Childhood Should Not Be Defined By Limitation: The Powerful Play Experience

Media has a strong influence on us and these days media is everywhere. Media helps craft our norms, leverages our opinions, inspires our wants and desires.

“Media” sounds powerful, doesn’t it? It is. For children, toys are a form of media. Toys can confine children, imposing gender stereotypes and finite versions of play. Childhood was never meant to be defined by limitation.

Toys can be playtime companions, imagination igniting objects, teaching tools, and concept creators for something bigger and better than what originally came out of the box. There are no better experts in the world on creativity than children.

Lightbulb IdeaOpen-ended play means the child does the creating, not the toy. This usually means no batteries. The toy is character free and gender stereotype free, the toy does not tell a story to the child. The only thing that brings that object to life is the creativity swirling inside the child’s mind.

There are no ‘boy toys’. There are no ‘girl toys’. Toys are for the imagination, which by definition should have no restrictions.

Sidewalk chalkOutside Toys:

bubbles, sidewalk chalk,hula hoops, sporting/biking/scooters, water station (cups, buckets, paint brushes, spoons, etc), sprinklers, squirt guns or water shooters, materials to build a fort or tent hideaway, bug collectors/binoculars/magnifying glass, picnic blanket and play dishes

 
Rainbow of toysInside Toys:

cars, trains and wooden tracks, people figures and dollhouse, dolls and stuffed animals, dress up box, blocks, puzzles, magnets, dominoes, art supplies, science experiments, materials to build a fort or tent hideaway, Play Doh and clay,  board games, area to set up a play school/restaurant/bank/hotel/business/hospital

Some other play ideas we love:

Idea Factory:  The power of “tinkering” = have boxes of various sizes, washed out food containers, art scraps, fasteners, tape, crayons and markers so kids can build anything they want. (The Maker Movement is the tech side of this idea.)

Turn a laundry basket or large cardboard box in anything.

Self Portrait: Have kiddo trace their hands and feet, and then fill in this unique style of self portrait, adding in special interesting or word clouds of things important to them.

Lemonade Stand: This is a busy project more than play, excellent for bigger kids and offers so many opportunities for learning business skills. There is planning, organization, money management, promotion, and customer service skills that will be gained from the experience. (Not to mention the art of upselling, as in charging your neighbors an extra fifty cents to play hop scotch after they finish their lemonade.)

What are some creative ways that your children play and discover? 

 

 

MAW Profile PicMelissa Atkins Wardy is a speaker, media consultant, and the author of Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween. She is the creator and owner of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a company that has been offering empowering apparel and gifts to Full of Awesome kids since 2009 www.pigtailpals.com.

Find her at www.melissaatkinswardy.com. You can read her blog at: www.pigtailpalsblog.com or connect with her on Facebook (Pigtail Pals Ballcap Buddies) and Twitter (@PigtailPals).

A Troubling Toy Trend

Movie and television licensing has all but taken over the toy aisle, popular characters and series dominating sales and leaving little to no room for non-character toys. So what does this mean for our families when we shop for toys?

This spells trouble for those of us looking for imaginative, open-ended toys that wait for the child to create the story line and character. Gender balance and diversity will leave much to be desired, as heroes are almost always white males and licensed characters come with easily identifiable gender roles. The negative, myopic influences from Hollywood are now packaged up for our kids. And the flip side is, we get less interesting, diverse media because a consideration for green lighting a series is “Can it sell toys ?”

Play time should be an exchange of ideas from child to child, not Hollywood to child. Toys are losing their imagination, instead turning kids into trained consumers.

Toys are losing their imagination, instead turning kids into trained consumers.

Toys are losing their imagination, instead turning kids into trained consumers.

Families will have to work even harder at not allowing media to become all-consuming lifestyle brands as kids will want every product that follows the theater release from toys to backpacks, t-shirts to toothbrushes (that always come at a higher cost, to boot). We’re going to find ourselves saying a lot of “No’s” as we walk through the toy aisles and bug-eye at the cost of the base command ship needed to complete the play experience of the dozen plastic action figures for which you spent fifteen bucks each. How many kids are going to settle for a cardboard box as you say, “Here, make a spaceship out of this”?

