Subtitle: Imagination taking power

Josh Golin on toys, marketing, and when Barbie goes bad.

Josh Golin is the Executive Director of the Campaign for Commerical Free Childhood, an advocacy organisation that works to protect children from the harmful effects of commercialism and promote creative play. He lives in Boston. We chatted via Skype.

What, for you, represents a toy that is good for children’s imagination?

When it comes to toys, paradoxically less is more.  There’s a saying in child development that the best toys are “90% child and 10% toy”, as in the best toys don’t do much.  They rely on children’s creativity to make them into something, whether it’s a doll that a child brings their own stories and makes up stories and creates imaginary play with the doll, or blocks where a child can build anything and then create stories around what they’ve built.  But the toys that make a lot of noise and do a lot of things for children and hypnotise them, those are toys that don’t help imagination.  It’s really the most simple toys that open up pathways to creativity that are best for imagination.

Josh Golin.

And do you think that we have an imagination crisis in our culture at the moment, and if so, why does it matter?

I do think we have an imagination crisis.  Increasingly both adults, and even more troubling children, are relying on digital devices for all of their entertainment, for all their boredom and we’re limiting our ability to see beyond what’s immediately in front of us.  Imagination is such a crucial piece of childhood.  Making up stories, playing imaginary games, having imaginary friends, imagining imaginary scenarios, are just such crucial parts of healthy child development. They allow children to work through problems, to think beyond what’s immediately in front of them, to imagine different possibilities.

When we have children who are spending so much time with these devices that are telling stories to them, rather than allowing them to imagine their own worlds, we’re really limiting their imagination.  And why does that matter?  Well it matters for a number of reasons.  First of all, we are at a moment when we’re in political crisis, we’re in ecological crisis, and the ability to imagine a different world, to imagine different solutions to the world we’ve created, to imagine different ways of dealing with the problems we have has never been more pressing.  But also in terms of the adults we want children to grow up to be.  When they don’t have the ability to imagine different possibilities or have that creativity and to examine problems from different angles, that’s a really concerning problem long-term.

You wrote on your blog that “play comes naturally to children yet as a society we prevent them from playing”.  What do you mean by that?

We prevent children from playing in a number of ways.  The increased focus on testing in schools has put a tremendous burden on teachers where they are now forced to prepare children for these tests that are happening at younger and younger ages.  In kindergarten where we’re now focusing on testing and preparing children for testing.

That means that play is disappearing from elementary schools.  It’s disappearing from pre-schools.  And what early education should be about, is about play, exploring with all of your senses.  It’s about those social interactions and negotiating with your peers as you make up games, and we’re taking that away from children.  Play is absolutely disappearing from pre-schools and from elementary schools, and that’s extremely concerning.

And then the other thing, the amount of time that children are spending with screens is taking away time from creative play.  And even the toys that are not screen based are increasingly connected to the internet and undermine creative play by being based on corporate scripts and not fostering children’s creativity and imagination.  So many of the toys also that children play with, whether they’re screen based or non-screen based, are so noisy, and play really thrives when children are given the opportunity for quiet.

So we’re depriving children of those crucial moments that they need for creativity, creative play, both when they’re by themselves, and when they’re in school situations or pre-school situations.

How does a childhood where our attentions spans are reduced, our ability to be imaginative is reduced and our exposure to commercials and marketing, how does that shape the adults that we become?

All this is fairly recent.  Obviously kids have been watching TV for a long time, but the amount of screen time has gone up and particularly exposure to marketing has increased tremendously.  So for instance, in 1983 companies spent about $100 million a year marketing to children.  Today it’s about $17 billion in the United States.  About $17 billion they spend marketing to children.  So a commercialised childhood is a relatively new phenomenon.

