An Art Activity A Day…

…Keeps the Spirit At Play!

I just found a great list of 31 art activities that Jean from The Artful Parent came up with back in March of 2009 (when Quetzal Sol was born!) which details one art activity, excursion, or cooking exercise a day for the whole month.  The list is incredible!  I can’t wait to work on this list with Quetzal Sol.  But we will take our time and work on it over the next few years I am sure!

31 Activities to Do with Young Children

1. Tissue paper candle holders: tissue paper pieces applied to glass jars with Mod Podge or glue.

2. Make birdseed pinecone treats to hang in the trees, then watch the birds and squirrels they attract.

3. Start a nature journal and try observational drawing outdoors on a warm day (or from the window on a cold day). Also, see Lori’s tips on introducing observational drawing to the young or reluctant child.

4. Pack a field bag with binoculars, magnifying glass, tweezers, bird book, art supplies, etc. and head to the arboretum to explore and observe.

5. Make paper plate masks for dress up and pretend play.

6. Make tissue paper stained glass using wax paper and liquid starch.

7. Cook soft pretzels (thanks Erica!).

8. Try clean mud with soap and toilet paper. Here are Julie’s notes: I use liquid watercolors instead of food coloring! Oh, and the cheaper the t.p. the better for this recipe. If you add a little water, you get an actual moldable substance. The more water you add, the softer and fluffier and squishier it gets.

9. Decorate and fill a Fun Box with Maia (see below).

10. Make yummy baked doughnuts.

11. Try tissue paper staining again with actual bleeding tissue paper. Wow! I just realized much of MaryAnn Kohl’s Preschool Art book is on Google. I wonder what other books are on there?.

12. Try nature stamping with leaves and flowers and a stamp pad. Perhaps do these in the nature journal.

13. Revisit fruit and vegetable printing with paints and a variety of produce such as onions, apples, cabbage, grapefruit.

14. Make pizza faces a la Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots or happy face open sandwiches. Add bell pepper smiles, olive eyes, etc to pizza or bagels with cream cheese. Add raisins and banana to a peanut butter sandwich.

15. Trace Maia’s body and help her fill in her body parts (bones, heart, etc).

16. Make salt dough beads or claydoh beadsLast time we tried a different recipe and they fell apart under Maia’s rough handling, although they were still well worth making.

17. Visit the art museum or the science museum.

18. Germinate grocery store produce: avocados, lemons, oranges, sweet potatoes, potatoes, pineapple, apples, squash, beans, etc.

19. Make wool felted balls or eggs using raw, carded wool and a big bowl of warm soapy water following SouleMama’s instructions in The Creative Family. Here’s an online tutorial for a different felted ball method, and another forfelting with kids.

20. Make handmade paper shapes per Tracy’s tutorial. Add flower seeds to the mix and give as gifts that can be grown in the garden.

21. Make a found object sculpture with popsicle sticks, paper clips, and buttons such as the one shown on Art Projects for Kids. You’ll have to scroll down a little bit to get to it because I wasn’t able to get the permalink to work for some reason.

22. Make Montesorri Mama’s awesome ball tube. Also, set up a simple ramp (perhaps a cookie sheet set on some blocks) and test roll different kinds of objects.

23. Try some marbleized paper with oil and food coloring or liquid watercolors — a project I know Maia would absolutely love.

24. Collage/decorate an unfinished wood frame then use it to frame and hang a piece of Maia’s artwork.

25. Cook popovers, one of Maia’s favorite cooking (and eating) projects.

25. Make sandpaper art by drawing on coarse sandpaper with crayon stubs then melt at low heat in the oven.

26. Make a kite and fly it.

27. Dye white flowers by setting the stems in water mixed with food coloring.

28. Make butter by putting cream in a jar and shaking it. We did this when I was a kid (we had a cow), and I’d like to try it with Maia.

29. Try watercolor pencils. Also, draw with washable markers then take out in the rain or spray with water.

30. Make bean face collages. Use glue to draw a face, then fill in the features with various kinds of beans.

31. Grow a rock sugar crystal.

 

Advertisements

Art Year Round

MaryAnn Kohl, author of over 20 art books for teachers and children including, “Art with Anything: 52 Weeks of Fun Using Everyday Stuff,” discusses why art is an important part in the lives of children provides several suggestions to parents on how to include art in their child’s life at home.  This post is originally found here by Janine Boldrin.

Why is it important for parents to include art based activities in their child’s life?

In raising a well-rounded child, the arts should be included along with reading, playing actively, eating well, and learning new things. Early exposure to visual art, music, or drama promotes activity in the brain; like exercising a muscle, it will be stronger and more able to handle hard work. Art encourages being inventive and being a critical thinker and adds to development of self-esteem, self-discipline, cooperation, and self-motivation.

