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The ZURU Imagination Index: New Global report shows the impact of positive playtime on kids.
Thursday 24 March 2022

ZURU Toys have undertaken an industry-leading global study into how neurotypical and diverse kids use play and imagination to work through issues like stress, mental health, diversity, and the pandemic. The research is designed to help parents and caregivers as they navigate child-care through playtime, providing the ultimate ways kids thrive, suggesting a few toys to do this.

Leading child, family, and adolescent psychologist Dr Jen Hartstein comments on the report: Play is such an important part of childhood. Through play, children learn emotional skills, how to express themselves and how to navigate the world. During the time of the pandemic, this was more vital than ever. In addition to learning overall, play provides an amazing outlet for managing stress, something all of us (especially children) have experienced during the time of the pandemic.


How has the pandemic impacted children around the world?

31% of said that their child(s) understood the impact of the pandemic mostly, but didn’t quite understand the full impact and all of its implications. The term most likely for the child to bring into playtime was ‘Covid’ (with around 1 in 2 mentioning that this had happened – 59%). 50% said they had also brought in the terms ‘Pandemic’, and 52% had brought in the term ‘Vaccination’.

With parents spending nearly 24 hours a day at home in lockdowns one impact of the pandemic has been to allow parents to devote more time to their children from both a social and educational perspective.

For children of a neurodiverse nature this is often goes in tandem with a natural comfort in spending time playing alone and in quiet isolation. Many parents observed that their children did not especially feel disquieted by the pandemic or even pay much attention to the reasons for staying at home so much. Some parents acknowledged that their children had posed questions about the pandemic in a generic way not out of fear or worry but inquisitiveness.

It seems that the ‘noise’ around the pandemic can pass their children by without concern. Instead, it’s given lots of opportunities for the children to engage more intensively with their parents and vice-versa.

A parent interviewed in the study commented on their experience.

“He’s been aware of it, and to be honest he’s really enjoyed it – he’s not the biggest people person so where he doesn’t like to be around big groups of people that sits well with him and he took it in his stride. The only issue he had was with us as parents becoming his teachers – he hated that and it turned into real issues… Teachers teach! Parents don’t do that!”.

“He’s very aware and very curious about [the pandemic]. He takes a lot in his stride – he’s very matter of fact”

30% said that world events such as the pandemic had helped expand their child(s) imagination and ability to dream big.


 When the mood drops toys take on special importance

Play, and the use of toys, also forms an important part of the coping strategies used by parents when their child’s behaviour becomes heated.

For some parents, specific toys act as a distraction, giving their child something familiar and comforting to hold onto when anxiety kicks in whether at home watching TV or out of the home.

Plush toys, like Rainbocorns, come out as the top (34%) toy that children reach for when feeling anxious or upset. This is followed by Fidget toy (29%), Squishy toys (26%) and Dolls/Action figures (23%).

This is especially important for neurodiverse children on those occasions when they are involved in more social situations and around other kids. Often, they find it difficult to know how to let other children have fun or take turns. So, it’s important to have a favoured toy or game to act as a comforter.

“He’s always had a bit of temper and he’s always liked his own company and can play for a long time in his own company – he doesn’t really need anyone else. Even at nursery he struggled with things like sharing, knowing when to allow other kids to have a turn – he always wanted to be in control of the games that they were playing”.

It’s not unusual for certain toys to hold special significance for neurodiverse children almost to the point of obsession. Whether it’s a toy soldier, model spaceship or doll these are the special toys that mustn’t be tampered with or rearranged or played with by anyone-else.

Dr Jen comments, “Play comes in many forms, both tactile (interacting with toys directly) and via screens and both have benefits for young people. Tactile play has emotional, mental and physical benefits. Screen-time play has much of the same. Both also provide excellent social opportunities for kids. We often worry about too much screen time, but, when monitored, it can be an incredibly powerful learning tool, as well.”


Using play to develop imagination and explore the world

Dr Jen starts, “Play overall provides an excellent outlet for children. It promotes exploration of their world, connection with others and examination of their own emotions. Without it, they may be more stressed and not learn the skills they need as they grow”.


Play makes an important component when children are exploring the ‘potential’, roleplaying possible scenarios and outcomes to develop their own perspectives. 52% said that toys their child(s) had played with had inspired aspirations for future jobs and roles. Over or slightly under a third of those who said this mentioned Doctor (39% mentioned), Teacher (29%), and / or Policeman (28%) . Other roles included a Chef (23% mentioned), 22% mentioned a Dancer, 21% mentioned a musician, and 21% mentioned a Scientist.


Like most children, kids with a degree of neurodiversity exhibit imaginative ways of playing.

Typically, though not exclusively, this may manifest itself in more individual toy or game play rather than through peer play such as sports or board games.

Parents of children with more Autistic tendencies frequently refer to the fact that their children can create incredible stories and retain amazing facts, though may find it difficult to record these stories in written form.

But, in common with most children, those with some form of Neurodiversity can equally revel in the free form play of drawing, role play and storytelling with action figures.

“He’s got an amazing imagination, it’s very vivid to a point when if he was to write a story he’d explain the story first and then wouldn’t be able to recall it in order to write it down because there’ll be dragons and warriors and all sorts. His imagination is just out there, but he can’t always put it down on paper”

“Him and his brother, both love to play with their imaginations. They’ll be upstairs building forts and if they’re not on an iPad or watching TV it is very much that kind of play they enjoy. They just love building and making something out of their imagination”

“When you walk past his room you can hear him playing and it’s nice, sometimes you just stand round the corner and listen in and he’s going for it, really getting right into it”

Play as a way of bringing the family together

Globally, 89% of parents reported that playtime with their kids is a therapeutic experience. 37% said that playtime helped them understand their child(s) were feeling. 29% said it helped to remind the parents to ‘be more like a kid’ whereas, 28% said that playtimes helped them to switch off. Equally, 28% said they really looked forward to playtime and 25% of parents said that playtime helped them relieve their own anxiety.

It is also used as a tool to discuss wider issues and notable life events. In fact, 50% said they used toys to discuss neurodiversity in some way and 58% mentioned they did the same for disability. While 63% (the highest proportion) said they did this through toys when talking and introducing their child(s) to racial issues.

Play with family is a fundamental part of most children’s development. However, it assumes wider importance for children with some degree of neurodiversity.

Certain conditions, such as Dyspraxia, mean that children with this condition have more difficulty with coordination. Hence, toys and games that encourage and help with this are often found to be not just enjoyable but therapeutic.

“We’ve heavily given Liam toys such as building sets and other things that he can sit there and use his coordination skills to try to get him better at them, but he’s very good with imagination games. He and his brother will play with stuff like that for hours, building things and creating stories, building spaceships”

The study concluded with top toys as picked globally by parents

Favourite toys:

Top toy for relieving anxiety:

Top toys for kids who want to play solo:

Top toys to play with as a family: