War Chests to Toy Chests

From War Chests to Toy Chests
By Daphne White
Issue 127, November – December 2004

Boy playing with wooden blocksFor the past eight years, I have been a professional buyer of children’s gifts: toys, video games, puzzles, puppets, and more. This is not a job I applied for. It is something I created as the founder and executive director of the Lion & Lamb Project, an organization founded in 1995 to stop the marketing of violent entertainment to children.

Soon after founding Lion & Lamb, I realized that if parents were to steer their children away from action figures, toy guns, laser tag, violent video games, and other products that glamorize violence—if they were to transform their children’s war chests into toy chests—they would need a lot of help and support. This is because the toy industry tends to promote the most violent toys and video games with the least play value: toys and games that just happen to have a TV show with the same name. Think Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, Pokémon, Dragon Ball Z. Unfortunately, some of the most creative, open-ended games that children will return to time and time again are some of the hardest to find.

So each year, beginning in 1996, Lion & Lamb created a Top 20 list of creative, nonviolent toys, and a Dirty Dozen list of violent toys to avoid. This year will be the first that Lion & Lamb will not produce such a list, because the organization is shutting down. In this article, I will for the first time share my guidelines for selecting the Top 20 toys, so that you can create your own personalized Top Toy list.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty: There is not just one Top 20 list. Lion & Lamb never claimed that the toys on each year’s list were the best 20 toys of any year. With literally thousands of new toys and games entering the market each season, it is impossible to come up with any list of the absolute “best.” What we tried to do was suggest 20 excellent toys from as many excellent companies as possible, offering a range of activities for a range of age groups and interests. There were always many outstanding products that had to be left off.

Using the guidelines presented below, different parents and families will come up with their own variations on the Top Toy list. No two lists will be the same, but your list will be perfect and unique for your particular child and family.

What is a “violent” toy?
When I conduct parenting workshops, parents always ask: Are Nerf guns violent? Are tiny little squirt guns violent? Are the Lego Pirates or Star Wars characters violent? To answer these questions, I came up with some basic guidelines:

Violent toys and video games:

    promote violence and aggression as the best way to settle disputes
    depict violent actions as fun, harmless, and “cool”
    encourage children to act out aggressive scenarios
    foster aggressive competition
    depend on “enemies” that need to be “destroyed”

With this list, you should be able to answer the questions posed above. Do Nerf guns and squirt guns depict the act of shooting a friend as fun and harmless? Do some Lego characters encourage aggressive pretend behavior? If the answer is yes, then these games have a violent characteristic—regardless of the brand name.

One thing that has saddened me, as I’ve observed the toy industry, is that in recent years trusted brand names such as Lego have begun selling action figures and other violent toys in order to maintain or increase their market share. While Lego action figures such as the Star Wars and Galidor series are not nearly as violent as many others, children still use them for fantasy fighting. With movies, video games, and TV programs tied to some of these action-figure lines, they are clearly more about marketing opportunities for Lego than toys for children.

Lego is not alone in abandoning quality play for profits. K’NEX is another company that started out making quality-construction toys for schools and families, then added a line of violent action figures based on the Mech Warriors video-game franchise. And one of the largest toy companies in the world, Hasbro—whose motto is “Making the World Smile”—makes some of the most violent children’s products. In fall 2002, as a sniper terrorized the Washington, DC, area, Hasbro was marketing a Lego-like construction toy, the Gun Sniper, for children ages four and up. This “posable action figure”—part of Hasbro’s Zoids line—looked like a mechanical dinosaur wielding a gun in each hand. The packaging promoted other Zoids, which preschoolers could “customize for battle!”

Hasbro also makes Nerf guns, Super Soakers, Transformers, Pokémon action figures, and more. Each year, without fail, one or more Hasbro toys ended up on our Dirty Dozen list. Hasbro makes some excellent products as well, but one of the criteria we developed at Lion & Lamb was to support only companies that make creative, quality products for children, and that do not make toys that are violent, sexist, racist, or otherwise harmful to children’s developing values.

We found, however, that the larger a company grew, the more concerned it became with profits and quarterly earnings—and the more willing it was to stray from a laudable-sounding mission such as “Making the World Smile.” How can a toy named Gun Sniper and marketed to kindergarten students possibly bring a smile to anyone’s lips?

What is a “creative, nonviolent” toy?
Here are the criteria Lion & Lamb developed for selecting toys for our Top 20 list:

Nonviolent toys and games:

    encourage children to build and create rather than to destroy
    stimulate creativity and imaginative play
    promote cooperation and problem-solving
    are open-ended and encourage children to create their own scenarios rather than reenact television, movie, or video-game plots

When selecting a toy, you might ask yourself: “Do I want a smart toy or a smart child?” That is the suggestion of Diane Levin, a professor of early-childhood education at Wheelock College. “Smart toys” are all the rage in toy stores now—products that speak, play music, or engage children with electronic bells and whistles. But research and old-fashioned observation have shown that children learn better and entertain themselves longer with simpler products.

