Beware Killjoy Toys



Killjoy Toys: Beware of Playthings That Snuff Out Play

Alliance for Childhood warns that "child-powered" play is endangered, as TRUCE names good and bad toys of the year in its latest Toy Action Guide

COLLEGE PARK, MD, November 20, 2003 -- The Alliance for Childhood joined forces with TRUCE today to issue a joint warning about "killjoy toys"—unhealthy products sold as toys that inhibit rather than promote imaginative, creative play.

The warning included suggestions for healthy play and a list of toys for parents to avoid. The "toys to avoid" list includes the Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator action figure with a rifle and grenade launcher, the V-Tech Bright Lights cell phone for babies, and the Barbie "Shop with Me" cash register.

"Toys that scare children, focus on violence, use electronics to overstimulate, and take control of play away from youngsters contribute to the disappearance of imaginative, make-believe play and can cause behavioral problems," the leaders of the two organizations said.

Wheelock College Prof. Diane Levin, a founder of TRUCE (Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment), and Joan Almon, a veteran kindergarten teacher and coordinator of the U.S. Alliance for Childhood, released their recommendations and warnings in a joint statement.

Levin said TRUCE’s 9th annual Toy Action Guide (online at reported what she called "disturbing new trends" this year, including toys that lure little girls into focusing on teenage behavior or tie play to non-nutritious brand-name foods.

"Products like these can contribute to obesity and eating disorders as well as promote young children’s interest in inappropriate content," Levin said.

TRUCE is a national organization of educators concerned about the impact of media and commercial culture on children.

The Alliance for Childhood, a nonprofit partnership of educators, health professionals, and other advocates for children, warned that these toy trends "contribute to a growing problem—the disappearance of children’s imaginative, make-believe play."

The Alliance also released a brief guide for parents and educators on why imaginative play is disappearing and how it can be revived.

Almon said early childhood teachers and health workers report that young children increasingly seem unable to generate their own ideas for play—a critical factor in healthy development.

"Many high-tech and media-linked toys are highly structured, provide their own scripts, and take control of play away from children," said Almon. "Some children have actually forgotten how to play, or they find playing on their own—minus screens and battery-powered gadgets—too boring. In other cases, their play is violent or disturbed.

"Real play," said Almon, "is child-powered and child-initiated—like social ‘let’s pretend’ play and the rough and tumble of outdoor games and adventures in nature. It evolves and changes over time. This is play that children can dive into with zest. It’s active, fresh every day, never runs out of batteries, never breaks, and needs no warning labels about graphic visuals or audio."

Levin, a child development expert and author of two books on play, said imaginative play is essential for children’s healthy academic, social, emotional, and physical development. "For real play, simple objects that children can control and use in many ways—like a cloth thrown over the dining room table or a big empty box—make the best toys. That’s because they respond, at the touch of a child’s imagination, with a wide range of dramatic possibilities."

"A good toy is 10 percent toy and 90 percent child," said Almon. "Give children simple play materials such as logs and stones, cloths and ropes, and they will create worlds. They play out every possible situation from birth to death and everything in between.

"In the process, they gain mastery over themselves and the world around them, and they discover the joys and intricacies of human relations. The capacity for play is inborn in all children. Its presence in their lives is essential if they are to grow and flourish."

Levin suggested that an inexpensive, pro-play gift is a simple cardboard shoebox, personally loaded by parents or other gift-givers with basic spurs to the child’s own imagination. Parents can assemble a "rescue/first aid" shoebox, for example, with simple items like bandages, a sling, surgical mask, eye patch, and flashlight. Or they can put together an "outdoor fun" box, with jump rope, bean bags, a small ball, bubbles, sidewalk chalk — whatever the imagination conjures.

The TRUCE list of toys to avoid includes many that glorify violence. Levin noted that children, especially boys, often like to play war games. But toy weapons, especially flashy electronic ones, can lock them into violent play, she said.

"A gun is always a gun. But if children use a finger or a stick for a gun, it can change into something else instantly. That’s the way of healthy childhood play—it’s continually developing, responding to the most pressing issues and interests of the growing child."

Both Levin and Almon warned that the demise of imaginative, child-powered play is a looming crisis in children’s health and learning that is only beginning to be recognized.

Media contacts:

Joan Almon, Coordinator, U.S. Alliance for Childhood ( 301-779-1033.
Dr. Diane Levin, Professor of Education, Wheelock College, and co-editor, TRUCE Toy Action Guide ( 617-879-2167.
Dr. Susan Linn (Alliance for Childhood partner), Harvard Medical School, and co-founder, Stop Commercial Exploitation of Children ( (a nonprofit coalition opposing the marketing of products to children): 617-232-8390, ext. 2328.
Betsy Taylor (Alliance for Childhood partner), executive director, Center for a New American Dream ( (Taylor is author of the new book, What Kids Really Want That Money Can’t Buy): 301-891-3683.
Daphne White, executive director, The Lion and Lamb Project ( (a nonprofit group that releases an annual "Dirty Dozen" list of violent toys, video games, and DVDs to be avoided, as well as the top 20 toys): 301-654-3091.