And finally, independent toy makers will have an even more difficult time getting into stores because retailers will want to give shelf real estate to lucrative licensed products that are sure to sell. The toy industry is moving farther away from creating amazing play time as its focus is profit driven for corporate shareholders.

In the land of creativity and pretend we have nearly lost the desire to take risks and introduce new, exciting ideas. And that is the exact opposite of what childhood is all about.

Read more about this toy trend from the New York Times’ Hitching a Toy to a Star: Superhero Movies Create Opportunity for Toymakers.

(Hat tip to our friends at Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood for the article link.)

 

Melissa Atkins Wardy is a speaker, media consultant, and the author of Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween. She is the creator and owner of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a company that has been offering empowering apparel and gifts to Full of Awesome kids since 2009 www.pigtailpals.com.

Find her at www.melissaatkinswardy.com. You can read her blog at: www.pigtailpalsblog.com or connect with her on Facebook (Pigtail Pals Ballcap Buddies) and Twitter (@PigtailPals).

The Barbie Project: Be Mine, Valentine

With Valentine’s Day around the corner my kids and I have started to discuss what type of cards and treats they want to bring to their classmates at school for the Valentine exchange. In recent years we have begun to make our own cards that focus on friendship and kindness, since romance and the idea of significant others is none too appealing to a first and third grader.

Amelia, the third grader, shared with me that she would like to have her cards focus on being nice because some of the girls in her class were having a hard time remembering how to be good friends . Our conversation happened one afternoon while we played Barbies, and as she relayed some of her experiences to me we began to incorporate them into our play and have our dolls act out the scenarios and try out different resolutions.

First, we focused on setting up Amelia’s new Barbie camper. We both fell in love with this camper and as we put the stickers in place Amelia started listing destinations to travel to and the adventures her Barbies would go on. I love any toy that teaches girls they can take up space in the world and go off on their own adventures. I would have loved this camper when I was a kid!

ZOMG the camper is amazing! VERY pink, but amazing!

ZOMG the camper is amazing! VERY pink, but amazing!

I shared stories with Amelia about my travels with my friends across Europe and South Africa and that while the trips were amazing and we had tons of fun, we also had to use a lot of conflict resolution, patience, and respect with each other because they were long trips in new places and that can get emotionally and physically exhausting. As Amelia listened she placed a sticker on the camper’s fold-out flat screen tv – an image of Barbie and her friends surfing. I pointed out that sometimes, friends don’t always want to do the same things but that we need to respect individual preferences and interests. We talked about speaking our truth, compromise, and taking a break from friends who aren’t respectful or who don’t allow us the space to be ourselves.

Amelia and I decided our Barbies were headed to the Badlands of South Dakota (I was thinking more like Miami) and as we made our way west in our exceptionally bright pink camper (so, so pink) we began to incorporate Amelia’s friendship struggles into our play, like the friend who turns everything into a competition, the friend who puts down other people to build herself up, and the friend who uses emotionally manipulating tactics to gain a sense of control in her relationships. As our dolls talked to each other Amelia was free to express her knee-jerk reactions to all the mean-spirited friend drama, literally backhanding one of my dolls after a particularly nasty fight at the camper’s breakfast bar that ended in a Barbie Brawl.

Nothing pretty about a Barbie brawl.

Nothing pretty about a Barbie brawl.

Obviously it was over the top, but it allowed Amelia to let her anger out in a way that didn’t hurt anyone (sorry, Astronaut Barbie) and gave us the opportunity to talk about what would really happen if she choose for a slap to the face to be her reaction. It gave me the chance to allow her the space to be angry and even poorly behaved vis-a-vis Barbie, and then redirect her to think about some more positive, less misdemeanor-like responses to friends who just can’t seem to get it together. Our Barbies would then practice using the other ideas and verbal responses we came up with.

As we were cleaning up, we started thinking about phrases and designs for her class Valentines cards we need to make this weekend. Amelia suggested, “If we robbed a bank and stole a car, the only way the police would catch us is with a lucky star.”