Educationally, the best toys for children are the simplest and most open-ended: wooden blocks, puppets, paper and paint, playdough. The simpler the toy, the more it builds imagination. Blocks and construction toys don’t do anything—it is the child who must infuse imagination and energy into the toy to build an imaginative world. Puppets are excellent for bringing out stories from both children and adults. Crayons and other art supplies can keep children engaged for long stretches of time.

Given the choice, any child would much prefer to interact with a parent than with an electronic plaything—even one that teaches them colors, or numbers, or letters of the alphabet. There is something about a parent’s voice and tone—and presence—that stimulates learning (and shows caring) far beyond anything a computerized plaything can offer.

At Lion & Lamb, we also made a decision to stay away from “licensed products”—that is, toys based on other commercial products, such as television programs, movies, video games, even books. Such toys come with a prewritten story line, whether that story relates to Power Rangers or Thomas the Tank Engine. In today’s overcommercialized world, it is critical that we help our children develop their own imaginative capacities, rather than reenact existing story lines.

I have spoken with many psychologists and play therapists who tell me that today’s children have lost much of the imaginative capacity of earlier generations. More than one therapist has told me that children no longer know what to do with a lump of clay—they are so used to the two-dimensional world of television sets and video games that they can’t think in three dimensions. If they do anything with the clay, it might be to make a gingerbread-like man or other object that is basically two-dimensional.

Listen to any artist or writer or cartoonist. All of them will tell you of the childhood hours they spent doodling or writing or imagining their own world. It is crucial that we provide such open-ended, unstructured play activities and time for our children. If we “entertain” them from very young ages, they will quickly lose the capacity to entertain themselves.

In selecting toys, consider materials that will last a long time and that feel good to the touch. At Lion & Lamb, I worked hard to avoid products made of plastic, much preferring games and puzzles made of wood. I also found, to my surprise, that both boys and girls enjoy activities such as weaving and sewing when provided with age-appropriate materials and some guidance. Because of the frenetic nature of so much of children’s entertainment, they actually crave such quiet, meditative tasks.

All the toys recommended by Lion & Lamb have an element of building and creating—processes that are important for children to experience, because so much of their “entertainment” culture focuses on destruction, knocking things down, hitting, kicking, and killing. We now have research spanning 40 years that shows why violent play and entertainment products are harmful to children’s health. I recommend that you visit Lion & Lamb’s website (www.lionlamb.org) and click on “Research” for more information on these studies. Most of the research focuses on television, movies, and video games, but so many toys are now extensions of these other media products that the same issues apply.

It is also important to understand that the theory of “catharsis”—that children need violent play as a catharsis, or working out or purging, for their violent feelings—has been repeatedly disproved by research. Giving children violent toys only encourages them to enact and reenact violent imaginative scenarios—scenarios that they may revert to when facing actual stress or threat as teens or adults. It is especially important for today’s children to have board games and other activities that promote cooperation and problem-solving, precisely because those elements are so absent from the pervasive popular culture.
Below is a list of some of the toy companies that appeared on Lion & Lamb’s Top 20 list again and again. Though these are just suggestions, they offer a starting place for you to begin creating your own Top Toy list:

    • Alex—crafts and games
    • Binary Arts—three-dimensional puzzle sets that take hours to solve
    • Cranium—board games for younger children, older children, and adults
    • Curiosity Kits—arts and crafts products
    • Family Pastimes—cooperative board games
    • Folkmanis and Manhattan Toys—unique and lovable puppets
    • HandsOnToys—unique crafts and activities products
    • Harrisville Designs—excellent weaving products for children
    • Klutz—humorous, fun crafts and activities books
    • The Learning Company—good computer games
    • Melissa & Doug—wooden products for preschoolers
    • The Orb Factory—innovative toys, craft kits, puzzles, and educational products
    • Saturnian—colorful sports/active toys and games

Most of these companies sell through small, independent toy stores. We have also found that the Chinaberry catalog carries products from many of these companies, as well as other quality products (www.china berry.com).

For more information on violent and nonviolent play, as well as research findings, you can still visit the Lion & Lamb Project’s website. While the organization itself is no longer active, we will keep the website up for the indefinite future, so that parents can use it as a resource. In addition to research findings, the site includes recipes for homemade versions of playdough and Goop, as well as recommendations for making shoe-box gifts: collections of small, familiar items organized around a play theme and presented in an appealing way inside a humble shoe box (see sidebar, “Shoe-Box Gifts”).

You have the tools, now go and play! Have fun selecting and making the best-ever holiday toys for your children. May they all be above average!

For a list of websites that feature nonviolent toys, see www.mothering.com/extras/toy-resources.html
For more information about toys, see the following articles in past issues of Mothering: “Homemade Toys,” no. 95; “Wizards, and Squirrels, and Bugs. Oh, My!” no. 93; “Mothering’s Holiday Gift Guide,” no. 91; “Toys That Encourage Imaginative Play,” no. 90; “The Back-to-Basic Block,” no. 75; and “War Toys and TV,” no. 39.

Daphne White is the founder of the Lion & Lamb Project. She lives in Kensington, Maryland, with her husband and their son, who is now 16 years old, has no interest in video games of any kind, and spends his free time reading and writing his own computer programs for solving mathematical problems.

Photo by Alison Watson.

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