This new trend in toys is teaching kids empathy and kindness—and we love it

Parents and toy makers are into playthings that promote social skills, not just STEM skills.

This new trend in toys is teaching kids empathy and kindness—and we love it
?:: Fisher-Price

Toys are supposed to be fun (that’s kind of the whole point) but toys that multitask as teaching tools are even better.


Recently we’ve seen a rise in play products that help kids take their first steps into STEM (like LEGO’s new Women of NASA collection), but toys that help instill emotional intelligence are catching on with parents and kids just in time for Christmas.

This year, toys that teach kids about empathy and caring are filling store shelves and stockings.

Toy companies know that parents are as focused on social skills, like sharing, as much as they are on STEM, especially in the earliest years of a child’s life. Some manufacturers are starting from scratch, launching new products aimed at instilling empathy and other social skills, but others, like Fisher-Price, are adding extra lessons to toys kids already love.

The Little People line has been tweaked so that kids are learning about compassion while playing with the classic figures.

(My son got the Little People Sit with Me School Bus for his second birthday and I was surprised by the lyrics to one of its songs: “Be nice, be nice and not just once or twice. Be warm and kind to the folks you find, keeping nice stuff on your mind.” It’s an earworm.)

New music isn’t the only part of the revamp. When we were kids, all the Little People were perpetually happy, but the redesigned line features figures with a variety of facial expressions, so parents can talk with kids about what each character’s expression might mean.

New toys with new lessons

Other lines are introducing entirely new toys to the market. The Moodsters are a line of toys created by parenting and child development expert Denise Daniels with the social and emotional development of children in mind.

The brand of plush toys and storybooks incorporates an evidence-based curriculum developed by a Yale psychologist to help kids have fun while increasing their emotional IQ. The Moodsters characters are like huggable detectives who help kids unravel the mysteries of emotions and give them the skills and language to express their feelings.

Kimochis are another plush toy and book line focused on building emotional intelligence (they've been around for a few years, you may have seen them at Whole Foods). Each of the plush toys has the ability to feel different feelings (represented literally by smaller plush toys that tuck into an emotion-holding pocket on the larger one). There’s a bunch of different toys with different personality traits, so whether your kiddo is moody like Cloud, or shy and anxious like Bug, there’s a toy for every kid to relate to.

Board games for the whole family

Playing a game with your kids is a great way to impart your own wisdom along with the lessons a plaything can provide. Board games like Guess How I Feel? are a great way to give older kids social skills training by taking turns sharing and guessing each other's reaction to situations pictured on cards (like how someone would react to dropping an ice cream cone or saying goodbye). The makers of the game say it’s especially good for kids dealing with speech delays or those on the Autism spectrum.

Learning about empathy with and without toys

If you’re doing a no-toy Christmas, don’t worry—you can make your child’s old toys into emotional intelligence builders, too.

Playing with dolls or other figures gives kids a chance to see a situation from multiple perspectives, and gives parents plenty of opportunities to talk about feelings, empathy and caring. Other forms of pretend play don’t even require any toys at all, and studies have shown make-believe play is very important for developing the capacity for empathy and other prosocial skills.

Whether your kid is imagining that they are an empathic dinosaur, exploring emotions with a plush toy or helping Little People board a bus, you’ve got an opportunity to use their play teach them to be kind and caring. That’s a gift that will last much longer than any toy.

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