What we see for children who grow up immersed in commercialism is that they are more materialistic.  Not surprisingly, children who grow up being exposed to lots of marketing believe that things are what make them happy.  That acquiring goods is the key to happiness.  In fact there’s a whole body of research that shows it’s not true.  That what makes us happy is community, is being in happy relationships, doing fulfilling things, and acquiring beyond basic needs actually has very little to do with happiness.  That people who have this materialistic orientation have higher rates of depression, they’re less happy and a number of other mental health issues are related to being immersed in all of this marketing.

We’re only going to see more and more of that as we see more and more generations of children who are growing up immersed in all of this commercialism.

Your organisation recently ran a campaign against a new kind of Barbie called ‘Hello Barbie’.  Did it have any impact?  Did you get any response from a company like Mattel?  Do they listen to a campaign like that?  Can you tell us a little bit about that toy and the impact that your campaign had?

Hello Barbie is an internet-connected Barbie doll where children have “conversations” with the doll and all of the conversations that the child is having are recorded and then stored up on the cloud so that the Barbie can “remember” things that the child said.

So the Barbie can say, “You told me last time you had a dog.  What do you like about dogs?” And so the idea is that the child is actually forming a relationship and having these conversations with Barbie.  We did a campaign called “Hell No Barbie” to raise awareness of all the ways that this toy undermined children’s creativity and privacy and well-being.  So one of the things about it is that Mattel was using this doll to collect all sorts of information about children, which is then shared with third parties.

By Barbie asking the child all these questions, they are learning about a child’s dislikes and their likes and their interests and how many family members they have, and this information can be used to create a marketing profile about the children.  So we were just horrified that a toy that would be in a child’s bedroom would actually be a corporate spy in order to build these marketing profiles about children.

But the other thing that we were extremely concerned about is that this is the last thing you want in a toy from a creativity standpoint.  The conversations that were happening with the doll was Barbie asking a lot of questions to elicit information out of the child, and Barbie completely driving the conversation.  In fact, Barbie being Barbie, it would drive the conversation in all sorts of ways which were just head scratching and really concerning as well.

So for instance, Barbie might be asking a child about its interests or about pets, and then the next thing Barbie would say is, “Well, we’ve talked a lot about that, let’s talk about something else.  How about we talk about fashion?”  Because Barbie loves to talk about fashion.  So the entire conversation was being driven by Barbie and her corporate scripts.

What you want with a doll is you want a doll that doesn’t say anything because the child is playing both parts.  So the child is talking to the doll and then if the child wants the doll to speak, the child then plays the role of the doll.  And one day that doll could be a baby, and the child could be the mother, and the next day the doll could be a peer, and the next day that doll could be a sibling.  That doll could be anything that it wanted to be.

The relationship could be anything the child wanted it to be, and the conversation, the stories that the child is making up about what it’s doing with that doll are completely open ended and the possibilities are limitless.  When Hello Barbie is playing with a child it’s completely limited.  It’s limited by what the corporate scripts have been written for that doll.  It’s not child directed.  It’s Mattel directed.  And so that’s the last thing you want in a toy.

So we did this Hell No Barbie campaign.  It got a huge amount of press.  It was featured in media outlets all over the world.  What the exact effect of that campaign is, is always difficult to measure things like this, but we do know that the toy was a huge flop.  It had, as long as I’ve been doing this work, an unprecedented amount of bad publicity before it hit the shelves, so we think that probably had a big impact on those sales.  This was considered to be one of the hot toys of Christmas last year.  And a hot toy will usually sell a few 100,000 units.  Hello Barbie only sold 10,000 units, so we think we had a big impact, and we think what this shows beyond how you can create bad publicity for one toy, is that if you educate parents about what is really important in a toy, they will get it.

But the parents need that education to counteract the marketing hype which is so intense.  They need to get the real information about what’s a good toy.  About what children need so that they aren’t wowed by the latest bells and whistles.  Because on the surface of the thing, wow, that looks amazing, Barbie’s talking to my child.  It’s understandable that parents would be enticed by that.  But if you get them the real information and show them how that’s not what children need, you know, last year showed that they’ll make the right decisions.

