Thursday, December 4, 2008

Should We Even -BE- "Toys 'R' Us" Kids?

It’s that time of year again… for buying toys. But as you do, here’s something to stuff in your sack.

Years ago I saw woman an a.m. TV talk show, outraged by the toys being marketed to children. I know what you’re thinking: Yeah, great. We’ve been on this sleigh ride before! But she had a very different area of focus. One that still applies. Here’s her gripe: Storytelling.

She observed many toy “lines” have a story ‘Built In.’ Such as, say, The Transformers [I’m talking “Old School” people, not this butchered, sadly produced new batch! Although her observation is still relevant.] and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. In other words, kids know which characters are good and which are bad. They know what powers they have, their relationships to other characters, even speech patterns. Why? Because they see it on television.

She suggested this impairs a child’s imagination. How can they develop creative skills if the storyline is pre-packaged? Naturally, they will act out what they see on TV. It’s not behooving them to have a formula for their adventures.

An interesting proposition. I can’t say I disagree with her. It is a shame that much of their playtime is dictated to them. However, I cannot fully get on board either. Don’t underestimate the power of the juvenile mind. It’s unlikely they will replicate the activities exactly as they appear on TV. It's entirely possible that even though kids know She-Ra is the long lost twin sister of He-Man and what method of conveyance brings them from planet Etheria to planet Eternia that they will invent their own scenario for the pair of heroes using, say, a treasure chest from some other toy line.

Okay. Now forget about TV and toys for a minute. The woman’s fear can easily be applied to books. For what child doesn’t also act out the escapades of characters in books? Tell me there aren’t little boys pretending to be Peter Pan and little girls who assume the role of Pippi Longstocking. (As you may have read in my interview, I am guilty as charged. No, not Pippi. I played at being Pan.) And in so doing, are the kids not also locked into the traits, abilities and mannerisms of a pre-established storyline? When I played as Peter Pan, we did not re-enact Barrie’s story. Rather we had a grand time thinking up other adventures in the Neverland. Thus, I’ve re-illustrated my point.
Not to mention Comic Books. Oh wait, I just did.

I suppose it all comes down to the child and how far inside the well of Improv they are willing to reach. Or will the force-fed tendency of their playthings win out? It’s like a coin, two sides. Let’s hope they spend the playtime wisely.

How do you feel about it? Do you think kids today are less likely to develop creative and imaginative skills because of the media dictating what they should think and do with their toys? Or is this woman, as I say, underestimating the power of child’s mind?

*By the way, as you might recall, the rest of the Toys 'R' Us line is "I don't want to grow up." That part I can agree with!


Jen said...

I think this woman has too much time on her hands. Seriously.

What I have learned from observing my own little gaggle of boys is that they will put together whatever toys they have at hand in all kinds of ways if they have the liberty to do so. They like to have the framework of a story to work within, but they will definitely take it in their own direction (or mash two or more stories together for extra fun.) If you're worried about their play being overly dictated by a TV show, give them the toys and turn off the TV.

Peter said...

I had hoped you would chime in to this one, Jen. And your last statement, what a concept. (Meant both sarcastically and in praise.)

So you're essentially confirming my theory.

Nevertheless, though she may have overextended the truth of it, I do find it a "hmmm" moment in realizing that Imagination CAN be "pre-determined," so to speak.

Word: psying [A hybrid of psychic and lying?]

Jen said...

I don't think she's wrong in the sense that the stories kids see or read will find expression in their play. I guess it just doesn't bother me because I think that you'd have to expose kids to a monstrous amount of TV to truly squash their innate creativity.

I also don't place a huge premium on the idea that you have to be 100% original to be creative. Shakespeare made masterpieces out of stories that he didn't invent, by putting his own creative spin on them.

Mel said...

In all honesty, so much art has its roots in other sources, so why shouldn't play? Didn't someone once say that there were only so many "original" plotlines? And how fun for these kids to create stories that allow Han Solo to hang out with Batman? Or be reunited with his long lost twin, Indiana Jones? These storylines give the kids the safety of a "net" and then they can leap and discover their own paths of creative thought. Some kids need that safety of the familiar.

(And when I was a kid, I was Pinky Tuscadero's little sister, Orangey)

Peter said...

WOW! Such wonderful answers!

Looks like you completely shot her down. (Whoever she happened to be... as I said, this aired too many years ago, when Transformers had been Old School. [Translation: In the late 80s] so I've no idea how to find out.)

Brava! You've tipped my scale entirely. And after all, a couple of my novels are derivations. So where would I be without being given the chance to water the roots?

Danielle Mari said...

I once heard a great story about a scientific study reported on NPR. This post reminded me of it. The study showed that the prevalence of structured play (soccer practice, video games, ballet, piano lessons, etc.) robs kids of their creative ability and self-control... something they learn during independent, unstructured play. A child playing a video game, the study finds, reacts to the stimuli. A child involved in pretending with a friend, must stop and think- creating and following impromptu rules, improvising props and setting, devising story lines. While I don't think video games and structured play are inherently evil- I do wonder if we have lost something vital in regulating play. At any rate, I don't think it matters what dolls and toys kids play with- so long as they play freely....

Of course, a separate issue is the pathetically vulturistic (is that a word?) hunger of a toy industry that makes a kid think he NEEDS robodog or even a Han Solo doll.

Ah! I found a link to the article. Totally worth a perusal:
http://www (dot) npr (dot) org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=76838288