Beyond Play: The Wonderful World of Toys, Learning, and Kidults in the US

Appinio Research · 16.08.2023 · 14min read

Child playing with colored wooden building blocks

Today we’ll explore the captivating world of toys, a realm where dreams come to life, where nostalgia intertwines with innovation, and where imagination knows no bounds. 


We asked 1000 Americans how they shop for toys, who they buy them for and what they buy we're here to explore the nitty-gritty of this world and uncover consumers' needs and wishes.


Buckle up as we embark on a journey that spans generations, from the days of handmade wooden toys to the era of cutting-edge digital playthings.

Key takeaways

  • Plushies and stuffed animals lead the way to the toy store
    Plushies and stuffed animals are the most bought toys (49%), followed by building blocks and constructions like LEGO at 48% and figure toys (like action figures, or Playmobil) at 46%

  • Design toys with Diversity and Inclusion in mind
    The Appinio Hype Tracker reveals that diversity and Inclusion are becoming an important part of the public discourse even when it comes to Toys. Americans (46%) concur that toys can influence society's perception of diversity and inclusion, and inclusive design is breaking down barriers in the toy industry. 

  • The Kidult phenomenon: adults' fascination with toys
    47% of Americans are buying toys for themselves. Kidults are not only reliving their childhood nostalgia but are actively collecting and showcasing toys. This phenomenon is driven by a sense of belonging to fandoms and communities centered around various genres like comics, superhero movies, and anime. Toys are not exclusive to children and can hold a special place in the hearts of adults, making a positive impact on the toy industry's growth.

💡Ready to always win your game? Then download the Hype Train Report for free!




📊 Or maybe you want to play with data? Head over to our dashboard!



Evolution of toys: from tradition to technology

Picture this: children in ancient civilizations playing with hand-carved dolls, wooden horses, and spun tops. 

The 2023 Barbie Movie, directed by Greta Gerwig and played by Margot Robbie, in the main role of Barbie

(If you watched the Barbie movie, you know where this comes from)


Fast-forward through time, and we're immersed in the age of plastic wonders – action figures, Barbie dolls, and board games that became staples of playtime. Life in plastic is fantastic, they say.

Today, we stand at the crossroads of tradition and technology, with smart gadgets, interactive robots, and virtual reality experiences redefining how we play.

Toys are not just playthings; they're mirrors reflecting the aspirations and innovations of their time. They've accompanied us alongside history, adapting to societal shifts and technological leaps.

Exploring the spectrum of toy types

Alright, let's explore what’s into the toy chest! 


First up, we have the soft and huggable, stuffed animals and plushies– the confidantes, the bedtime companions, and a cozy trip down memory lane. From teddy bears to quirky characters, they bring comfort and smiles. 

Nearly one in two (49%) American toy buyers choose plushies for the kids in their life.

And yes, adults love them too, turning collecting into a delightful hobby that spans generations.


First up, we've got the brainiacs' delight: educational and STEM toys. These toys sneakily teach kids about science, technology, engineering, and math while they're having a blast. Think building blocks that spark architectural genius and chemistry kits that make you a mad scientist in training.

Nearly one in two (48%) Americans indeed buy building blocks for the kids in their life, making this the most popular toy for American kids.


Figure toys aren't just toys; they're an entire world contained in a small plastic animal or hero. Superheroes, space warriors, and adventurers come to life as you create your own stories or display them proudly. These small wonders pack big excitement. This is the third most popular toy bought by Americans (46%).


Technological and digital toys that merge the virtual and real worlds. Video games, robotic pets, and augmented reality games create a whole new level of engagement that keeps kids and adults hooked. This type of toy is also very popular, bought by 43% of American respondents.


Got a little Picasso on your hands? Creative and artistic expression toys are the answer. From finger-painting sets to DIY jewelry kits, these toys nurture imagination and self-expression, turning your living room into an art studio.

Another popular toy to buy for American respondents, with 42% buying them for the children in their circle.