What suggestions do you have for parents who are stuck at coloring pages and Playdough?

Art is a creative process, not a pre-planned product. Picture this: A child is given cotton balls, glue, scraps of paper, and a paper plate. These materials become part of a creative experiment for a child as they manipulate and explore the possibilities of a simple collage. There is no planned design or product. There is no right or wrong way for art to turn out; there is only the child’s way. And of course, the adult is important in helping find materials that the child can use.

While many families have crayons, paints, and paper in their home, what would you suggest as far as supplies that parents should consider exploring with their child?

Found materials are always treasures for collage, like buttons, beads, thread, pebbles, cotton balls, and on and on; look around the kitchen and garage and you’ll be surprised what you find! Kids love sticking things into a block of packing Styrofoam, such as bamboo skewers, golf tees, or pipe cleaners. But a reminder: always use quality crayons, markers, scissors and glue for the best art experiences.

What do you recommend to parents who are worried about turning art into another scheduled activity for their child?

Art in the home should be as natural as the activity of sitting and reading a book or playing a board game. It doesn’t have to be time consuming or demanding or messy. Making art an easily accessible quiet activity for children to perform at their leisure and will balance the busy schedules some families keep.

Janine Boldrin is a freelance writer who lives in West Point, N.Y with her family

 

Marker Holders!!!

Now why didn’t I think of that?!?!?!  This post comes from Jean of The Artful Parent but the marker holder instructions are found in MaryAnn Kohl’s First Art.  Brilliant!!!!

 

markers

Maia and I made marker holders as valentine’s gifts for our Art Group friends. We found the project in MaryAnn F Kohl’s First Art. I had seen and admired one that a friend had made and wanted to try it myself. The marker holders are great because the tops can’t get lost and it’s easier for toddlers to keep the markers from drying out. They are simple to make. You’re supposed to use an old metal flat-bottomed pan, such as a loaf pan. You’ll mix and pour plaster of paris into the metal pan, then stick the marker tops (not the whole marker) halfway into the plaster and let it harden before putting the markers back in the tops. Unfortunately I didn’t follow directions and used plastic bowls which turn out to act like molds (the plaster form slips out!) and which tilt when trying to put the markers in. I think they still work okay (I hope), but next time I’ll follow the directions!!

Waldorf Education in a Nutshell

Interview with Sarah Baldwin, March 18, 2010 from Moon Child

Are all Waldorf teachers asked to describe Waldorf education “in a nutshell” as often as I am? I suspect so. One of my esteemed colleagues, Nancy Foster, a veteran teacher who taught at  Acorn Hill Waldorf Kindergarten in Silver Spring, MD even wrote a book entitled In a Nutshell, answering parent’s questions about Waldorf education.

Even though it’s a nearly impossible task, given the muti-faceted nature of Waldorf education and the almost-too-many-to-name aspects that differentiate a Waldorf classroom from the educational mainstream, I did my best to give a “nutshell” picture of a Waldorf early childhood program recently for the wonderful crafting blog, Wee Folk Art. Here it is, reprinted in its entirety, with thanks to Kimara for asking such great questions that were a pleasure to answer!

Kimara: In a nutshell, what distinguishes a Waldorf classroom from a more traditional educational environment?

Sarah: There are so many facets and layers to Waldorf education that it is nearly impossible to describe it in a neat, tidy package, even though I am frequently asked to do so! Since I am an early childhood teacher, I will highlight three of the key elements that distinguish a Waldorf early childhood classroom from that of a more mainstream preschool.

A homelike environment with an emphasis on natural materials

A Waldorf kindergarten is typically furnished to look much like a home, with silk curtains, wool rugs, a rocking chair and wooden tables and chairs. Teachers consciously choose playthings for the classroom that will nourish a young child’s senses, and sheathe them in beauty. Toys found in the classroom are made from natural fiber and materials to nourish a young child’s senses.

Real work for a real purpose

Waldorf teachers model meaningful, purposeful work in the classroom by engaging in activities such as cooking, cleaning, baking, sewing or knitting. Outdoors, teachers may be found raking, gardening, filling birdfeeders or shoveling snow. Out of imitation, children engage in, and help with, all these activities. The children are learning real life skills, as they become confident and capable helpers.