Huh. Not what I had been thinking. I suggested, “If our friendship had a map it would lead straight to my heart.” That was quickly shot down with Amelia exclaiming she did NOT want the boys thinking she loved them, followed by multiple gagging sounds. Amelia suggested “Your friendship feels like a hug around my heart.” I think we have a winner.

 

Learn more about The Barbie Project and meet the other bloggers on the project.

On twitter, look for hashtag #BarbieProject and join the conversation.

{Disclosure: This is a compensated campaign as part of The Barbie Project. All thoughts and ideas are my own.}

Barbie Project

The Barbie Project: All In An Afternoon

I love spying on my kids while they play, the ability to peek into their imaginations is an incredible gift. Their make believe world does not follow the rules of the real one and in this space of pretend they are free to create without limitations or boundaries.

I’m willing to bet most people assume Barbie play is all about “fluff”, like the weddings/princesses/spa day/shopping spree themes we stereotype girls into. What is closer to the truth is far more intriguing, as I’ve seen Amelia and her friends create worlds much richer in story and context. The depth of the characters they assign to their Barbie dolls has been really fascinating to watch.

Amelia’s Barbies came to us as a surfer, Sea World dolphin trainer, SCUBA diver/treasure hunter, pilot, dog trainer, astronaut, nurse, musician, and an entrepreneur. Over these past few months I’ve watched Amelia’s Barbies transform into National Geographic explorers tenting off the side of a cliff, they’ve built a dream house truly representative of my little girl’s dreams, they’ve hunted man-eating lions, they’ve done lots of camping, they’ve hosted galas with the Queen to show off their yield from archaeological expeditions and they’ve even discovered hidden tombs of Egyptian pharaohs.

Amelia is really interested in ancient Egypt right now and was ecstatic over this Cleopatra Barbie I was able to find for her.

Amelia is really interested in ancient Egypt right now and was ecstatic over this Cleopatra Barbie I was able to find for her.

Kids play what they learn, as parents it is our job to provide them with learning opportunities that show them how big the world is that is waiting for them. It can be exhausting to keep up with and feed the wonder of a child’s mind, but that effort is ALWAYS worth it!

Here are some things we do at our house to really enrich Amelia’s play:

1. Provide context — books, videos, museum exhibits, library visits, a local special-interest club, and websites (with parental supervision) can all be used to build knowledge and create a foundation upon which her play will be based.

Example: When Amelia became super interested in being a National Geographic Explorer I took her to hear a NatGeo wildlife correspondent Dr. Mireya Mayor speak at the University of Wisconsin, and later this week we’ll be visiting the National Geographic Museum in Washington DC. We often hear “you can’t be what you can’t see”, so I’m taking the responsibility to show her women who have blazed trails for her!

2. Provide opportunity — Screens off and imaginations on! Set up an atmosphere in the house where imagination is tops and other distractions like a TV are at a minimum. Keeps toys stored where she can easily get them out to engage in play. Sit on the floor with your child as she sets up her toys and offer ideas to help develop the story, building on clues she is giving you. “How about this” and “Let’s pretend that” can be powerful ignition switches for her mind!

Example: A cardboard box is never just a cardboard box when a child is involved. A cardboard box, or several in various sizes, is like a blank canvas. It could be transformed into a camper, a rescue boat, space shuttle, underwater research vessel, mermaid palace made of pearl, a school, a volcano, a restaurant, a restaurant inside a volcano….

3. Change location — She already thinks playing with Barbie is fun….but what if you build a blanket fort first? Or turn the space under the dining room table into her space station/hospital/castle/company world headquarters? What about turning off the lights in the bathroom and turning the (empty) bathtub into a cave? Trust me, the extra mess is completely worth the hours of fun she’ll have!

Example: Maybe your daughter really loves the fairy or princess Barbies. Who says Barbie has to stay inside? Go build a fairy house out in the garden or during a family hike in the woods. Construct a snow palace for her princess Barbies once winter arrives. And winter always arrives, doesn’t it?

