FEATURE

Let's Just Play

Preserve a child's right to create and explore.

"I like the pink ranger!"

"My favorite is red."

"Mine, too!"

The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers captured the imaginations of the 3- and 4-year-olds in my suburban Boston public preschool class.

For one little girl, whose language development was delayed, even the experience of naming her first few colors fell "captive" to the Rangers' original color scheme — pink, blue, red, yellow and black. Although I was pleased with the child's growing vocabulary, it disturbed me that her grasp of color concepts was connected to a violent TV show.

I should not have been surprised.

The plot of a typical Power Rangers episode features several fight scenes, complete with high kicks, powerful weapons, loud yells and grunts. Frequent commercial breaks promote other violent shows and toys.

In the span of just one TV show, a child's vision is captivated and dominated by violence. And away from the screen, related action figures, lunch boxes, sheets, underwear and books ensure that Power Rangers images are ever present.

Children have a right to play. The idea is so simple it seems self-evident. But a stroll through any toy superstore, or any half-hour of so-called "children's" programming on commercial TV, makes it clear that violence, not play, dominates what's being sold.

The problem got much worse in 1984, when the Federal Communications Commission deregulated children's television, paving the way for program-length commercials and massive marketing to children.

In Remote Control Childhood? Combating the Hazards of Media Culture (1998), Diane Levin, professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston, writes that, within one year of deregulation, nine of the 10 best-selling toys were linked to TV shows and seven of these shows were violent.

Another study offers further proof.

The National Television Violence Study (see Resources sidebar) examined 10,000 hours of programming between 1994 and 1997 and found that 60% of all shows contained some kind of violence. The study also found that a preschool child watching two hours of cartoons each day will witness nearly 10,000 acts of violence each year.

Kathy Roberts, co-founder/director of the Dandelion School in Cambridge, Mass., from 1971 to 2002, has been following the evolution of children's play as a parent, grandparent and educator. In the 1970s, she and her colleagues observed that "children who watched little or no TV were more self-sufficient and creative in their play."

As the video culture boomed, however, violent TV and movie plots began to dominate the content of child's play, displacing the influence of children's imaginations and literature.

Roberts and her colleagues also observed an economic change. As marketing began to dominate children's entertainment, some families simply couldn't afford clothes and accessories tied to the latest media characters.

At the Dandelion School, Roberts and her colleagues worked against such influences. Parents and children alike understood that media-linked toys, clothes and backpacks stayed at home, and the school community could focus on topics from nature, children's own experiences and literature.

The policy got good reviews from parents.

As Roberts said, "When their children move on to public elementary school, they're bombarded with the media culture, and they feel like they have a grounding to deal with it."

 

Creative Play, With Direction

Teachers like Roberts and others promote creative play by providing a well-planned environment with engaging open-ended materials such as blocks, dolls, animal figures, paper, paint, glue, scissors, sand boxes and water tables. Children can create and explore, and teachers can be directly involved.

That direct involvement is especially important when children imitate what they've seen on TV and movie screens.

Tricia Windschitl and her colleagues at the Preucil Preschool in Iowa City, Iowa, take advantage of teachable moments that arise during play to interject ideas to make play more peaceful and respectful, while setting limits on pretend fighting.

"Anything that makes someone feel uncomfortable or scared" is not allowed, Windschitl explains.

So if the boys are interested in Batman, Windschitl will encourage them to build a Batmobile, challenging their creativity and fostering cooperation.

"The focus goes away from the fighting and into more creative play," she says. "But if we completely ban superhero play, there is no opportunity to guide it."

Beyond preschool, recess becomes a testing ground for such play.

At first-grade teacher Sandra Rojas' school in Cambridge, Mass., students staked out part of the schoolyard as "Martian Land" in the 1980s. It has continued ever since, with boys and girls of various ages using rocks for money and setting up inventive trading-and-selling scenarios. "Real" toys are nowhere to be found.