Imagination and Play

Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, emphasized the importance of the imagination in childhood, and Waldorf educators believe that imaginative play is the key to creative thinking later in life. In a Waldorf early childhood classroom, ample time is allowed each day for unstructured, imaginative play without a lot of adult interference. This is when an observer might see children becoming cats and mice; witness tea parties in the play kitchen; boys and girls building large structures out of Waldorf wooden playstands draped with large silks; building with stumps and natural tree blocks; and other children donning capes and crowns to become princesses and princes. One might say that free play is the heart of a Waldorf kindergarten morning.

Kimara: How can parents bring the Waldorf philosophy into their homes?

Sarah: Waldorf teachers work consciously with the idea of “rhythm.” We talk about the rhythm of the day, the rhythm of the week and the rhythm of the year. The daily rhythm is a regular, predictable schedule. An example would be a morning that starts with free play, which is then followed by cleanup, circle time, rest time, snack time, outdoor time, story time and lunch. This daily rhythm would be the same all year long without variation. Once the children become familiar with the rhythm, they relax into it and benefit from the predictability of the day. They feel confident and secure, knowing exactly what to expect. Children can be become quite anxious when their days are irregular and unpredictable. So one important thing parents can do is to bring more rhythm into their home. Have regular times for meals, bath and bed, and add little rituals to each of these activities.

Another thing parents can do is to bring reverence and ritual to the family meal table. Even if you are not religious, take a moment to light a candle and say a verse of gratitude for the food you are about to eat. One can thank God, or simply thank the sun and the rain for producing the food. What’s important is to cultivate a sense of reverence and gratitude in your children. And, of course, eating meals together as a family!

Kimara: Before the birth of your first child, you were pursuing a career as an actress. How were you able to utilize that training in the Waldorf classroom?

Sarah: Before my son Harper was born, I was working as an actress, but even then I had been thinking about going to back to school to become a teacher. At the time, I thought of this as a career change. However, after I discovered Waldorf education, with its emphasis on storytelling, puppetry, singing and reciting verses, I came to think of it as a career progression. Not only did those artistic skills lend themselves to my work as an early childhood teacher, but it also allowed me to be quite comfortable “performing” in front of parents when I taught Parent/Toddler classes. I felt like I was still performing, but now for a higher purpose and for a much more appreciative audience!

Kimara: I know I’m asking for a very condensed explanation, but implementing the Waldorf philosophy, what are the attributes parents should look for when crafting or purchasing playthings for their children?

Sarah: One exercise I used to do with parents in my classes during a parent evening on “toys and play” was to blindfold them*. Then I would hand them different toys. Some were typical toys from a modern child’s toy box, such as Barbie dolls, action figures, metal trucks, plastic baby dolls and so forth; alternating with toys from our Waldorf classroom, such as shells, stones, sanded pieces of wood or dolls made from cotton and wool. I would ask each parent to feel the toys, smell them, and even taste them, if they dared! (Because all babies WILL put toys into their mouth.) I urge you to try it. Even when blindfolded, this exercise will really “open your eyes” as to how children experience toys with all their senses. The experience of touching cold metal vs. warm wood, or the different qualities between a plastic doll and one made of natural fibers can really be appreciated when not relying on one’s sense of sight.

Rudolf Steiner once described the young child as a “wholly sense organ.” That is, a child’s senses are much more sensitive than an adult’s, and her experience of the world relies less on sight alone. A child takes in the whole world through all of her senses, so we want to choose toys that are going to nourish and feed the senses in a healthy way. Furthermore, toys made from natural fibers and materials seem to have a calming quality, which can be observed in children’s play.

Another thing parents should look for are toys that will inspire and ignite the imagination, and toys that are open-ended (that is, toys that can be played with in a variety of ways). They should look for playthings that are not too formed and fixed, that leave some room for the imagination. For example, Waldorf dolls usually have minimal features, and Waldorf puppets typically have no face at all. This allows a child to imagine the face happy, sad or angry, and to develop his inner picturing abilities.

Kimara: What role do you think parents should play in their children’s creative expression and play?

Sarah: In general, Waldorf early childhood teachers do not directly engage in play with the children. Children, left to their own devices, are usually so much freer in their imaginations and richer in their play than we are as adults! As teachers, we work alongside the children as they play — sewing, preparing food, or the like. We work, we hum, and we watch. A parent can stimulate a child’s imagination by providing the kinds of playthings that invite creative play, and even nudging a child’s imagination if she seems stuck. For instance, a child may start throwing blocks. We can take the blocks and pretend now that they’re teacups, inviting the child to have a tea party with us, thereby guiding the play into a new direction.

Kimara: Given the fact that most of us are dealing with limited resources, what do you think are the basic toys or supplies we should have available for children, and when creating a “Wish List”, what items in your shop would have to be on the list?

