Why toys are killing creative child's play

Reading the Sunday Times recently, I was startled to read the following:

"You'll never improve on a cardboard box to encourage creative play."

Shortly after I became editor of New Statesman in 1998, I ran an article at Christmas: "Unite against the tyranny of toys". The author argued parents should resist seasonal demands for Sindies and Barbies and give children empty cardboard boxes instead. This was denounced by several commentators as joyless, doctrinaire leftism. But now cardboard boxes are in the Sunday Times, so I suppose that's all right.

The writer was reviewing a book, The Real Toy Story by Eric Clark (Black Swan). I strongly recommend it to teachers.

Journalists and opposition MPs often accuse the Government and its agents of invading family privacy, encouraging sexuality, and trying to mould children. As Clark shows, the toy industry and its marketing experts were there long ago. For example, a US marketing firm recruits under-13s as "secret agents" by giving them free products. The firm boasted to its clients that it got "into girls' bedrooms".

The toy industry no longer comprises small firms in which inventive mavericks come up with ideas for a Rubik's Cube or a Cabbage Patch doll.

Nor does it involve small shops presided over by avuncular men who, perhaps because they were somewhat retarded, had a genuine interest in children and what made them happy. The industry is dominated by a few avaricious US conglomerates, and by retail chains.

They in turn are ruled by marketing. In most children's TV (including the BBC's), there is no great distinction between programming and commerce.

Half the budget for Sesame Street comes from merchandising revenue. Many films that hit cinemas in school holidays exist only because of product tie-ins.

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.

"They are designed," writes Clark, "to sell, to be possessed, to be a badge of status." The marketing people consciously play on children's emotional 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 marketed to younger age groups, we are reverting to the pre-Victorian era when children were mini-adults. The toy firms now tend to see themselves as part of the "family lifestyle" business.

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

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