The toy industry loves a good buzzword and lately the one I’ve been seeing is “kidult.” Kidult is usually used in reference to a specific target audience of adults who purchase toys. Generally, kidults get referenced about specific types of toys that have been increasingly popular with adults that buy toys for themselves, enough to significantly impact market trends. These often include higher end collectible toys, like Hasbro’s Black Series action figures or Barbie collector lines. They also include nostalgic toys like World’s Smallest toys.
Themed Little People sets, specialty Lego kits, and limited-edition releases are other examples. When talking about kidults, writers are also referencing the subset of adults who spend their disposable income on fun things like Squishmallows, blind boxes, and other “youthful” products.
The toy industry would consider me a kidult. I have plenty of plush toys in my house, including Squishmallows, Squishables, and Build-A-Bears. I own an array of Funko Pops, action figures, and statues representing fandoms like Naruto, Pokemon, Marvel, and Dragon Ball Z.
I own special Barbie dolls like Inspiring Women: Jane Goodall, Inspiring Women: Susan B. Anthony, and the Disney World 2000 Barbie. I have the Everyone is Awesome Lego pride set. That isn’t all of it, but I think you get the picture. I used to restrain myself to whatever I thought was acceptable, but lately (particularly because I work around toys all day) I’ve had the urge to buy toys in general. I’m talking not just about the toys for “kidults” like collectible figures, but things like playsets with a target demographic of 12-year-olds. Do I want the American Girl re-release of Kit Kittredge? You bet!
This brings me to what I find problematic about the term kidult and the attitude around toys in general. Toys are generally viewed as a kid thing. They’re seen as something you grow out of as you age. With the term kidult, the industry has acknowledged that adults like toys, but has taken a couple of steps backward while taking that step forward.
My biggest issue with the term kidult is that it reinforces the idea that toys and play are only for children. The etymology of the word is blending “kid” with “adult,” placing a kidult as somewhere between the two. The term implies that they’re adults in touch with their inner child, as if the kid part is what allows them to have interest in toys. The term says to me that an adult playing with a toy is taking part in a kid activity. However, studies have shown time and time again that play is beneficial for people of all ages, not just kids. Everyone needs play, and they’ll reap multiple benefits if they take part in it. When the toy industry uses terms like “kidult,” they (purposely or not) insist they are an industry for children and imply that any adult consumers must by virtue be kid-like or even childish.
That brings me to my second problem: this idea that age groups must be neatly pigeon-holed into certain kinds of toys and play. I understand market statistics and play patterns are part of this segmentation in the toy industry for business and economic reasons.
However, when we look at play as a culture, why aren’t we more inviting toward adults to play with “kid” toys without embarrassment? Why do we expect adults to take part in more serious play, like competitive sports or fine arts, but not play with Beyblades or Hot Wheels? Why is Magic: The Gathering more acceptable intergenerational play than Hatchimals? Sure, there are toys that are designed for older age groups that aren’t appropriate for younger children, but I question the idea that the same age restrictions should function in reverse. Why do we think of a toy as for ages eight to 10 instead of eight plus? There is no reason an adult shouldn’t play with a “kid” toy. Why do we insist on restricting adult play?
I will concede that the forms of play we accept in adults has expanded significantly over even the past 20 years and this does give me hope. However, I would like a day to come where I don’t have to tell the adult I pass in the store that she should just buy the Barbie she’s eyeing, even if it’s for herself. I’d love a day when the adult doesn’t need their Facebook group’s validation that it’s okay before buying a Calico Critter set. When I coordinated public programs at The Strong Museum, we often found that adults would play with toys they haven’t touched in years because the program gave them permission. Maybe if we ditched the word “kidult” for the word “adult” when referencing the adult audience in the toy industry, we would stop implying that playing with toys is somehow off limits to grownups. Maybe, just maybe, we could finally give adults permission to play with any toys, not just those “meant for them.”