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Toying with Children’s Health: How the Business of Play Harms Children

 Diane Levin, Ph.D. 

The Toy Revolution. When the Federal Communications Commission deregulated children’s television in 1984, it became possible to market toys and other products to children directly through TV programs for the first time. That was when the floodgates opened for marketers to treat children as a separate consumer group. Toys became one of the first areas targeted for reaching children. Increasingly, what was good for children and healthy play dropped out of the equation, as shareholder profits became the driving force. Since then most of the best selling toys have been linked to the media. Now we have cross feeding among TV, movies, video and computer games, as well as many other products linked to the same shows as the toys. The resulting impact on toys and play has been revolutionary, with harmful implications for children’s development and learning.

Why Is Play Important? Children use their play to master experience and skills and try out new things. Through play they learn how to work on their problems and find new ones. They feel powerful and in control. But all play is not the same. The more children are in control of what happens, bring in their own ideas, skills and needs, work on their own problems, and use creativity and imagination, the more valuable the play is likely to be.

Role of Toys in Play. Toys influence both what (the content) and how (the process of) children’s play. Open-ended toys can be used in the service of what the child wants to do and can change and grow with the child. They allow children to control the content and process of the play. Highly structured and realistic toys tend to tell children what to do (for instance, by providing the script or problem), and how to do it (for instance, the button to push). The more play is programmed by a toy, the more likely that creative and imaginative play and its benefits will be jeopardized and the more children will be bored when they aren’t told what to do.  In other words, the more they are likely to develop what can look like “Problem Solving Deficit Disorder” (PSDD), the inability to think of oneself or to act as problem finders and solvers (a necessary prerequisite for all social and intellectual learning).

Toys that Harm Children’s Healthy Development.  Since deregulation, many of the toys developed to appeal to children undermine healthy play. For instance, they bring in developmentally inappropriate content that can confuse, scare and teach harmful lessons. They also often take control of play away from children by showing them how and what to play. Examples of one or both of the above include toys that:

  • Are highly-structured and tell children how to play (e.g., how to imitate TV & movie scripts)

  • Make violence the focus of play (e.g., toy weapons, action figures and superheroes linked to media)

  • Lure little girls into focusing on teenage behavior (such as appearance, sexiness, and consuming)

  • Look like they’ll be exciting but become boring very quickly because they only do one thing

  • Are connected to unhealthy food (e.g., toys linked to fast food restaurants or candy)

  • Are linked to media rated for older children or adults (e.g., R-rated Terminator 3 had toys for 5 year olds)

  • Separate the play of girls & boys  (e.g., play dough linked to superhero characters vs. princesses)

  • Make money & shopping the focus of the play (such as play ATM machines and miniature shopping malls)

  • Use electronic technology (bells & whistles) to control the play

  • Exploit parents’ desire to be good parents (e.g., promising to teach the alphabet to infants and toddlers)

  • The Price Children and Society Pay for the Business of Play. We all pay a high price for the profits the mass-market toy industry rakes in from the “Business of Play.” For instance, children who imitate harmful content in play, rather than work it out using their own creativity and problem solving ability, are more likely to learn damaging lessons. Parents who struggle to do a good job end up with PSDD children who are bored, look for the instant gratification, constantly nag for new toys to get a moment of happiness. Schools have an up-hill battle teaching academic skills to PSDD children who are bored, used to being shown exactly what to do instead of solving problems on their own, and more likely to use aggression than problem solve when they have a conflict.

Call to Action: We can reclaim childhood play by educating parents, schools and the public about the importance of high quality play, toys and media and how to promote them. We must also create the kind of public outrage and action that are needed to force the toy and related-industries to stop the commercial exploitation of play and put the well-being of children back into the “Business of Play” equation.

Diane Levin, PhD ( is professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston where she teaches courses on play, violence prevention and a summer institute on media violence and children. She is the author of 6 books including Remote Control Childhood? Combating the Hazards of Media Culture and is a founder of SCEC and Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children's Entertainment (TRUCE).







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