Every year, The Real Deal monitors the shopping scene to predict which toys will be the ones topping wish lists come November and December — and which ones parents need to buy before they sell out. Over the years, toy highlights have included Hatchimals and the NES Classic Edition back in 2016; Fingerlings and the SNES Classic in 2017; Pomsies and Rainbocorns in 2018; Blume Dolls and Owleez in 2019; and Squeakee the Balloon Dog and Baby Yoda in 2020.
But we’re not the only ones on the toy beat. On Aug. 23, Target dropped the first toy list of the year, kicking off the the holiday toy frenzy a little extra early (last year, we saw the first toy list drop in early September).
To help us make sense of the 2021 holiday toy landscape, we reached out to three toy experts who know what kids want and which toy trends are going to define this holiday season.
Table of Contents
Combining what the experts had to say with retailers’ early toy lists and our knowledge of what’s flown off shelves in previous years, we’ve rounded up the hottest toys for holiday season 2021. We hope our list helps you make you make your gift list early this year — because the toys below may be tough to come by in December.
Holiday Toy Trends for 2021
If you’re still building your wish list, or a specific toy you want is sold out, check out these overarching trends to help you navigate the toy scene and choose a toy that will delight your recipient.
“Surprise” Toys Continue to Thrill: “An overall arching theme is that surprise packaging and reveal toys continue to be strong at retail,” says Jim Silver, chief executive officer and editor in chief of TTPM, which provides expert toy reviews and live price comparisons of toys and baby products.
For the uninitiated, “surprise” toys (sometimes called “mystery” toys) broadly include toys that are revealed only after the child opens the packaging or waits patiently for an egg to hatch. Popular options include L.O.L. Surprise products and Hatchimals.
Fidget Toys are Still a Thing: Fidget spinners saw an initial surge back in 2017, but they’re still trending, says Marissa Silva, editor in chief of The Toy Insider, which provides toy buying guides and expert reviews. In addition to the now-famous fidget spinners, shoppers have a wealth of fidget toys to choose from, including bubble poppers, Kinetic Sand, slimes, sensory tubes and Koosh balls.
“The best part about this trend is that all the toys are super affordable,” Silva says.
Toys for the Whole Family are a COVID Trend: Kids being home more has made parents increasingly involved in their children’s play, says Lisa Hom, chief merchandising and product officer at KiwiCo, which makes educational toys and toy subscription boxes for kids. Kiwico has heard feedback all year from parents who want to be more involved in how their kids learn and play.
“This is why we’re seeing parents seek out activities and projects that the whole family can work on or play with together,” Hom says.
Big Brands are Crowd-Pleasers: You can’t go wrong with the classics, and Silver at TTPM has tracked a strong 18 months for Barbie, LEGO, Play-Doh, Hot Wheels and Nerf. Expect these brands to feature prominently in your kids’ letters to Santa.
Educational and Hands-on are Flourishing: Traditional classroom and textbook education has been disrupted over the past year-and-a-half, and kids are satisfying their curiosity through educational play, including at-home STEM and art toys, Hom says.
“Interest in hands-on activities that encourage creativity, foster personal relationships and allow kids to build upon subjects introduced in schools is something we’ve seen flourish over the last year and expect to continue,” says Hom.
The Fun is Indoors: COVID concerns are still keeping families at home but, luckily, parents have plenty of options
“There are an endless assortment of options for indoor toys. Families can look toward games, arts and crafts, and video games for in-door fun,” Silva of The Toy Insider says.
Plus, with winter on the way, indoor toys and projects will be key to getting through winter break.
“As the winter season approaches, it’s always helpful for families to keep a project in their back pocket for the occasional snow day or during winter vacation,” Hom says. “A great indoor project should be engaging, enriching, and most importantly, fun.”
Top Toys of the 2021 Holiday Season
And now, without further ado, these are the top toys of the 2021 holiday season. We’ll update our roster as retailers come out with their official toy books and toy lists.
What they are: Plush toys with a collectible appeal and a giant fanbase. “Squismallows is the big breakthrough toy of 2021 and been on absolute fire,” Silver says.
Why they’re a top toy: Squishmallows combine the factors that top toys are made of: Collectibility, cuteness and cuddliness. Part of the fun for many is chasing down the harder-to-find characters. Learn everything you need to know about Squishmallows.
How much and where to buy: Squishmallows range from under $10 to past $50 depending on size (and whether you’re shelling out for a rare character on eBay). You can find them at Amazon, Target, Walgreens, and at Squishmallows.com.
