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: 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.

Join the PPBB Community in conversation on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

Color Lines

Imagine a toy store where the aisles are seperated by color. The toys in the different-colored aisles contrast sharply from each other, and send strong messages to the children viewing them about what is and is not accepted and expected from children of the other color. They also send strong messages about which colored child should be in which aisle, and where their interests lay. For the most part, the children accept the color lines and stick to their aisle. Grown ups seem to have no problem with it.

The Black Aisle for African American kids. The White Aisle for Caucasion kids.
Oh, is that offensive? We wouldn’t dream of segregating toys like that, you’re right.
I meant the Purple Aisle for Christians, The Blue Aisle for Jews, and the far Red Aisle for Muslims.
No, wrong again? Still offensive? We don’t seperate children by race or religion. We wouldn’t teach, and certainly not market nor build profits off intolerance, stereotypes, and limitation like that, got it.

Now imagine I’m talking about Pink and Blue.
Still. Offensive.

When we limit our children, we limit our children.

Garage Sale Genius

The kids and I were at a garage sale this morning, tipped off by a girlfriend of mine that the boy who lived at that house would be getting rid of massive amounts of super hero toys. Since Benny (3yo) has become a newly-minted Spiderman aficionado, and because he has fully potty trained in under four days, I thought it would be fun to let him pick out some “big boy toys”.

We pull up to the house, and see that the driveway is full of two long rows of low tables, about 24 inches off of the ground, completely FULL of toys. Smart merchandising, Garage Sale Family.

My kids descend upon the table like locusts, and Amelia spots and scoops up a stuffed killer whale and dolphin in under 14 seconds. Impressive.

Benny, new at this game, doesn’t know what to do at first so he follows his sis to the stuffed animal section, and picks up two kittens he likes because he says they remind him of “Milo and Otis”. Directly behind him lays the selection of super hero paraphernalia, and he does a little jig right there on the spot. He has struck super hero gold. He picks out three 12inch tall figures – Batman, Superman, and I think Ironman (still learning all the guys). He then selects two sandwich bags stuffed with all of the guys – Spiderman, Captain America, Hulk, Iceman, and some guy who looks like he’s made of gorgonzola.  Amelia finds a giant 24inch plush Batman she likes, but then decides she wants to give it to our little friend Chloe who really loves Batman. Chloe has a twin brother Connor, so Amelia busies herself finding him a toy as well.

Here’s where the genius comes in — as I’m watching them discuss the merits of each new toy, I take notice as to how drastically different this is from shopping in a toy store. There is no color-coded aisles here. No boy side, no girl side. Toys aren’t segregated by gender, they are divided into “Type of Toy”. I know, it almost makes you want to fall off of your chair in shock. Amelia never would have found nature/science stuff in the pink-washed girl aisles, nor would Benny have found kittens in the dark blue-green aisles dripping with testerone.

More goodness — there is no packaging, a two-fold bonus: no gender coding from color, and no preconceived instruction as to how the toy should be used, or who should be using it. And since everything is out of the package and 24inches off of the ground, it is perfect for little people to explore and touch what they might want to purchase.

Earlier that morning we had been at Target, buying paint brushes, art tablets, and finger paint for a birthday party we were headed to. I try to avoid the toy aisles at Big Box shops whenever I can, and we usually shop for toys at independent, locally-owned shops or handmade online (read: etsy).

$8.00 later I am thanking Sam, the kid who sold us all of his old toys, and happy with our bag full of stuff that involves zero garbage or twist ties when we get home. And since the toys came with no instructions, the kids are in complete control — the killer whale and dolphin immediately get integrated into the Shedd Aquarium that Amelia retro-fitted our doll house into, and the stuffed kittens become the children of Batman and they are packing to go on vacation to Texas.

$8 worth of Sam’s junk bought me an afternoon of peace and quiet while the kids played, but it also bought me an really great experience for my kids to shop for toys the way it should be.

Let imagination rule. Long live childhood.

Benny chose kittens and super heroes.

Amelia found more sea creatures to love.

Introducing: Whimsy Bees

At Pigtail Pals, we strongly believe that girls deserve palettes of rich color and a diversity of characters in their childhood. The products in their world should honor the stories dancing around in their heads while they grow and grow. I wanted to offer more designs for girls that reflected and respected their dreams, imaginations, and notions of whimsy and creativity when they play.

About a year ago, I bought a wooden top for my daughter at a garden shop. It was a fat bumble bee, and she would spin it, and then stand up and spin herself, collapsing into a pile of giggles when she got too dizzy. That moment to me was the quintessential essence of pure childhood delight and innocence. I noticed that when she played with her little friends, they were most happy when buzzing around like crazed, screaming, furniture-climbing, zig zagging bumble bees.

The Whimsy Bee designs were largely inspired by my daugther and our little family friends and their interests and the glimpes I got into their imaginative worlds while they played. I wanted the designs to look like a snapshot, a brief little peek into their world of creation and pretend. I wanted to celebrate the beauty of play and the pure goodness of a small child’s imagination.

I would like to introduce to you the first six designs for Whimsy Bees. A pair of caterpillar tamers, a dinosaur bubble bath, a Pigtail Pals version of princess (look closely!), an underwater sea adventure, a trio of lucky pirates, and a ice cream cone picnic of Jurassic proportions. I think the little girls in our lives will love and enjoy and giggle over these designs that display just how simple and beautiful childhood can be. 

Long live imagination, wild and free.

Three cheers to adventurous, daring, and smart little girls and all that they can be!















An enormous thank you to my artist Melissa, who helped me bring my funny looking sketches to life! You are talented and amazing to work with!

These designs are on the site and available for purchase. All of our new shirt styles (long & short sleeve) will be up by this weekend. I hope you get as much enjoyment out of these designs as we had creating them!