone, who is also a professor emeritus at Northern Arizona University.

COVID-19 is starting to spread into kids play as children incorporate the virus, and social-distancing into their games to help them cope, she says.

For companies looking to break through now, the focus should be on launching creation-focused toys, which let kids work through their anxiety through self-guided play, she says.

Children are looking to have more control in their lives amid the virus, and toycos should focus on giving kids simple construction-focused toys that give kids the freedom to build and a sense of competency and a feeling of completion, when they’ve made something, she adds.

“Toy companies should be focusing on giving kids the opportunity to create things and tell stories through their play,” Stone says. “With everyone stuck-at-home parents and kids want open-ended play experiences where they can learn through doing and moving.”

Photo courtesy of iStockphoto

About The Author
News editor for Kidscreen. Ryan covers tech, talent and general kids entertainment news, with a passion for kids rap content and video games. Have a story that's of interest to Kidscreen readers? Contact Ryan at



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