Sarah: A parent needn’t spend much to provide a rich array of playthings for a child. At least half the playthings in my classroom were either gathered from nature or handmade. A basket of shells, a basket of smooth river stones, and branches cut up and sanded into natural blocks were among the toys I considered essential.

That said, what comes to mind as other essential items, which can be bought or handmade, are:

Play Silks. A basket of brightly colored silk squares can be used in an endless variety of ways. They become scarves, capes and skirts; they can swaddle a baby; they become tablecloths; a blue silk becomes a river; a green one, a meadow. They are also lovely for decorating a “nature table,” or draping a puppet play. The quality of the silk makes the colors shimmer, and feels heavenly next to a young child’s skin.

A Waldorf Doll. Both boys and girls would take turns caring for the “babies” in our classroom. The Waldorf 16″ dress-up doll is often what’s most readily recognizable as a Waldorf toy. These dolls are best for 4- to 6-year olds who have the fine motor skills to be able to dress them and comb their hair. For younger children, a bunting doll, such as ourCuddle Doll, is soft and huggable, perfect for toddlers; and a Blanket Doll is a wonderful first doll for a baby, with a human face that babies respond to, but with a soft blanket body, which often becomes a special “lovey.” All these dolls are made with natural fibers and materials with cotton knit skin and stuffed with wool.

Playstands and Play Clips. These are also classic Waldorf toys that are found in virtually every Waldorf kindergarten classroom. With two playstands, long pieces of silk or cloth, and a couple pairs of play clips, children can build houses and forts. They use the shelves to play “store,” or as a stage for puppet plays. They have an endless variety of uses, and are used heavily by the children every day.

A Play Kitchen Corner. The most popular spot in my classroom, year after year, was the play kitchen–a corner blocked off by two playstands. In the cozy corner was a wooden play stove, a small table set with wooden dishes, chairs, and doll cradles. During free play, this area was always bustling with tea parties, cooking, caring for babies, setting the table and washing. Here, the children would imitate the work of the adults in their company.

Kimara: On a rainy afternoon, what is your favorite way to while away the hours with children?

Sarah: My favorite rainy day activity is one we ONLY did on rainy days. (That is to say, torrentially rainy days, otherwise we’d be outside!) I have an electric hot plate with a glass top that I got at a yard sale — the kind that is meant to keep food warm and doesn’t get too hot. I’d take a sheet of drawing paper and tape it to the hot plate, then invite the children, one at a time, to color with our beeswax crayons on the hot plate. The warmth would melt the beeswax, producing beautiful wax “paintings” that looked like stained glass. Afterwards, we would hang them in the windows and, once the rain ended, we would admire the way the sun would shine through them!

Kimara: Finally, what prompted you to leave the classroom and run Bella Luna Toys?

Sarah: After more than ten years of teaching full-time in a Waldorf school, I was discovering that my two teenage boys needed me as much (if not more) than they did when they were toddlers. While I’ve always felt that Waldorf teaching was my life’s calling and absolutely loved my time in the classroom, I was looking for a way to put my expertise and love forWaldorf education to use in a new way—one that would allow me to continue working to promote Waldorf education in the world, but also give me more time at home. Just as I was pondering what new direction my life might take, a newsletter arrived in my mailbox, announcing that Bella Luna Toys was for sale. Bella Luna was a well-established Waldorf toy company of which I had long been aware, and I knew its founder, Miaja (prounounced “Maya”) Rocciola through Waldorf homeschooling circles. After many conversations with Miaja, I became the new owner of Bella Luna Toys in September 2009, and the company moved from the beautiful coast of California, to the equally beautiful midcoast of Maine. I’m learning a lot, and having a ball!

EDIT: The following question was asked by one of our readers and I wanted to make sure that the question and Sarah’s answer were included for posterity in the interview.

Ashlie: This truly was an enjoyable article, but I really would love to hear more about children crafting and artistic expression. Are there “typical” Waldorf crafts and can you recommend books or websites to foster intrinsic artistic expression?

Sarah: Wee Folk Art is a great resource for parents who are drawn to Waldorf education and interested in crafting. The crafts offered here by Kimara are the kinds of things typically made by teachers and students in a Waldorf School. As I said, there are many facets to Waldorf education, and I failed to mention them all. But not mentioning the importance of handwork in a Waldorf classroom was a big omission!

All children in a Waldorf school learn handwork beginning in early childhood. Children in my kindergarten class would learn to “fingerknit” (creating a crocheted chain with their fingers) and to sew. Craft projects were created all year long connected to the seasons and festivals of the year. When children at a Waldorf school get to first grade, they learn to knit with needles, and as the years go on, they learn to crochet, embroider, make dolls and more. Much research in recent years has documented the benefits of developing fine motor skills through handwork to brain development, so the goal in teaching handwork to children is not just about the finished product!

