As Black Friday approaches, which heralds the toy merchandising frenzy aka the Christmas season, I find myself recalling a scene that still takes my breath away: fourteen-month-old Arielle sitting on a rug with a old doll, a teddy bear and a couple of books. Notable for their absence of buttons to press or screens to swipe, these objects don’t talk, beep, move, or play music. They just lie there, waiting for someone to do something with them.
Arielle explores the doll while making the only sound in the room, a combination of humming and babbling. Arielle’s hand runs down her torso until she meets a tiny ear. She leans in, using one finger to trace the outlines of her. Lifting her hand, she first feels one of her own ears and then both ears simultaneously. She alternates between tracing her doll’s ear and his a few more times until she, satisfied, turns her attention elsewhere.
Incessant noise is a threat to physical and psychological health. In fact, it has long been used as a form of torture. Just like adults, children need quiet time.
I am witnessing a paradoxically amazing and utterly ordinary feat of human learning, at least for neurotypical children in safe and loving environments. Something arouses Arielle’s curiosity: is her body like her doll’s? Without external insistence, she satisfies that curiosity, feeling the doll’s body and herself. Unfortunately, for many children, experiences like Arielle’s are becoming less frequent. One obvious reason is that children’s leisure time is often dominated by screens. But at this time of year, another reason arises.
Take a look at what makes the lists of the best Christmas toys. To name just a few, there are Barbie’s Little Dream House, full of lights, phrases and songs; the VTech Level Up gaming chair, complete with its own simulated tablet, joystick and headset; the Bluey Ultimate Lights and Sounds Playhousewith more than 50 sounds.
Many of the toys promoted for traditional December gift-giving have enhanced chips, talking, moving or playing music on their own, reducing children to mere buttons. Or they feature commercial characters from media giants, imbued with predetermined personalities and storylines that encourage kids to copy, not create. Both deprive children of opportunities to imagine, initiate, solve problems, or express themselves.
I am a psychologist whose work focuses on tracking the impact of technology and commercialism on the well-being of children. The contrast she observed between Arielle’s experience and that of several young children she had met shortly before at a local day care center was stark. The children were on the floor, surrounded by the kinds of best-selling toys that sellers today tout as “interactive” because they move and make sounds at the push of a button.
The room rang with so much tinkling music, whistles, and robotic voices reciting the alphabet that it was hard to think. However, all the noise and activity emanated from the toys. The children sat silent and passive, as if stunned by the electronically activated commotion.
However, silence is crucial for self-reflection, learning, and creativity. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, incessant noise is a threat to physical and mental health. In fact, it has been used for a long time as a form of torture. Just like adults, children need quiet time to experience the difference between reacting to external stimulation and coming up with their own ideas. They often do in-game.
Silence allows children to find their own voice, both literally and figuratively. The vocalizations that Arielle produced are important precursors of language development. And by choosing to use her voice just for the hell of it, she experienced autonomy and the rudiments of verbal self-expression. Her silence also gave him the opportunity to listen to her own thoughts and turn them into action.
In fact, the toys most likely to encourage creative play aren’t the ones that make noise or have lots of bells and whistles, as a decade-long study shows. Center for Early Childhood Education at Eastern Connecticut State University found. Instead, they are simple, open, quiet, and can be used in many different ways.
Even top selling toys — unlike the best — are too often the most advertised to children; digitally enhanced or linked to popular media characters; or both. The majority of parents (77%) surveyed in a global survey by Statista In 2020, it listed products like game consoles, smartphones, and tablets as the toys available to its children at home. Electronic toys were identified by 63% of parents. Brand-licensed toys, including clothing and accessories, according to research by The NPD Group in late 2017, count for about 25% of children’s products.
What is worrisome for children, and beneficial for corporate profits, is that the continued immersion in screens and the toys they sell send the message to children that they need to watch a show to know what to do with a toy and that only toys that are media. linked are worth having.
The more a toy drives the form and content of children’s play and the more the characters or toys children play with are linked to popular media properties and franchises, children are less involved in the type of creative play that allows them to exercise curiosity, initiative, problem solving and imagination.
The room rang with so much tinkling music, whistles, and robotic voices reciting the alphabet that it was hard to think. However, all the noise and activity emanated from the toys.
Companies that profit greatly from licensed characters have a vested interest in preventing children’s creative play and stifling their creativity. Toys that promote creativity are less likely to make a lot of money because they can be used repeatedly in so many different ways.
Big money on toys, plus create a brand icon that can be licensed a companies that make other products, is in the sale of children in need of buy a set of toys, including whichever is most recent. These toys seem to be made with some kind of planned obsolescence, so new ones will be needed soon.
It’s not that I think the CEOs of big toy companies sit around conspiring to make kids and their parents miserable. It’s that their focus on profit results in toys that either market themselves in 15-second ad slots or take advantage of popular media properties that fuel characters, plots, and the need for a well-rounded game.
To be clear, there are toy manufacturers that care about children’s creative play, and there are apps and media programs that contribute to the healthy development of children beyond the age of toddlerhood. But much of the toy market prioritizes profit over the well-being of children. By choosing what to buy your child this holiday season, you have the opportunity to do the opposite.