Pop It! (and Other Bubble Popping Toys)
What they are: Games and toys that mimic the satisfaction of bubble wrap — without the dangers of giving your small child actual bubble wrap.
Why they’re a top toy: In short, bubble popper toys are trending. They’re all over TikTok, and they are plugged into the overall fidget toy trend. With their popularity and fun factor combined, these toys take the throne next to fidget toy royalty like snap bracelets and fidget spinners.
Just note this: “Gift givers should take care to purchase bubble poppers from reliable retailers and toy brands like Buffalo Games and Fat Brain Toys, rather than no-name versions found in corner stores and online marketplaces,” Silva says. “You want to make sure these toys are safety tested for kids ages 3 and up.”
Linkimals from Fisher Price
What they are: Educational toys in the form of helpful animals that build babies’ foundational understanding of counting, music, talking and more.
Why they’re a top toy: Linkimals were among Silver’s choices for the 0-to-2 set. They check all the boxes for this age group in that they make noise and light up, while also checking the “educational” box for parents. Parents can outfit the entire nursery with the many animal options available.
How much and where to buy: The popular Smooth Moves Sloth tends to be the priciest at about $30, and the rest of the Linkimals menagerie can be had for between $7.99 and $25 each.
New Barbie Dreamhouse
What it is: A $200 swank mansion for Barbie with a slide, a pool, a puppy play area and an elevator. It even has lights and sounds.
Why it’s a top toy: “The New Barbie Dreamhouse is amazing,” Silver says, and we agree. It has more than 75 pieces (and some customizable build options so kids can make it into their own dreamhouse). And it’s an aspirational toy for any kids who have been stuck at home more than they’d like this year.
L.O.L. Color Change Dolls
What they are: An L.O.L. Surprise ball with seven surprises inside (dolls and accessories) that change color when you put them in water. The balls change color, the dolls’ hair changes color and the dolls’ clothes change color. It’s basically an instant makeover on top of a surprise.
Why they’re a top toy: The L.O.L. Color Change line is a pick from Silver for the 3-to-7 set and plugs right into the surprise toy trend. The color-changing magic adds an extra twist. Because each ball holds a different doll (some even hold puppy dolls), there’s an element of collectibility, too.
Other hot L.O.L. commodities include the L.O.L. Surprise! OMG Movie Magic Studio, per Target’s 2021 toy list.
How much and where to buy: The ball with seven surprises inside is $9.88 at Amazon.
Nerf Command Base Battle Fort
What it is: An absolutely bonkers outdoor playscape designed for epic Nerf battles.
Why it’s a top toy: Silver calls it a “must-have for outdoor play” and it’s designed for pure fun. It has a trap door, a tunnel and even climbable rock walls. Plus, it’s from Nerf.
How much and where to buy: Prep for sticker-shock. This thing is $1,499. You can buy it at Walmart.
Kinetic Sand Sandisfactory Set
What it is: A play set that contains 4.5 pounds of moldable, clumpable, just-fun-to-touch Kinetic Sand that flows through fingers in the most satisfying way. The kit also contains four surprise-reveal tools — you won’t know which tools you get until you open the box.
What makes it a top toy: It’s a relaxing toy for kids and ideal for indoor playtime. The sand and the surprise-reveal tools tie into both the fidget trend and the surprise trend. Kinetic Sand is an ASMR hit, too.
If the Sandisfactory set is sold out, check out the Kinetic Sand Sandyland Folding Sandbox, which made Target’s toy list this year.
“Sensory play is super popular with kids ages 3 to 7, and you can’t go wrong with the Kinetic Sand Sandisfactory Set,” Silva says. “…It really appeals to a wide age range of kids and combines sensory play with creative fun.”
How much and where to buy: Find it for $29.99 at Amazon.
Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit
What it is: An augmented reality game for the Nintendo Switch that lets you design tracks and race real Mario Kart Karts around your home. The specific cars (there are Mario and Luigi versions) are sold separately.
Why it’s a top buy: This game came out last year, and it was nearly impossible to find in stock around the holidays. It’s been reliably in stock this year, so holiday gift shoppers can give it another go. The popularity of the Switch during the pandemic makes this game that much more tempting, and the augmented-reality aspect brings Mario Kart to life and is just plain cool for all ages.
How much and where to buy: Find it for $74.99 at Target and other retailers that sell Switch games.
Nintendo’s Game Builder Garage
What it is: A game that lets you build your own games for the Nintendo Switch.