"When there are no gadgets to play with," Rojas says, "they do really well coming together as a group."

Children's creativity in the absence of "store-bought play" is the core concept of WorldPlay, a grassroots project based in Atlanta that showcases toys made from found materials by children all over the world . The group has also created internet and videoconferencing opportunities that allow children to teach each other how to make such toys.

While adults can help by providing materials, suggesting safety guidelines and offering ideas, children have the right to bring their own ideas and experiences, even challenging ones, to life through play.

Denise Janssen, a second-grade teacher in Madison, Wis., believes that denying children the opportunity to play is "taking away a right as necessary as eating or sleeping."

In support of that right, teachers and parents share responsibility to protect children from the onslaught of violent and scripted play ideas brought by TV, movies, video games and the vast collection of media-linked products.

 

Choosing Good Toys

Choosing appropriate toys can go a long way toward improving play opportunities for children.

The Good Toy Group, currently made up of more than 50 U.S. toy retailers, emerged at the 2000 American Specialty Toy Retailers Association convention.

Colleen Pope, owner of The Dollhouse Shop in Montgomery, Ala., was part of the original group and contributes to the production of a catalogue that features toys chosen on the basis of creative play value, cultural sensitivity and nonviolence.

"We go to the annual Toy Fair and work in teams, looking for the best new stuff. Then we meet, compare notes and decide what to put in the catalogue," Pope explains.

TRUCE (Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children's Entertainment), founded in 1995, also promotes creative and constructive play.

The group's Shoe Box Gifts provide an antidote for the aggressive marketing of media-linked toys. Parents and teachers can help children discover ways to channel their interests into creative dramatic play, using simple props and collective imagination.

The TRUCE Media Violence Guide provides suggestions for adults who seek to minimize the effects of media culture and violence on children.

 

Screening Out Violence

According to The Lion and Lamb Project's short film Video Games: The State of the "Art":

  • 145 million Americans play video games;
  • 65 million are under the age of 17;
  • 20 million are 12 years old or younger;
  • And 92% of 2- to 17-year-olds play video or computer games.

In addition, three different studies found that approximately 75% of youths between the ages of 13 and 16 who attempted to purchase M-rated (mature) video games were able to do so.

Such M-rated games, including Duke Nukem and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, depict graphic violence, complete with blood, vomit, sickening sounds and sexual images of women with exaggerated figures and scanty clothing. They include scenes of men beating prostitutes and encourages the player to shoot naked women who call out, "Kill me!"

While the First Amendment allows for the production of such violent material, adults are responsible for protecting children from exposure to it.

Parents can't accomplish this alone; teachers, retailers and others need to monitor the video game world and take action to keep children safe from such images. Even E-rated (everybody) games include violent images, cautions Lion and Lamb's executive director Daphne White.

Also, be wary of videos and computer games with misleading terms such as "educational" and "interactive." Although such computer activities offer young users exciting choices and individualized responses to mouse clicks or screen touches, these are still no substitute for face-to-face interaction.

Children can learn to see the negative messages presented through entertainment and the manipulation involved in advertising. Teachers and parents can talk with children about what they see, and help them understand the realities that may conflict with the images on the screen.

Recently, for example, at the neighborhood video store, I heard a 5-year-old ask, "Dad, do all video games have violence?"

Another 5-year-old, Morgan (see In Focus sidebar), persuaded his friends to play regular tag instead of Power Rangers tag at school.

 

'Fighting' Back

Recently, Lion and Lamb's White, seeing the need for heightened awareness and powerful, nationwide collaboration in order to reduce the marketing of violence to children, has organized a working group of representatives from several organizations.

Lion and Lamb also promotes community events such as Violent Toy Trade-Ins and Peaceable Play Days.

Merle Forney, along with Jane and Dan Bucks, organized the first Trade-In in Columbia, Md., in 1995. Children who turned in a violent toy received a peacemaker certificate to use at a local specialty toy store. A team of sculptors helped attach the 300 collected toys to a serpent-shaped steel framework.

