Consumer Products

Can a toy company make kids happier and healthier

I often liken toys and their role in constructive play to food and its role in good nutrition. There are some foods that are loaded with nutrition-we all seek them out and want our children to eat plenty of those. But...
February 1, 2001

I often liken toys and their role in constructive play to food and its role in good nutrition. There are some foods that are loaded with nutrition-we all seek them out and want our children to eat plenty of those. But there are some foods with no nutritional value whatsoever-they are fun, empty-calorie options that we occasionally enjoy. The same can be said for toys: There’s no shame in splurging now and then on fun, noneducational toys-as long as they’re part of a diet of otherwise well-balanced play.

But there are also those substances that are harmful to you-things that you shouldn’t eat no matter what. Just like the FDA provides warnings on the labels of these harmful products, so should the toy industry make sure parents get proper warning signs on toys. It’s about responsible marketing and proper age-grading. It’s about respecting and adhering to established ratings systems. Because if parents are warned and still choose to purchase, then it’s a conscious decision and one the parent has full responsibility for making.

To this end, Playing For Keeps was established as a unique coalition uniting parents, industry leaders and professionals to foster a climate of constructive play through education, collaboration and action. At the heart of the organization lies the belief that those of us with the power to influence children’s play, education and socialization have the responsibility to manufacture and market healthy, constructive playthings for children of all ages and demographics. Playing for Keeps held its inaugural conference less than a year ago.

What was learned at the Playing for Keeps conference?

* Play is vital. Play stimulates the imagination; it is a catalyst by which children learn to develop an understanding of themselves and their relationships with others. Play is a testing ground for language, behavior and problem-solving-it prepares children for academic learning and rewarding adult lives.

* Caregivers have a real impact on the outcome of a child’s play. Caregivers are a child’s first playmates, and teach children as they play together. They help create a healthy balance of appropriate playtime experiences for their children throughout their childhood. We learned that caregivers want and need guidance and support in creating a balance that emphasizes creative, imaginative and non-violent play. The more we help them understand the characteristics of constructive, socially responsible play, the more they will be empowered to make informed decisions.

* ‘Toy’ does not equal ‘play.’ Toys are props and can influence the direction and outcome of play. Some toys can be more effective props than others when it comes to supporting and encouraging constructive and socially responsible play.

That’s O.K. for educational toycos, but how can manufacturers produce action/adventure and licensed toys that comply with PFK guidelines?

While PFK does not have specific guidelines on this right now, it’s definitely something we’re working towards for the future. In the meantime, I would offer five actionable pieces of advice:

* Put your parent cap on when developing products and marketing programs. Is this a product that you’d want your own kids to play with?

* Involve child development experts in the product development process. PFK plans to have a referral database in the future to help partner manufacturers with such experts. In the meantime, manufacturers can contact the PFK office for informal referrals.

* Enhance your own understanding of child development. We encourage industry professionals to attend the ‘How & What Children Learn Through Play’ seminar which kicks off the 2001 Playing For Keeps conference (see endnote).

* Involve more kids in the product development process. In a recent focus group conducted with nine- to 12-year-olds by the editors of Newsweek’s Elite magazine, kids were asked: ‘If you designed your own video game, what would it be?’ Their responses implied toning down the violence and pumping up more constructive themes like outer space and mystery. The kids polled thought the violent games were ‘gross’ or ‘gory,’ and they worried about younger kids playing them-this out of the mouths of babes!

* Take the age recommendations put on toys and the ratings systems created by the movie, television and software industries seriously. If a video game is rated ‘M’ for mature audiences or the movie is rated ‘R,’ refrain from producing products for younger children featuring that license.

What are PFK’s plans for the future?

We are currently planning a Q1 2001 launch of the official Playing For Keeps website. Initially, this will serve as an internal communications vehicle to reach out to the constituencies that are already involved (conference participants, advisory committee members, subcommittee members) and keep them abreast of the latest developments. Eventually, we envision this as a place for everyone concerned with children’s play to check in and find out where the best places are to seek information and resources.

Another key tactic that is well underway is the Playing For Keeps Family Guide. Designed to provide caregivers with information and resources about constructive play, the initial offering of the PFK Family Guide Portfolio will be launched spring 2001. This first consumer education piece-in the form of an informational brochure-will be offered to the public through a publicity effort bolstered by distribution through participating manufacturers, retailers and community groups. Additional PFK ‘Family Guide’ tools and formats will be developed in the future.

John Lee is Playing For Keeps co-founder and president of Illinois-based toyco Learning Curve International. Playing For Keeps will be holding a conference from March 16 to 18 at Wheelock College, Boston, MA. Register on-line at www.wheelock.edu/playconf. Contact Edgar Klugman at 617-879-2185 or eklugman@wheelock.edu to contribute to or inquire about the Family Guide publications.

Toys that encourage constructive play:

* Toys inspired by classic literature, such as Madeline, Thomas & Friends and Arthur

* Toys that allow for open-ended, imaginative play like Lego, dress-up and FELTKids

* Toys that stimulate social interaction such as board games

* Games that challenge the mind such as I Spy books, puzzles and video games

* Toys that incorporate technology-supported play and learning like Leapfrog Leapad and Twister Math

Toys that are less likely to foster constructive play:

* Toys that are inspired by mature or adult entertainment

* Toys with violent themes or those that inspire aggressive, violent behavior and play

* Toys that are highly structured and can be used in only one way

* Toys that enable children to close themselves off from others completely

* Toys that ‘do all the thinking for kids,’ leaving little to the imagination

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