Bella Luna Toys also happens to carry a wide variety of craft kits that come with all the materials needed and instructions to create animalsgnomesangelsfairies and more. In addition, I highly recommend the book Crafts Through the Year that has beautiful photographs and instructions for making many seasonal Waldorf crafts connected to the seasons and holidays.

So there you have it, in a nutshell. (Albeit from a pretty big nut!)

Waldorf Education: Is it Right for You?

by JAMIE MARTIN on APRIL 16, 2010 from Simple Homeschool

Overview:  Waldorf education began in Germany in the early 1900′s. Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher, had written about three distinct phases of childhood development. He believed a healthy education should have these phases as its foundation.

Currently there are over 1,000 Waldorf schools worldwide, and many homeschooling families gain inspiration from Steiner’s ideas.

Waldorf educators seek to expose children to a wide variety of subjects and interests. There’s a determined effort to avoid gender stereotypes as well as a focus on setting the child up for success by introducing effective routines and habits. The goal is to provide a well-rounded education to aid the child’s development.

Three phases of childhood development provide the foundation to the Waldorf method.

To learn more and read the full post, visit here.

Further Reading (a list by Jamie which I highly recommend as well!):

Montessori and Waldorf Compared

How Does Montessori Compare with Waldorf?

From , former About.com Guide

Question: How Does Montessori Compare with Waldorf?  Montessori and Waldorf schools are two popular kinds of schools for preschool and elementary school age children. Why are they so popular? What exactly are the differences between the two kinds of schools?
Answer: A Montessori school follows the teachings of Dr. Maria Montessori (1870-1952).A Waldorf school follows the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925).

The links above will give you some historical background to Montessori and Waldorf. That’s useful, but parents want answers to basic questions like teaching styles, how the curriculum is organized and so on. But before we go on, let me make this disclaimer: my eldest daughter attended The Waldorf School in Garden City, New York. It was a happy, wonderful experience.

Now let’s look at a point by point comparison of Montessori vs Waldorf.

Teaching Style

Montessori believes in following the child. So the child chooses what he wants to learn and the teacher guides the learning.

Waldorf uses a teacher-directed approach in the classroom.

Spirituality

Montessori has no set spirituality per se. It is very flexible and adaptable to individual needs and beliefs.

Waldorf is rooted in anthroposophy. This philosophy believes that in order to understand the workings of the universe, people must first have an understanding of humanity.

Learning Activities

Montessori and Waldorf recognize and respect a child’s need for rhythm and order in his daily routine. They choose to recognize that need in different ways. Take toys, for example. Madame Montessori felt that children shouldn’t just play but should play with toys which will teach them concepts. Montessori schools use Montessori designed and approved toys.

A Waldorf education encourages the child to create his own toys from materials which happen to be at hand. Using the imagination is the child’s most important ‘work’ posits the Steiner Method.

Both Montessori and Waldorf use curricula which are developmentally appropriate. Both approaches believe in a hands on as well as an intellectual approach to learning. Both approaches also work in multi-year cycles when it comes to child development. Montessori uses six year cycles. Waldorf works in seven year cycles.

Both Montessori and Waldorf have a strong sense of societal reform built into their teaching. They believe in developing the whole child, teaching it to think for itself and, above all, showing it how to avoid violence. These are beautiful ideals which will help build a better world for the future.

Montessori and Waldorf use non-traditional methods of assessments. Testing and grading are not part of either methodology.

Use of Computers and TV

Montessori generally leaves the use of popular media to individual parents to decide. Ideally the amount of TV a child watches will be limited. Ditto the use of cellphones and MP3 players.

Waldorf is usually pretty rigid about not wanting young people exposed to popular media. Waldorf wants children to create their own worlds. You will not find computers in a Waldorf classroom except in upper school grades.

The reason why TV and DVDs are not popular in Montessori and Waldorf circles is that both want children to develop their imaginations. Watching TV gives children something to copy, not to create. Waldorf tends to place a premium on fantasy or imagination in the early years even to the point where reading is delayed somewhat.

Adherence to Methodology

Maria Montessori never trademarked or patented her methods and philosophy. So you will find many flavors of Montessori. Some schools are very strict in their interpretation of Montessori precepts. Others are much more eclectic. Just because it says Montessori doesn’t mean that it is the real thing.

Waldorf schools, on the other hand, tend to stick pretty close to standards set out by the Waldorf Association.

See for Yourself

There are many other differences. Some of these are obvious; others are more subtle. What becomes obvious as you read about both educational methods is how gentle both approaches are.