"A serpent sheds its skin, and the kids were also going through a transformation," recalls Forney, who now lives in Amesbury, Mass.

The first Trade-In took place on a Saturday, followed on Sunday by a "New Ways to Play Day," where parents and children participated together in a variety of creative, nonviolent play activities.

As Denise Janssen sees it, we have to find ways to work with children to build peaceful classrooms and to counteract the negative messages they get through TV and other media.

Janssen and her teaching partner, Sue Harris, find time in the busy school day to learn what their young students think and feel, through role-playing, reading and discussion of good literature, and talking about good role models from the past and present.

"When we talk about real people who have made a difference in the world, the children are fully involved and enthusiastic. These are the best discussions of the day," she says.

The challenge lies in channeling these positive images into their play.

"Kids don't know how to turn off the TV," Janssen says, "so they learn that most people who look good are good, that people who are not good-looking are bad, and that the good guys usually win."

While these simplistic associations permeate play, teachers can remind their students of the real, multidimensional people who captured their attention during classroom discussions.

With adult guidance, children can think more critically about the images they see on TV and movie screens.

"Play," asserts Janssen, "represents not only the culture in which the children live, but also the process through which they develop the skills and behaviors needed to live as conscientious adult citizens within their communities."

Play is a child's right, and protecting it is everyone's responsibility.

The Lesson of Power Ranger Tag

The only thing my 5-year-old son, Morgan, liked about kindergarten was playing with his new friends at recess.

 

"But they always play Power Rangers tag," he said as I tucked him into bed one night. "And I don't like action figure games."

 

"Why not?" I asked as I snuggled next to him on his narrow bed.

 

I wanted to take advantage of my son's opening up like this. Usually when I ask Morgan about his day I get grunts or monosyllabic responses.

 

"I don't know how to play Power Ranger tag," he said, adjusting his pillow to make room for me. "I just like regular tag."

 

Despite his distress, I felt a rush of pride. We've prohibited gunplay and network television in our house and banned violent computer games. Both sons attended a preschool where they learned to resolve conflicts with their words.

 

By raising two boys with limited exposure to violence I believe I'm doing what's best for them as well as contributing to a healthier society.

 

But now I was also struck with a different feeling. My son was being excluded from kindergarten playground games. No one told him he couldn't play, but thanks to me he was on the outskirts because he didn't know how to imitate action figures.

 

I pictured my boy standing off to the side, or playing by himself on the playground rings on his first days of school.

 

It wasn't that Morgan had never played violent games. He and his older brother held up finger guns, paper guns and cardboard guns, and crashed their plastic animals into each other, making them fall on the floor and die loud, gruesome deaths.

 

But he wasn't joining his friends at recess because he didn't know how to play this game.

 

Should I cave in and buy the fighting figures or hold out with the hope of a peaceful future? I knew the figures were never going away. Power Rangers, Pokemon, Spider Man. I'd have to find some compromise, some middle ground.

 

The next Saturday, Morgan and I stopped at a neighbor's yard sale. His allowance jingled in his pocket as he rummaged through a cardboard box full of action figures — hulking muscle men with brightly painted costumes striking fighting poses.

 

Morgan looked up at me with a resigned look.

 

"Mommy, could I buy these?"

 

He sighed.

 

I could tell by his voice he expected me to launch into my violent toy spiel. Instead I did something else. I told him as long as he didn't use them on any person or the dog, yes, he could buy them.

 

He bought three, and with a huge grin he stuffed them into his pockets. He played with them for a couple of weeks, and then tossed them into his toy bin where they gradually sank to the bottom.

 

A few days later I asked Morgan about recess again. I pictured him playing alone and looking lost, but he quickly assured me he was playing with his friends.

 

"Did you learn the Power Rangers game?"

 

"No."

 

"What did you do?

 

"I asked them to play regular tag."

 

He looked at me with a bemused smile.

 

"And guess what, Mommy? They did."