The Calm puzzle boxes reflect what users would see in the ‘Calm’ app. | Source: Spin Master/the Toy Book


by TED MININNI, president and creative director, Design Force

It’s been a very difficult year and a half for all of us since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 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.

The past year has certainly had a powerful effect on adults, but consider how the pandemic has altered every aspect of our kids’ lives. The challenges of homeschooling, the strangeness of social distancing from friends and family members, finding a new way to celebrate birthdays and other big events, a nonstop 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.   

Mental Health Awareness Leads to a New Trend in Toys

It’s no surprise that the pandemic has caused an increase in anxiety, depression, and social issues for all ages. As mental health professionals work with parents and kids to address these concerns, we’re seeing a proliferation of toys 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 “In My Feelings” trend named by the Toy Insider that includes a wide range of products across a variety of categories, all designed to help kids get in touch with their emotions, as well as recognize the emotions of others. (Visit for more on the In My Feelings trend.) These SEL toys can help build kids’ 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 also they can lead to both personal and professional success in adulthood.

The Role of Packaging in Conveying Emotional Benefits

The toy aisles at retail can be utterly chaotic with 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 parents, 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 includes 26 different face pieces that kids can use to explore SEL in every facial expression they build. Whether they choose to create a happy smile or a worrisome frown, kids can use the Big Feelings Pineapple 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.

Kids can identify facial expressions with the Big Feelings Pineapple. | Source: Learning Resources

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 a large Learning Resources logo. The fun play pattern is also clearly communicated with a 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 blue-and-green color blocking. The side panel provides parents with Learning Resources’ mission statement and a reminder of its 30-year history of having “empowered kids all over the world to build educational skills.”

Setting a Meditative Tone

Learning about self-care is an important part of growing up in today’s world, particularly when it comes to mental well-being. Mattel’s Breathe With Me Barbie, part of the Barbie Wellness line, is a meditation-themed doll that teaches kids the benefits of mindfulness meditation. Kids can press the button on Barbie’s necklace to activate one of five guided meditation exercises that use lights and sounds to encourage kids to breathe with Barbie. Barbie’s puppy is there to assist with visualization — kids can insert one of four different cloud emojis into its head to give it a meditative thought bubble. Breathe With Me Barbie features cozy loungewear and is extra flexible for kids to pose her.

The Breathe With Me Barbie packaging creates a meditative environment. | Source: Mattel/the Toy Book

The package design perfectly depicts a soothing, quiet space needed for meditation, and Breathe With Me Barbie sits on the floor in a cross-legged position to calm her mind and align her body. The platform structure simulates a room with plants in the corners and features 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

The Loyal SubjectsFor Keeps line features 6-inch fashion dolls that carry a powerful message of positivity and self-empowerment. According to the For Keeps website, the doll line 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 packaging is full of positive affirmations. | Source: The Loyal Subjects

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. Each box features background images of a city skyline in tones of blue, and the For Keeps logo and character illustration appear to float on a sparkly rainbow 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 can help build confidence.

Communicating Calmness through Beautiful Imagery

What better way to reduce stress than to assemble a puzzle? Spin Master partnered with the Calm sleep and meditation app to create Calm Mindful Puzzles. The entire family can get the stress relief they need by assembling these puzzles, which feature beautiful imagery of zen landscapes, while listening to peaceful audio content and soothing sounds through the app. Each puzzle takes about 2-3 hours to complete and includes an offer for a free 30-day subscription to the Calm app.

Related: Packaging Our Fascination with Space Exploration

The visually soothing Calm Mindful Puzzles packaging features edge-to-edge artwork with a large, blue Calm app icon in the center, establishing an immediate connection between the beautiful puzzle imagery and the app. The remaining communication — the puzzle name, the 300-piece count, the 2-3 hour completion time, and a smartphone with the 30-day Calm app subscription call-out — 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 kids and families not only as a necessity, but also as a priority as they bring new products to market. We may not be able to shelter our kids from the stress and anxiety of a global pandemic, but we can address it openly and collectively through conversation and the development of innovative playthings that build the necessary skills for good mental health as we move forward in a post-pandemic world.

This article was originally published in the October 2021 edition of the Toy BookClick here to read the full issue!

About the author

Ted Mininni

Ted Mininni

Ted Mininni is president and creative director of Design Force. Through the disciplines of package design and licensing program design, Design Force establishes strong emotional connections with consumers, creating powerful visual brand experiences that engage, excite, entertain, inspire, and influence their decision to buy. Mininni can be reached at (856) 810-2277 or via email at Visit for more information.