The only way you will know for sure which approach is best for you is to visit the schools and observe a class or two. Speak with the teachers and director. Ask questions about allowing your children to watch TV and when and how children learn to read. There will be some parts of each philosophy and approach with which you will probably disagree. Determine what the deal breakers are and choose your school accordingly.

Put another way, the Montessori school which your niece attends in Portland won’t be the same as the one you are looking at in Raleigh. They both will have Montessori in their name. Both might have Montessori trained and credentialed teachers. But, because they are not clones or a franchise operation, each school will be unique. You need to visit and make up your mind based on what you see and the answers you hear.

The same advice applies with respect to Waldorf schools. Visit. Observe. Ask questions. Choose the school which is the best fit for you and your child.

Conclusion

The progressive approaches which Montessori and Waldorf offer young children have been tried and tested for almost 100 years. They have many points in common as well as several differences. Contrast and compare Montessori and Waldorf with traditional preschools and kindergarten and you will see even more differences.

Resources

 

No More Junk Toys: Rethinking Children’s Gifts

By Judith L. Rubin
Issue 121, November – December 2003 , Mothering Magazine

One night, not long after Christmas, my pacifist friends Jay Levy and Su Zuniga quietly crept down to the basement with a hammer while their three-year-old daughter, Samantha, slept. There, they methodically banged on the belly of her new mechanical dog until it stopped yapping.

Another friend’s daughter received a Victorian makeup table for her fourth birthday. “It’s plastic, it’s ugly, and it’s huge. It’s totally inappropriate for a four year old. Not to mention that my daughter is a tomboy.” When asked about the fate of the gift, she replied firmly, “It is going to ‘disappear’ very soon.”

Some parents are creative in their disposal of “junk toys,” as my husband calls them. “The worst toy our daughter ever received,” notes one mom, “was a hard-plastic, realistic, talking doll. She purported to be your child’s ‘best friend’ by using a set of pre-recorded diskettes that get inserted into her back. We were saddened to think there might be some lonely children out there for whom this doll might actually be enriching. The doll stands in the center of our peace garden as our scarecrow.”

But approaching friends and family about their gift choices can be awkward. As one friend put it, “I don’t want them to think I disapprove of their taste.” So the gifts wind up at the Salvation Army or the dump.

Making gifts “disappear” is a last resort for parents who receive junk toys–i.e., toys out of line with their values or taste. Like junk food, junk toys can be fun but are devoid of nutrition. Buying them requires little forethought. They are excessively commercial, and are often linked to cross-marketing schemes. They excite children at first, but that initial flicker doesn’t endure. Also like junk food, junk toys have hidden environmental and social costs for which the consumers pay.

The issues involved in junk toys are deeper than the layer of clutter on the playroom floor. These issues are as deep as the ocean, where thousands of yellow Lego toy life rafts drifted ashore after three million toy pieces inadvertently spilled from a tanker in 1998.1 But more important than the occasional freak toy-pollution disaster are the routine environmental insults associated with most toy production.

When we buy a Barbie doll, the relatively low price belies the full cost of her petroleum-intensive plastic manufacturing process, her plastic and paper packaging, and transporting her and her billions of accessories from Southeast Asia to the US . These hidden costs, what economists call “externalities,” are paid (or more commonly unpaid) not by individual consumers or corporate producers but by collective society at large. We don’t-and probably can’t-pay enough for the product and its packaging, shipping, and manufacture to justify the damage caused by these processes.

The vast majority of plastic commercial toys are made by children themselves, working in overseas sweatshops. Girls as young as 13 years, some working the night shift, stitch Barbie’s dresses.2 In Thailand in 1993, hundreds of workers, including child laborers, died in a fire while stuffing Cabbage Patch dolls for Hasbro, Inc.3 The Asia Monitor Resource Center and the Coalition for the Charter on the Safe Production of Toys reported that Vietnamese workers making McDonald’s Happy Meals toys for as little as six cents an hour had been poisoned by acetone, a chemical solvent used to manufacture plastic Disney characters such as the 101 Dalmatians line.4 All of this so that I can pull up to the drive-through window and toss my child a Happy Meal figurine? No, thanks.

Then there are the social costs of marketing. Marketers broadcast programming designed to hypnotize toddlers into “cradle-to-grave brand loyalty to these toys.”5 Marketing professionals cross-reference, cross-market, and cross-pollinate products and entertainment. By intentionally blurring the distinctions between entertainment, products, school curricula, and advertisements, marketers readily capitalize on young children’s limited ability to differentiate between them. It’s no accident that, in the children’s section of Barnes and Noble, the books starring such television-based characters as Arthur, Clifford, and Blues Clues are displayed most prominently, while the classics get the cheap seats.