Why it’s a top toy: The Nintendo Switch remains popular as the pandemic wears on, and this product isn’t just a game. It teaches kids to program and challenges them to be imaginative and create their own games (and share them online with other creators). Silva calls it “a great go-to video game for winter fun that parents can feel great about because it’s a great educational video game.”
How much and where to buy: Get it for $29.99 at Target and wherever Switch games are sold.
Pop Under Pressure from What Do You Meme?
What it is: A game designed for anyone 14+ that challenges players to come up with unique items in different categories that start with the same letter before the timer runs out and the balloon pops.
Why it’s a top toy: Teens are really hard to shop for (and difficult to convince to participate in family fun). But this game’s high stakes make it extra fun. “This is one families will want to replay over and over again,” says Silva.
How much and where to buy: Get it for $24.99 at Amazon.
Got2Glow Fairy Finder from WowWee (and Other Fairy Toys)
What it is: A virtual jar that lets you catch virtual fairies in your own home and yard. Kids explore their environments with the jar in hand until the jar lights up when they “catch” a fairy. Once fairies are caught, kids can play games with and feed them.
Why it’s a top toy: Target featured this one on its 2021 toy list, and this toy combines so many trends, we’ve lost count. It’s an augmented reality toy that’s great for at-home fun. It’s a surprise toy, as you don’t know which fairies you’ll catch until you catch ’em. And it even ties into the “nurturing” toy trend that’s brought us the likes of Owleez and Hatchimals.
Even fairies themselves are a trend this year, according to Silva. “Fairies are magical creatures that are taking over the toy box this year in many different forms — each one more magical than the next,” she says.
Another popular fairy toy option to consider is the line of Crystalina dolls.
How much and where to buy: Got2Glow Fairy Finder jars are $39.99 at Amazon.
Artie Max and Other Coding Toys
What it is: A toy robot that teaches children how to code. The toy is designed for kids 8+ and lets them translate the code they write into artwork
Why it’s a top toy: Artie Max touches on the educational toys trend and appeals to parents’ desire to teach their children skills that set them up for success. This robot also has an artistic aspect, as the code they input causes Artie Max to draw their creations.
If your kid loves Artie, there are plenty more coding toys out there. Silva of The Toy Insider also recommends Pixicade as another coding toy option.
Coding toys are part of an overall educational toy trend, spurred in part by parents playing a bigger role in their kids’ education while they were remote
“We’re hearing from parents that they want to continue being an active part of teaching their children the skills that’ll set them up for future success,” says Hom of KiwiCo.
How much and where to buy: Find Artie Max for $99 at Amazon.
Advice for Holiday Toy Shoppers
Now that you understand the toy landscape (and know which toys to put on your shopping list), it’s time to make your plan. According to our experts, the 2021 shopping season will be an unpredictable one. So follow these two guiding principles when toy shopping this year:
1. Don’t Wait for the Last Minute — Or Hold Out Too Long for Sales
Even in past years, waiting too long to pounce on a top toy risked not having it under the tree in time. That’s particularly true this year.
“This year there’s going to be major issues with the replenishment system as the COVID virus along with a container shortage create ongoing shortages throughout the holiday season,” Silver says.
That, unfortunately means fewer sales this season, Silver says, so don’t count on prices dropping.
That might seem strange, given the usual “buy toys on Black Friday” tradition parents have grown accustomed to. But 2021 is a strange year.
“Rather than waiting for those Black Friday deals, gift givers may want to aim to have their holiday toy shopping finished by then, to ensure they can get their hands on what kids really want,” says Silva of The Toy Insider.
Whatever you do, though, don’t wait until the very last minute, because restocking will be iffy.
“December will be chaotic trying to find many of the leading toys,” Silver says.
2. Be Flexible and Creative
So, what do you do if the toys you hoped to buy DID sell out? The good news is that there are plenty of toys out there that will delight children. In fact, the less-obvious choices may be huge hits!
“If you’re buying something for a child you don’t know all that well, definitely stick to classics like board games, puzzles, and arts and crafts, rather than toys with major licenses, as you’re not sure exactly what that child might be interested in,” Silva says.
Plus, while parents and gift-givers may have grown accustomed to the tradition of buying the trendiest toy and even pre-assembling it in secret prior to the holidays, that momentary spark that creates for the child is short-lived, Hom of KiwiCo says.
So flip that script. Consider building things together, baking holiday goodies or even hand-making gifts for the family, rather than rushing out the door for trendy toy.
“We know that the building part of a project has the potential to be the most fun,” Hom says. “This reserved time to build something together not only creates meaningful memories and lessons, but also extends the joy of the holiday season.”