At what point did Barbie go bad?  When Barbie started she was just like a doll and you put clothes on her.  I had an Action Man – they were called GI Joe with you.  I bought him clothes.  I threw him in the puddles, I chucked him out the window.  I had little parachutes.  At what point did these things become imagination wreckers rather than imagination generators?

It’s a continuum.  First of all, it’s important to note with Barbie the body image that she teaches to children and to girls in particular has always been a concern.  So even when she was just one Barbie that you could do anything with, the body image that she was teaching to children was extremely concerning.

But having said that, one Barbie doll in the beginning was probably not a huge threat to children’s creativity because you can do whatever you did with any doll.  You could dress her up any way you wanted, you could make her what you wanted her to be.  What happened with Barbie over time is that in order to sell more and more products to children, Barbie became much more specific.  So instead of just having one Barbie, you started having different Barbies like fashion Barbies and astronaut Barbie.

Rather than any Barbie could be anything, if you wanted your Barbie to be a certain thing, you had to buy that specific Barbie.  And then of course you also had to buy the accessories.  If you wanted the astronaut Barbie you had to buy the accessories that went with astronaut Barbie, and so no longer could Barbie be anything just to a child’s imagination.  Barbie could only be anything if you bought the right Barbies.  And so that started limiting children’s creativity.

Then, like other toys, what Barbie started doing is producing Barbie media.  So then what happens is that not only do you have to purchase different Barbies so that Barbie can be different things, but now Barbie is coming with pre-written stories.  So there’s Barbie books and Barbie television shows and Barbie web episodes where the stories are now being written by Mattel.  So then when children play they don’t make up their own stories with Barbie but they play the stories that they’ve already seen.

Then of course what we saw with Hello Barbie is that children aren’t even making up what Barbie says anymore, but Barbie is directing the conversation, has pre-written scripts and the child is reacting to prompts from Barbie rather than creating a dialogue with their Barbie.  So it’s a continuum where first it’s about adding more Barbies so children have to buy more Barbies and then there’s adding media, and then eventually this internet connected Barbie.  And it’s a continual and escalating assault on children’s imagination.

If it had been you who had been elected to the highest office in November, and you were to embark upon a concerted national crash programme of rebuilding imagination across society, where would you start?

I would start with two things.  The first thing I would start is I would restore play to the classrooms.  I would get rid of high stakes testing, particularly for younger children.  I would give teachers the freedom to introduce play back into classrooms.  I would make money available for teacher training.  A huge public education campaign around the necessity and how important play is to children and how secondary engagement with technology is for young children.  How really it’s not important, how they can catch up on anything they need to do with a screen, they can do it later.  But I would really focus on promoting play in early childhood, in early childhood settings, and in elementary schools.

The second thing that I would do, not surprisingly, given that my organisation is the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, is that I would ban marketing to children.  Commercialism is undermining children’s creativity.  They’re being sold and being taught to want the toys that are actually harmful to creativity.  They are forming attachments to license characters, to media characters, to cartoon characters who rather than developing their own characters, their own play.

If we didn’t have marketing to children, it would create all sort of space for children’s imagination.  Toy manufacturers would have to market to parents, and the things that they would market to parents would be decidedly different than what they marketed to kids.  That it would just create all of this room and space for children to be children, rather than being little consumers.


  1. James Wallbank
    March 20, 2017

    These observations could also be applied to older kids and adults. Roleplaying games (like Dungeons & Dragons) are increasingly formulaic, specific, and rule-bound. This less imaginative approach is driven by a commercial imperative to sell more add-ons, which take the form of ever more specific rules & details. Players are given less and less agency, and aren’t encouraged to “make things up” – the key to creative play. See also the blossoming of spin-off products around imaginative films, like Star Wars. Now there’s no detail that you can imagine for yourself, as commercial interests produce “approved, canonical” books, toys and other products, that explore aspects of the film’s imaginary universe in ever more minute detail.

    • Rob Hopkins
      March 21, 2017

      Thanks James. Absolutely agree. And computer games of course, which are even more so… Thanks for reading.

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