4. Art projects — With tools like Pinterest at our fingertips, finding art or learning projects to do at home is a cinch! Amelia and I have used these to make back drops for her play with Barbie, and if I knew how to sew I’m sure we’d find some pretty amazing patterns for various outfits and gowns. If you notice a recurring theme in your daughter’s play, like running a jewelry shop or something, capitalize on that! Together explore jewelry making, sign up for a local artisan class, or study jewelry from a specific culture or time period. Amelia and I have researched jewelry from ancient Egypt quite a bit over the past few months.

Example: At Goodwill this past weekend I found an Egyptian mummy art kit. The steps include casting and wrapping a little plastic body into a mummy and then painting the sarcophagus it will go into. Oh, it just so happens the sarcophagus is the perfect size for a Barbie! I’m hoping Amelia will choose to entomb a few of her dolls as right now she is going through several rolls of toilet paper a week mummifying all of them over and over again!

5. Dress Up Clothes — Everyone knows one of the best parts about Barbie is the fashion! Changing her outfit 307 times in an afternoon allows Barbie to become so many different things. Children also love to change into character. With all the Halloween costumes about to go on clearance and consignment shops stuffed with great choices, now is the perfect time to fill a dress up trunk for your home. Amelia loves having a great variety of outfits and props to choose from: pirate, witch, doctor, queen, mermaid, pioneer, etc.

6. Encourage leadership — Whether her Barbie owns her own business, runs a kingdom or a country, or is the lead on an expedition, one of the great parts of playing with Barbie is that girls are putting female characters in title roles. Expand those characters you overhear her creating and bring some of them to life by introducing her to powerful queens and female rulers from centuries past and present. Get to know the female entrepreneurs behind Barbie’s 2014 Career Doll of the Year Entrepreneur, like Reshma Saujani of Girls Who Code. When you see her using one of her dolls as a head of state, ask your daughter what issues are important to her and the people she is governing. Maybe she is working to stave off a deadly epidemic or she is leading people in planting community gardens in vacant lots and rooftops to end childhood hunger. You’d be surprised what issues kids are really passionate about. Unless we ask we may be totally unaware of their vision and solutions.

Example: If you notice your daughter always has her dolls running businesses along side her Barbie Entrepreneur doll, ask her lots of questions about the business — what service they provide or what product they make, how many people work there, how did they come up with these ideas, etc. You could even take it one step further and create business cards, a business plan, organize business travel, have Barbie address the city council on an issue impacting her business or clients. Doing all of this with Amelia led us to having a lemonade stand this summer that she and her little brother planned, budgeted, marketed, and staffed. At the end of the day the kids had earned just over $70 they split between two charities that are important to them.

7. Go Beyond — If your daughter keeps playing Barbie Wedding or Barbie Fashion Shoot, don’t underestimate what that could mean. First, the wedding business is a multi-billion dollar industry so me thinks it isn’t too shabby a line of work to get into. I wouldn’t write that off just yet. Suggest it be a destination wedding, and pour over maps or travel books from the library together. Or use that story line to build interpersonal and problem solving skills, like maybe two members of the wedding party are in a fight and the wedding coordinator has to settle things down. How would your daughter approach the situation?  Second, there are a ton of logistics that go into these two events, which necessitates someone in a leadership role. That little someone can review travel and hotel brochures, learn how to make reservations, create passports, practice new words from a foreign language, build the hotel her team will be staying at, plan a menu of ethnic food, learn the basics of a camera, study textiles, schedule the models and photographers, bake and decorate a cake…..

 

The possibilities of play are endless. You just have to be willing to follow where they lead. Your daughter most certainly is.

Amelia's busy work during our trip to Washington DC. I imagine Cleopatra Barbie will be joining the road trip!

Amelia’s busy work during our trip to Washington DC. I imagine Cleopatra Barbie will be joining the road trip!

 

Learn more about The Barbie Project and meet the other bloggers on the project.

On twitter, look for hashtag #BarbieProject and join the conversation.

{Disclosure: This is a compensated campaign as part of The Barbie Project. All thoughts and ideas are my own.}

 

Barbie Project

 

Melissa Atkins Wardy owns and operates Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a small business in Wisconsin, where our shirts are printed and shipped with love. 

Find Melissa Atkins Wardy’s book “Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, Birth to Tween” on Amazon.

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