As Black Friday looms, heralding the toy-marketing frenzy also known as the holiday season, I find myself remembering a scene that still takes my breath away: Fourteen-month-old Arielle sits on a rug with an old baby doll, a stuffed bear and a couple of books. Notable for their absence of buttons to push or screens to swipe, these objects neither talk, beep, move nor play music. They merely lie there, waiting for someone to do something with them.
Arielle explores the baby doll while making the only sound in the room, a combination of crooning and babbling. Arielle’s hand wanders up its torso until it encounters a tiny ear. She bends over, using one finger to trace its contours. Reaching up, she first feels one of her own ears and then both ears simultaneously. She alternates between tracing the doll’s ear and her own a few more times until, satisfied, she 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. Like adults, children need times that are quiet.
I am witnessing a paradoxically astonishing and completely ordinary feat of human learning — at least for neurotypical kids in safe, loving environments. Something piques Arielle’s curiosity: Is her body like her doll’s? With no outside prodding, she satisfies that curiosity, feeling the doll’s body and herself. Sadly, for many kids, experiences like Arielle’s are increasingly infrequent. One obvious reason is that children’s leisure time is often dominated by screens. But at this time of year, another reason comes into focus.
Check out what’s featured on lists of hot holiday toys. To name just a few, there’s the Barbie Little Dreamhouse, replete with lights, phrases and songs; the VTech Level Up Gaming Chair, with its own tablet, joystick and pretend headphones; the Bluey Ultimate Lights and Sounds Playhouse, featuring 50-plus sounds.
So many of the toys being touted for December’s traditional gift-giving are chip-enhanced, talking, moving or playing music on their own and reducing kids to mere button pushers. Or they feature commercial characters from media juggernauts, imbued with predetermined personalities and storylines that encourage children to copy, not create. Both deprive children of opportunities to imagine, initiate, problem-solve or express themselves.
I am a psychologist whose work focuses on tracking the impact of tech and commercialism on children’s well-being. The contrast I observed between Arielle’s experience and that of several toddlers I had met not long before at a local day care center was profound. The children were on the floor, surrounded by the kinds of bestselling toys marketers today promote as “interactive” because they move and emit sounds at the push of a button.
The room echoed with so much tinkling music, whistles and robotic voices reciting the ABCs that it was hard to think. Yet all the noise and activity emanated from the toys. The children sat silent and passive, as if stunned by the electronically enabled commotion.
Silence, though, is crucial for self-reflection, learning and creativity. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, incessant noise is a threat to physical and psychological health. In fact, it has long been used as a form of torture. Like adults, children need times that are quiet to experience the difference between reacting to outside stimulation and generating their own ideas. They often do in play.
Silence enables children to find their own voice, both literally and figuratively. The vocalizations Arielle produced are important precursors to developing language. And by choosing to use her voice just for the pleasure of it, she experienced autonomy and the rudiments of verbal self-expression. Silence also gave her the opportunity to listen to her own thoughts and to transform them into action.
Indeed, the toys most likely to encourage creative play are not those that make noise or have lots of bells and whistles, as a decadelong study from the Center for Early Childhood Education at Eastern Connecticut State University found. Instead, they are simple, open-ended, quiet and can be used lots of different ways.
Yet bestselling toys — as distinct from best — are too often those that are most advertised to kids; digitally enhanced or linked to popular media characters; or both. Most parents (77%) surveyed in a global Statista survey in 2020 listed products like game consoles, smartphones and tablets as the toys available to their children at home. Electronic toys were identified by 63% of parents. Brand-licensed toys, including clothing and accessories, according to research from The NPD Group at the end of 2017, account for about 25% of children’s products.
What’s worrisome for children — and beneficial to corporate profits — is that ongoing immersion in screens and the toys they sell send the message to kids that they need to see a program 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 the toys kids play with are linked to popular media properties and franchises, the less children get to engage in the kind of creative play that allows them to exercise curiosity, initiative, problem-solving and imagination.
The room echoed with so much tinkling music, whistles and robotic voices reciting the ABCs that it was hard to think. Yet all the noise and activity emanated from the toys.
Companies that profit hugely 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 be huge moneymakers because they can be used repeatedly in lots of different ways.
The big money in toys, in addition to creating a brand icon that can be licensed to companies making other products, is in selling kids on the necessity of acquiring a series of toys, including whatever is the latest one. These toys seem to be made with a kind of planned obsolescence, so new ones will soon be needed.
It’s not that I think that CEOs of huge toy companies sit around plotting to make children and their parents miserable. It’s that their focus on profits results in toys that market well in 15-second ad spots or that ride the coattails of popular media properties that spoonfeed characters, plotlines and the need for an entire set.
To be clear, there are toymakers who care about children’s creative play, and there are media programs and apps that contribute to post-toddler-age children’s healthy development. But too much of the toy market prioritizes profits over children’s well-being. When choosing what to buy your child this holiday season, you have the opportunity to do the opposite.