TOADY 2016: The Case for Hulk Smash Play-Doh

by: 

TRUCE Steering Committee member

Each year, the Toy Industry Association gathers to present its TOTY (Toy Of The Year) Awards. In honor of the industry that has led the way in commercializing childhood, CCFC will present its TOADY (Toys Oppressive And Destructive to Young Children) Award for the Worst Toy of the Year. From thousands of toys that stifle creativity, lionize brands, and promote screen-based entertainment at the expense of children’s play, CCFC and our partners have selected six exceptional finalists for 2016. Below, TRUCE makes the case for Play Doh’s Hulk Smash kit.

When CCFC asked TRUCE to recommend the worst toy of the year, we immediately thought of Play Doh! Not what you’d expect, is it? While this Hulk and Ironman Play Doh set may not seem like the most egregious candidate, we are deeply troubled by it. Here’s why. Back in the mid-1970’s when my children were toddlers, I discovered that Play Doh was a perfect play material. I started making several batches of the home-made stuff.  But the commercial variety was relatively affordable, had a silky texture, came in vivid colors, and stayed soft for a long time if sealed back in its simple cylindrical containers.  

As very young children, my girls kneaded their Play Doh, pounded it, rolled it, broke it into pieces and re-squished it into multicolored and strangely shaped blobs.  At this point in their development, the girls were basically enjoying the tactile qualities of this soft, malleable material.  As they became a little older, they rolled the soft dough logs into snakes and pounded balls into flat disks while simultaneously acquiring the conservation skills identified by developmental psychologist Jean Piaget.  Soon they were acquiring and practicing basic math concepts: one-to-one correspondence as they placed a single piece of dough on an individual plate; counting as they increased the number of plates or the number of Play Doh creations.  Later on true representational play, language development, and social interaction took off.  We didn’t need elaborate tools – perhaps some rolling pins, cookie cutters, and a garlic press enabled the creation of food, creatures, and structures.  The play scripts grew more and more imaginative and elaborate as family and friends joined in.

Of course, I was a trained teacher, and I could name what I was observing.  But the beauty of the original Play Doh is that the children’s learning was self-generated even if the adult sweeping up the crumbs had no idea about child development.   No formal teaching was required – Hey, I was their mother (not their teacher) and like most parents, I enjoyed watching my children develop as I played along!

Now I’m a grandmother and as I shop for my grandchildren I am shocked at the evolution in the marketing of this basically magical open-ended and stimulating material.  The marketplace is now overloaded with Play Doh “sets” that limit children’s free play and imagination with scripted uses. Many of these sets encourage gender-stereotyping such as a Police Boy and Fire Truck set that seems designed to appeal especially to manly little boys or a Crazy-Cuts set aimed at young female fashionistas who can practice making “creative hairstyles.”  More troubling is the multitude of toys that are linked to media from the Disney industry to the Star Wars industry -- a cross marketing tactic that is designed to increase the revenues of both the toy and entertainment industries.  Most concerning of all are the branded kits marketed as appropriate for preschoolers that are in fact associated with PG-13 – rated movies such as the Marvel series, including this Hulk and Ironman kit; such “toys” encourage children as young as three to recreate violent scenes from superhero movies. We are disappointed in Fisher-Price for no longer providing the toy which fosters childhood creativity.

Adults purchasing toys in this complicated holiday marketplace should beware that trusted brands are not keeping the best interest of young children in mind.  Our job is not to be censors but to be wise about the superior value of open-ended toys and play materials that promote rich learning experiences for young children who cannot protect themselves from unscrupulous marketers. 

TRUCE (Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Childhood Entertainment) is a grassroots organization of educators who prepare materials and provide information to help parents and educators work to counteract the harmful impact of commercial culture, media, and marketing on children's play, learning, and behavior. Find resources and learn more at www.truceteachers.org

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