Why the Toys You Choose Matter: 6 Tips for Combating Commercialism and Encouraging Creative Play

by Edna Rienzi   |   February 29, 2016

Toy Library1

Increasingly, the accessories of everyday life and play are becoming tools for commercialism. From Dora-themed bedsheets to Disneyfied art supplies, branded images are now ubiquitous in stores, malls, daycares, and schools. Often, the TV show or movie itself is just the “hook” for a broader-themed marketing package that includes a seemingly endless supply of toys, accessories, clothing, and other products.

Unfortunately, by designing toys and accessories to maximize sales and reinforce brands, manufacturers often minimize the educational and child development benefits of these items. 

Rather than encouraging open-ended play, many of today’s media-based toys provide a pre-imagined story line. Meanwhile, the strategy of offering “girl” and “boy” versions of similar products expands the market to encourage additional purchases, while feeding into gender stereotyping.

“[K]ids get toys that come straight out of hit movies or TV shows, toys that come with a preset collection of ideas about who the characters are and how children should play with the toys. This kind of preformed script can rob the child of the ability to create his own story. Instead, he is mimicking the expressions and lines that he is expected to say. A chance for imaginative flights of fancy is lost.”  

—Stuart Brown, author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul

The good news is that parents, educators, and caregivers can push back and create opportunities for unbranded play. Choosing toys and accessories carefully for our children can help us in our quest to raise humans, and not just consumers.

Here are six tips for limiting kids' exposure to commercialism through toys and accessories:

1.   Surround your kids with open-ended toys that require creativity to be fully imagined.

Look for items such as blocks, art supplies, play kitchens, and dolls—and avoid toys that have a media hook or that offer only one way to play with them.

2.   Opt for toys with neutral colors and made from durable, eco-friendly materials like wood.

To reduce the cost of these “better-for-you” toys, try secondhand stores and garage sales, or ask friends and family members for hand-me-downs. Search for a toy lending library nearby. If none exists, start your own!

3.   When watching shows or movies with your kids, be wary of brands and set limits around the marketing “extras.” 

Make it clear, for example, that although you’re seeing the film, you’re not going to buy any toys. If the movie is based on a book, get your kids to read the book first so that they have the chance to envision their own characters and places. If your child wants to re-enact a film’s storyline, try to expand the way she plays: “Let’s cook dinner for Spiderman” or “Let’s make Elsa’s ice castle out of clay.”

4.   For home and school, try to consciously avoid branded food items, décor, clothing, and accessories. 

That being said, pick your battles. If your daughter really wants to wear the Elmo shirt, it may not be worth the fight so long as the rest of your environment is relatively ad-free.

5.   Research daycares and schools to learn about their advertising policies. 

Many independent schools, such as Montessori and Waldorf schools, are conscious about not including branded items in their curricula or classrooms.

6.   At parties, curb the stream of branded toys by asking for donations to a charity in lieu of gifts (and let your kid choose the charity). 

For friends and family who really want to give your child a gift, steer them toward non-material gifts (such as museum passes, music lessons, ice cream coupons) by setting up a wishlist on New Dream’s alternative gift registry, SoKind.

And when a branded toy or accessory makes its way into your home, teach your child to look critically at the toy. Who is responsible for making this toy? How does the toy maker expect you to play with this toy? Can you make up another story for this character? 

The best defense you can give your child in these situations is to be a smart consumer.

Edna Rienzi is Director of Programs at New Dream.