For those who love the great outdoors, physical and outdoor play toys are a ticket to adventure. Bikes that zoom, kites that soar, and sports equipment that turns your backyard into a mini-stadium – these toys get the heart racing and the giggles flowing.
Two in five Americans (42%) buy these sorts of toys.

Board and card games, the heart of game night joy. From classics like Monopoly to modern hits like Catan, they're your ticket to strategy, laughter, and friendly rivalry. Roll dice, draw cards, and dive into a world of endless possibilities. They are bought by 39% of Americans.

Toys as catalysts for cognitive and emotional development

Play is more than just fun and games – it's serious business for young growing minds. 


Educational toys aren't just sneaky teachers; they're cognitive superheroes. Building with blocks sharpens spatial reasoning, while puzzles flex problem-solving muscles. It's like mental gymnastics, and kids don't even realize they're learning.


But toys aren't just for brainpower – they're heart healers too. Emotional development takes center stage as kids engage in role-playing, learning to understand others' feelings and navigate complex social situations. Dolls become confidantes, action figures morph into allies, and tea parties transform into safe spaces for emotional exploration.


Nearly two thirds (61%) of US respondents buy and gift toys that promote cognitive development, as well as 60% of Americans buying and gifting toys that promote emotional development.


Embracing diversity and inclusion in toy design

The Appinio Hype Tracker Report on Toys shows that 46% of Americans (strongly) agree that toys wield influence over society's perception of diversity. 


Imagine a world where dolls of every ethnicity grace the shelves, where characters with disabilities become heroes, and where everyone feels seen and valued. Inclusive design isn't just a trend – it's a movement that's breaking down barriers and opening up new avenues of play for all children.


“According to Mattel, over half the dolls offered in 2019 were a departure from the original Barbie, and the top-selling doll for almost every week of last year was a curvy black doll from its Fashionista line who wears her hair in an Afro. In the US, one in four dolls sold is a Barbie with a wheelchair.”

Mattel strive to create a more inclusive and diverse world of Barbie dolls

                                                                           (Source: Glamour)


Appinio research indicates that one in two (48%) Americans (strongly) agree there is sufficient diversity in today’s toy market, but the conversation on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Toy industry is not a closed one, and as the industry evolves and this conversation keeps feeding the public discourse we’ll see more and more diverse representations in toy.


The kidult phenomenon: adults' fascination with toys

Who said toys were just for kids? 

They got it all wrong.

The kidults, a consumer group which NPD defines as ages 12 and older, recently renamed as  "rejuveniles" and "adultescents".


Remember the action figures you used to stage epic battles with? Kidults are not just reliving those battles; they're collecting and showcasing them like prized possessions.


But why the fascination with toys in adulthood? It's not just about nostalgia, playing with toys you always wanted to play with but your parents never bought for you. 

It's about healing your inner child. It’s about a sense of belonging, a way to be part of a group, or a fandom. 

Think about the massive audience comics and superhero movies have been amassing, think Star Wars, think Disney. Think Japanese hits in the Anime and Manga space.

An incredible example of a toy company tapping into the power of fandoms is FunkoPops.

Funko Pops are collectible vinyl figures known for their distinctive, stylized design and wide range of characters from various pop culture franchises. These figures are characterized by their oversized heads and cute, exaggerated features. Funko Pops cover a vast array of entertainment, including movies, TV shows, video games, comics, and more.

With an ever-expanding lineup, Funko Pops have become highly popular among collectors and enthusiasts of all ages. They often depict iconic characters, fan-favorites, and even niche references, making them a sought-after item for fans to showcase their love for their favorite fictional universes.


Funko Pops are collectible items representing famous characters from movies, comics and manga for fans to collect and enjoy. Most popular Funko Pops are Harry Potter, Marvel and Star Wars themed.

You're into superheroes, fantasy, anime, or any other genre? 

There’s a Funko Pop waiting for you.


Whether they want to just enrich their collection or actually play the games of their childhood, Kidults are the backbone of the industry and the reason why the toy industry is growing. They have disposable income and they are willing to spend on toys for themselves.