Despite warnings from the American Medical Association that children who watch more than 10 hours a week of television and/or video are more likely to be overweight, aggressive, and slow to learn, more products and entertainment than ever are designed to capture the imaginations of children aged one to three years, and to encourage them to watch TV.6 Experts with PhDs conduct sophisticated focus groups to ensure that each and every episode of TV shows such as Dora the Explorer hit the mark with preschoolers.7

The TV show sells the books and movie, the movie ads sell the Happy Meal action figures, and these in turn sell next year’s patented Halloween costumes. Then the media hero du jour is immortalized and consumed, literally, as a fluorescent, frosted birthday cake from the local supermarket. If you were hosting, say, a Dora the Explorer party, you could choose from more than 70 party accessories, including blinking fiesta beads.

It’s brilliant marketing, and it works. The only problem is that it works against parents, children, and the environment.

North Americans have come to rely on commercial institutions to furnish our stories, heroes, icons, and expectations. The old traditions and rites of passage have been eclipsed by a boy’s first Nintendo, a girl’s first Barbie, a computer, a first toy gun.

Last Christmas, when the US was bombing Afghanistan, JC Penny advertised Forward Command Post, a 75-piece set that includes: a bombed and blood-stained play house, one 11 1/2-inch-high figurine in military combat gear, toy weapons, an American flag, chairs, and more.8 “Take command of your soldiers from this fully outfitted battle zone,” the ad boasted. Forward Command Post is recommended for ages five and up. Last December, the Toys-“R”-Us website listed it as “sold out.”

Julie Convisser, a movement therapist and mother of two small boys, worries about the messages kids get from commercial culture. “I feel like they are being groomed to be materialists, to buy into an evil-vs.-good world paradigm, and to ignore the spiritual heart of life and the bounty of nature.” She buffers the influence of commercial culture as much as possible by limiting her boys’ TV viewing and being picky about videos, avoiding media-promotion toys, and sending her older son to a school at which the other children’s parents share her values.

Others argue that children should be exposed to commercial culture to avoid becoming victims of it. In fact, direct experience can be a fast way for kids to learn the ropes of misleading ad campaigns. Karin Purdy, mother of three, says, “I let my kids watch TV, and I let them buy some of the products they see. They are usually quite disappointed when they get them and they aren’t as great as they thought. They get smarter as they get older.”

Michelle Sobel, a film editor, a creator of educational software, and the mother of two girls, thinks about this issue constantly. “We live in a consumer culture and kids are going to be confronted with it all the time, despite your best attempts to control it.” When her three year old, Willa, sees a seductive ad for a toy and says, “I want that!” Michelle asks, “What do you like about it?” She transforms the indulgence/denial struggle into an interesting conversation about what is appealing to her daughter. Engaged in discussion, during which mom may even begin to talk about something else, it’s easier for the daughter to walk away from the toy.

Whatever their individual approaches, many parents work hard all year long to protect children from pervasive and cloying commercialism. But despite our best efforts, holidays and birthdays can become gift-crazed free-for-alls. Why allow our friends and relatives to fall into the trap of giving meaningless gifts when a simple, genuine gesture can mean so much more to the children? “Disappearing” junk toys only compounds the environmental and cultural costs; it’s up to us to stop the charade and transform the culture of gift-giving.

It’s perfectly natural that adults love to give children things and that children love to receive them. Even in Waldorf schools-which discourage plastics, TV, and commercial images on clothing-there exists a strong understanding that, according to writer Gisela T. O’Neil, “in the beginning of life, roughly till we reach adulthood, we are at the receiving end of life: parents, teachers, and society bestow their care upon us. Later follows the time when we ourselves are called upon to contribute to other people and to society. Think of the boundless expectations with which a young child anticipates his birthday or other gift-bestowing events, how he feels at the center of the world! Actually, most of the early part of life is a continuous receiving.”9

Changing the Culture of Gifts
Alicia Daniel, field naturalist, teacher, and mother of two daughters, offers a radical checklist:

1) Will this toy eventually turn into dirt-i.e., could I compost it? Stones, snowmen, driftwood, and daisies-they will be gone, and we will be gone, and life goes on.

2) Do I know who made this toy? This question leads us to search for the hidden folk artist in each of us.

3) Is this toy beautiful? Have human hands bestowed an awkward grace, a uniqueness lacking in toys cranked out effortlessly by machine?

4) Will this toy capture a child’s imagination?”10

To this list we might add: Does this gift foster my child’s natural inclinations? Will it enable him to more fully engage in life? Does it help her reach her goals?

