Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Train or Train Wreck? Choosing Children's Toys

Has anyone else been into Toys R Us lately?! With Will's birthday approaching, Greg and I decided it was probably a good idea to go into a larger toy store than just the small local shops we usually frequent, just to see what's out there and think about what we'd like to buy him for his first birthday.

Yikes. That store is overflowing with battery powered, collectible, character based toys! There were entire aisles that I told Greg not to bother walking down because I could already tell they didn't have anything I'd want to bring into our home.

So what's the big deal? Shouldn't kids have some fun, flashy toys that light up and make sounds? They love them! And what's so wrong about Toy Story or Cars, or collectible Thomas trains where you can watch the cartoon and learn the names of all the train pieces?

Well, after some reading and thinking, these toys aren't as innocuous as they seem. And the problem isn't just that they annoy parents.

Toys that light up and make sounds can overstimulate kids, and get them more interested in pressing the button to get the immediate gratification of noise or flashing lights than in finding new and creative ways to play with the toy. Which also means that every toy that does light up or make noise has a pretty limited function and essentially the same usefulness as all other flashy toys - find what makes it light up, press it, repeat until bored, and the toy has outlived its usefulness.

Character toys are designed to create consumers out of our kids. If our children have a beloved toy that is a Sesame Street or Disney character, and they then see that character on a lunch box, back pack, article of clothing, or on a children's snack at the grocery store, and they'll want that new item. In the grocery store in particular this can cause some major problems with whining and bad nutrition choices if you give in - this isn't how we want our kids choosing their foods!

Toys based on movies, books or cartoons also can lead to "scripted play", where children will use them only to re-enact what they saw in the movie rather than making up their own story lines or uses for the toys. It is easier for children to play creatively with dolls or stuffed animals that haven't already been given roles by the media. When children role play using their own ideas, they're more likely to play school or house than when using toys that are already outfitted for violence (action figures) or shopping and dating (Barbies, Bratz dolls, etc.).

We want our kids to be creative, but if we give them toys that do all the work for them, by lighting up and making noises and already having a complete story line behind them, we take away incentive and opportunity for them to be creative.

Plus, some of the collectible toys worry me, because often as soon as a child has one, they want the next one, and it leads them into a negative cycle of consumerism where they're happier shopping than owning. That's not something we want our children to turn into, because this type of consumerism and materialism doesn't make people happier. Some toys even have associated websites where children get "points" for collecting, can join networks with their friends, and then rank one another based on their possessions. Wow.

There are fantastic toys out there, and a lot of them we recognize from when we were kids. Blocks that can be made into castles, stacked in different shapes and designs, be pretend grocery items placed in a bucket for a shopping cart. Traditional dolls that allow children to play family, act out their day, or have a backyard space adventure. There are a lot of great toys that let kids be kids and decide how they want to play with them.

After seeing cautions about popular toys pop up in so many of the books I've read and parenting lectures I've attended, I have started to really think about how the toys Will plays with may impact his development. I'm not getting rid of every toy in my house that lights up, but I may take the batteries out of some of them, and I quite shamelessly sent all of Will's grandparents a link to the toy guide published by Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children's Entertainment, or "TRUCE". You can find it here: http://www.truceteachers.org/guides.htm After all, they also want what's best for Will, and the time to talk to them about better toy choices is before they buy them, not after Will has unwrapped them.

If you're interested in learning more, the TRUCE website is a great resource.

So as Will gets older, I'll try to give him a blank piece of paper instead of a coloring book, and toys that he can choose what to do with. I'm sure there will be compromise, and some less than ideal toys will make it into his toy bin, and that's ok. My goal isn't to be perfect, it's to make better choices whenever we can. And we'll tackle peer pressure and tv advertising when we get there!

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