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October 2005 | Vol. IV - No. 10




Tools:

Taking Responsibility for Toys


"You push a button, and the action figure says what the character on TV says … These toys take control away from children, leaving no room for their own initiative and creativity."Diane Levin, TRUCE
Concerns have been directed toward the toy industry about toys that focus on violence, feature non-age-appropriate role models, or offer a passive play experience that thwarts imagination and may even contribute to obesity. The question arises: Where do toy producers draw the line between their obligation to stockholders and their responsibility to children?

Wheelock College professor Diane Levin, a founder of TRUCE (Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment) and author of the book “Remote Control Childhood,” warns about “disturbing trends” in the toy industry. She cites the proliferation of highly structured toys, such as media-based action figures, which are changing the process of how children play.

“You push a button, and the action figure says what the character on TV says and does the same punches and kicks,” Levin told TDmonthly Magazine. “Each child plays with the toy the exact same way. These toys take control away from children, leaving no room for their own initiative and creativity.”

Levin also takes issue with toys that feature violent or non-age-appropriate themes as well as a trend toward increased gender stereotyping. “There’s more dichotomy between toys aimed at boys and those aimed at girls. The muscles in boys’ action figures are bigger, and girls’ dolls have become more sexual. Many toys are luring kids into an adolescent culture, which is more and more removed from what children should be playing with.”

Toy manufacturers, meanwhile, point out that they are responsive to the needs of children and the concerns of parents. At Mattel, vice president of corporate communications Lisa Marie Bongiovanni reported that the well-being of children is an inherent consideration in the quality and type of toys the company produces. “Our focus groups include both children and parents to ascertain both a toy’s play value as well as a mom’s seal of approval.”

For the younger age demographic, the company has a team of early childhood education professionals at its Fisher-Price Play Laboratory who observe children at play as part of ongoing child research. Fisher-Price’s Play Is Learning Council also provides input regarding the appropriateness of the company’s toys. Doris Bergen, a professor of educational psychology at Miami University of Ohio, is a member of the council, offering her perspective as a child development expert.

There have been instances when a toy’s features have been altered to coincide with council members’ expert advice. “The people on the council would not be participating if they didn’t feel their views were valued by Fisher-Price,” Bergen told TDmonthly.

Acknowledging concerns about the potential harm that can be caused by toys with violent or non-age-appropriate themes, Bergen would like to see a comprehensive research study regarding the effects of toys on children. There have been small-scale studies that show a correlation between children’s behavior and the types of toys they play with. “But these are relational studies,” Bergen explained. “They do not show cause and effect. There may be other factors, such as violence in the homes or exposure to violent television shows, that are having an influence.”

Bergen , author of the book “Play as a Medium for Learning and Development,” points to a consensus in the child development field about the need for toys that promote active versus reactive play. She contends that toys should be versatile enough to allow children to interact with them in a creative way — a process she calls elaborating.

Similarly, Levin would like to see more focus on so-called “open-ended” toys. “Open-ended toys may not seem as exciting as highly structured toys at first,” Levin conceded. “However, open-ended toys are best for kids, because they get more exciting as they put themselves into them.”




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