Market trends and insights

For this trip on the Hype Tracker, Appinio could count on the invaluable expertise of Sarah Gstrein, Global Product Director at tonies®, a German-based company that produces a unique type of audio player and figurine system designed for children. The company's goal is to create a screen-free and engaging experience for children while promoting imaginative play and storytelling. The Toniebox and Tonies have gained popularity for their innovative approach to audio entertainment for kids.


With a degree in psychology, Sarah is passionate about a career in product development with a focus on a strong 'why'. With tonies® she has set out to light up children's eyes and encourage creativity by offering magical adventures in a small playful box.


Sarah has provided Appinio with interesting and conversation-starting hypes that have been tested in the Hype Tracker.


Most hyped market trends and topics in the US toy industry

We can already spot 4 big High Speed Hypes:


  • Mindful play / games for children and adults

    This type of game / play involves conscious and attentive play, as well as exercises that help to relax and calm down. It promotes concentration and creativity and creates an emotional connection to the toy.
    The hype has the biggest buzz and highest curiosity and awareness scores among American respondents. The combination of high buzz, curiosity, and awareness indicates that mindful play has caught the attention of the audience and is likely a topic of interest and discussion in the community.

    This could reflect a growing trend towards seeking not only entertainment but also activities that promote relaxation, concentration, and emotional well-being.

  • Importance of toys that grow with the child

    The hype refers to the importance of toys as companions through childhood. These toys can play an important role in promoting learning, cognitive development, imagination, social skills and emotional expression. The hype generates quite a big buzz (the third biggest) but it sparks the highest level of curiosity among respondents.

    It generates quite the second biggest buzz and this suggests that the idea of toys that support learning, cognitive development, imagination, social skills, and emotional expression resonates with a substantial audience. This could indicate a recognition of the value of toys that offer more than just entertainment, and are viewed as tools for holistic child development.


Another significant insight here is that the topic sparks the third highest level of curiosity among respondents. This could indicate that people are eager to understand more about how such toys work, what benefits they provide, and perhaps even seek recommendations for specific toys that align with this concept. This heightened curiosity might stem from a desire to make informed choices when selecting toys for children, reflecting a trend towards intentional and purposeful parenting or gifting.


  • Diversity in doll and action figures

    The hype has the third biggest buzz. Americans are talking about this topic but conversations about diversity in toys as popular as dolls and action figures seems to have peaked, the hype has one of the lowest levels of curiosity.

    This could suggest that people are aware of the importance of diversity in these toys and are discussing it, but their curiosity to learn more or engage deeply with the topic might not be as pronounced. This could be due to a variety of factors, such as the topic being well-covered already or individuals feeling that they have a basic understanding of the concept without needing to explore it further.

  • Toys for the whole family

    The hype generates a big buzz, but the second highest level of curiosity.

    This means there is a strong interest in toys that cater to the whole family, possibly reflecting a desire for inclusive and interactive activities that foster connections and quality time among family members.


Challenges and future directions

As much as the Toy industry looks like the most joyful and fun one, it faces challenges that require thoughtful navigation. 


Striking the right balance between traditional play and technological innovation is a tightrope walk. Manufacturers must also grapple with supply chain issues and sustainability and ethical considerations.


As technology becomes more integrated into toys, it’s going to be challenging to find the right balance between digital and traditional play. With concerns about children's increasing screen time, the industry needs to ensure that digital toys provide meaningful and educational experiences without contributing to excessive device use.


However, the future is bright. The enduring appeal of toys will continue to shape an industry that thrives on creativity, learning, and boundless joy.



And there you have it – a whirlwind tour of the US Toy Industry that has stirred our imagination, tugged at our heartstrings, and ignited our curiosity. 


From the ancient craftsmen to the tech-savvy designers of today, the magic of toys transcends time and generations. Whether it's a toddler's first cuddly companion or a kidult's prized collectible, toys remind us that play is a universal language that unites us all, after all, we're never too young or too old to play.

Join the loop 💌

Be the first to hear about new updates, product news, and data insights. We'll send it all straight to your inbox.

You can call this via showToast(message, { variant: 'normal' | 'error' }) function