Give them a cardboard box to play with

Peter Wilby is a writer and commentator

Reading the Sunday Times recently, I was startled to see the following statement: "You'll never improve on a cardboard box to encourage creative play." Shortly after I became New Statesman editor in 1998, I ran a Christmas article called "Unite against the tyranny of toys".

The author argued parents should resist seasonal demands for Sindies and Barbies and give their children empty cardboard boxes instead. This was denounced by several press commentators as an example of joyless, doctrinaire leftism. But now cardboard boxes are in the Sunday Times, so I suppose that's all right.

The writer was reviewing The Real Toy Story by Eric Clark (Black Swan, Pounds 8.99) and I recommend that any teachers who want to know what they're up against get hold of it.

The toy industry no longer comprises small firms in which inventive mavericks come up with ideas. Nor does it involve small shops, presided over by avuncular men who have a genuine interest in what makes children happy. The industry is dominated by a few avaricious American conglomerates and retail chains. They in turn are ruled by marketing. In most children's TV, there is no significant distinction between programming and commerce.

So toys are no longer created for play - which, as generations of teachers were taught at college is, in Maria Montessori's words, the child's work.

The marketing people play on children's vulnerabilities, exploiting their fears of being shunned and of not belonging. The best toys used to stimulate a child's imagination because they were versatile, like cardboard boxes. Now toys do everything at the touch of a button, and come with pre-scripted storylines. "Far from encouraging creative play," argues Clark, "they stifle it: the action comes from the toy, not the child."

Clark suggests the very concept of a toy is on the way out and that as sexualised clothing and electronic gadgets are increasingly marketed to younger age groups, we are reverting to the pre-Victorian era when children were mini-adults.

Clark's conclusion is that "the marketing bombardment on our kids is too great, too insidious for them and us to withstand". So how do teachers resist? The next time some righteous critic says you are failing to stimulate your pupils' imaginations or to inculcate the right working habits, direct their attentions to the toy industry. And give them a cardboard box.

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