My husband and I have been proactive, perhaps downright annoying, in our efforts to work closely with the gift-givers in our children’s lives. We have banned plastics and gifts made in China , and have asked that donations to nonprofit organizations be made in their names. The results have been amazing. Relatives made a hand-painted chair, built an art easel, and offered such practical and well-timed gifts as a backpack for sleepovers. They have knitted miles of handmade sweaters and blankets. Parents who hesitate to speak up for fear of offending rob their friends and family of a chance to participate more deeply in their child’s life.

Head them off at the pass. If you don’t offer clear choices well before a holiday or birthday, relatives and friends will buy “obligatory” gifts. Dovetail their best intentions with something your child actually wants or needs. One friend wrote in tiny italics at the bottom of her baby’s birth announcement: “Please, no pastel, no plastic.” We all got the message. Another suggested that we each bring a cup and saucer to a birthday party to help make her child a new tea set. Every year, my husband and I ask that guests bring a skit or song to my daughter’s birthday party in lieu of a gift. It’s not difficult to get them to juggle instead of buying her a Barbie, but it doesn’t happen by osmosis.

Pay people for their skills, not their stuff. Last October, my daughter decided she wanted to play the violin. Her grandparents agreed to sponsor eight lessons, one for each night of Chanukah. This arrangement satisfied everyone: my parents, who from 3,000 miles away longed to instill in their granddaughter a love of classical music; my daughter, who took lessons on a time-limited, trial basis; and a talented young violin teacher, who is raising her own child and going back to school.

Give away your juiciest ideas. As your child’s closest confidante, you are up to date on his or her secret interests. Being close to children gives parents a unique opportunity to clue relatives in about what gifts will have relevance to their children’s lives.

The best gift I ever gave my nephew was a cardboard refrigerator box. After opening a dozen molded-plastic toys at his birthday party, he and his friends went absolutely wild over the giant carton. His mom knew how much he’d enjoyed one at a friend’s house, and had passed on the clue to me. It took a bit of moxie to show up at his party with a cardboard box, but the other parents-total strangers to me at the time-congratulated me with hearty slaps on the back.

Be Prepared if it Backfires. When a friend’s son was two, her parents asked what they could get him for Christmas. She explained that he liked making music, and that a drum would be nice: “My mom went to Toys-“R”-Us and bought him a battery-packed, plastic, multicolored drum machine with various buttons, high-volume percussion tracks, and multicolored blinking lights. My heart sank when he tore open the paper and I saw what it was. I was actually angry-a little at my Mom for being so clueless, and a lot at our culture, which has turned something as wonderful as a drum into this repellent mechanical thing. Fortunately, my son didn’t even understand what it was. We made it ‘disappear’ that day and went to a fair-trade import store and bought him a handmade tom-tom drum made of wood and hide with a lovely wood drumstick. He still has it, and loves it and uses it three years later.”

And if you still can’t bring yourself to tell friends and relatives what your child really wants, you can always put it in writing.

NOTES
1. Curtis Morgan, “Legos and Other Floating Flotsam,” Miami Herald, 17 May 1998 .
2. Sarah Cox, “The Secret life of Toys,”
www.maquilasolidarity.org/campaigns/toy/scox.htm.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Gary Ruskin, “Why They Whine,” Mothering no. 97 (November-December 1999): 40-50)
6. Karen Springer, “Why We Tuned Out,” Newsweek, 11 November 2002 .
7. Daniel McGinn, “Guilt Free TV,” Newsweek, 11 November 2002 .
8. JC Penney, 2002 Christmas catalog: 486.
9. Gisela T. O’Neil, “Gratitude, Love, Responsibility” in Waldorf Schools, Volume 1: Kindergarten and Early Grades, Ruth Pusch, ed. (Spring Valley, NY: Mercury Press, 1996), 24-32.
10. Alicia Daniel, “Checklist for Toys Focuses on Deeper Values,” Burlington Free Press, 16 December 2001 .

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Organizations

Center for a New American Dream
6930 Carroll Avenue, Suite 900
Takoma Park, MD 20912
www.newdream.org
Brochure, “Tips for Parenting in a Commercial Culture

Commercial Alert
www.commercialalert.org .

For more information about toys, see the following articles in past issues of Mothering: “Homemade Toys: Why Nothing Can Beat a Paper Pinwheel,” no. 95; “Top Toys,” no. 91; and “Toys That Encourage Imaginative Play,” no. 90.

Judith L. Rubin lives in Portland , Oregon with her husband, Peter Bahls, and their daughters, Cecilia (6), who still enjoys violin lessons, and Hannah (1 1/2), who plays with all her sister’s best toys.

 

Previous Older Entries