Wendy Varney, "Toys, play and participation", with commentaries by Lynne Bartholomew and Sudarshan Khanna, in Brian Martin (ed.), Technology and Public Participation (Wollongong, Australia: Science and Technology Studies, University of Wollongong, 1999), pp. 15-36.


Toys, play and participation

Wendy Varney[*]


The participation that was once a frequent ingredient in play has been replaced by a very different sort of participation which revolves around toys as commodities. Children are encouraged to participate in the frenzy of the marketplace and to be fully involved in not only the toy but the entertainment and merchandise with which toys are co-marketed. Play itself has deteriorated as a group activity, as the toy takes on more centrality and invokes predetermined play scripts and overdetermined characters. 

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Commentary by:

Lynne Bartholomew

Sudarshan Khanna


Imagine children at play and the image that springs to mind might well embrace several aspects of participation: children involved in joint activities, learning together, allocating roles, trying out ideas, agreeing, disagreeing, sometimes fighting, sometimes resolving differences.

Yet the toys that are popularly marketed to children, "the tools of play," are strangely devoid of features which encourage these aspects of play--with the exception of war-toys which encourage "participation" in fighting. If participatory play still exists to some extent, it is despite, not due to, the toys which beckon from the loaded shelves of toy stores.

Examples of dolls and doll play in different periods make the point that today's heavily marketed toys are less conducive to participatory play. Up until the industrial revolution, most toys were home-made so that dolls would frequently be crudely fashioned lumps of clay or some other material which children felt could stand in for a doll. This left most definition at the imaginative level so that the doll could take on virtually any role decided by the child. After the industrial revolution specially crafted or factory-made dolls became increasingly available and from around 1820 the baby doll was introduced[1] at a time when the role of mothering was gathering great ideological momentum. By this time dolls were perceived to be exclusively for girls whereas in eras past they had been for children of both sexes. Both the pressures on young girls to practise nurturing from an early age and the designing of dolls to depict those in need of mothering influenced doll play along lines of socialisation for motherhood.

Nonetheless, girls continued to play other things with dolls as well as acting out the mother-child relationship. The dolls were still largely perceived to be little people whose age categories could be determined in accordance with the desires of those playing with them. My own experience growing up in the 1950s was that dolls were essentially a ticket to play with other girls in the neighbourhood. No one was excluded as long as she had a doll tucked under her arm.[2] At times the after-school doll play was less important than the negotiation, script-writing--and outright arguing--that was the prelude to doll play. Were we to be mothers at a gathering with our babies? Were we taking our children shopping? Were we attending a wedding? If so, serious discussions would determine whose doll was to be the bride. Or would we have a tea-party where both the dolls and ourselves would be equal guests? Our ideas were limited not so much by the dolls themselves but by the roles we perceived as being open to women. Doll play still maintained much of its flexibility and opportunities for participation.

The launching of Barbie, a doll whose role was strictly confined to that of teenager, and a genre of dolls that relied heavily on accessories to set the scene for play, appears to have narrowed the opportunities for play and, with it, the opportunities for negotiating play. In this way, mass-marketed contemporary toys inhibit rather than facilitate participation, for reasons which I will explore, after firstly teasing out the various influences that toy technology has had on children's introduction to participatory processes.

Participation in itself is insufficient for meeting far-reaching democratic goals. If not tied to broader struggles for social justice and for equality of resources and opportunities, participation can be lame and unfulfilling. For instance, participatory play in itself cannot counter sexism, racism and violence if the culture that sustains the play holds these to be valid.

A further problem is that "participation" has become a catchphrase, used by the market for its own purposes. The result has been a pseudo-participation which has been designed by those who seek to accrue individual benefits by having the image of participation pervade their practices. Toys, and ultimately play (since toys support certain types of play activity), have been affected by the pseudo-participation of the marketplace. The opportunity to purchase and possess so many toys, to make (albeit limited) decisions about which to forego and which to pursue and to link up across so many points of culture in playing with these toys is sometimes interpreted as a form of participation. I will argue that contemporary toys have contributed to moving children's play away from participation and replacing it with a crass "marketplace participation" where dollars are the means by which children participate. It will be seen that the marketplace promotes a very narrow and warped version of participation and one which is almost directly opposed to the notion of participation that comes from involvement in the nature of play.

But first the different aspects of the relationship between toys and participation need to be spelt out. There are four major points at which toy technology and participation intersect:

Many players--fast-food chains, movie production teams, merchandisers, licensing agents and more--influence the direction of toys but they do so from the same limited motivational base. This is not participation in the same sense that it might be if parents, educationalists and others who were not in the employ of the toy and entertainment industry were involved from the early stages.

Each of these four potential connecting points between toys and participation could be explored at length and there is a great deal of overlap among them. I will focus largely on the first two aspects, arguing that the nature of play has changed remarkably in response to the increasing prominence of the marketplace and its enveloping of all aspects of life, not least of all children's play. I will then address some of the ideological implications of this and what it might mean for the notion of participation that children form around their own experiences and which they carry into adulthood.

Shifting patterns of play

The practical level at which toys provide scope for participation stems largely from a toy's ability to influence play, yet that influence is variable and itself subject to other social forces. Toys have traditionally been more peripheral to play than they presently are. That is, in most cultures and most eras the toys fitted into the play rather than play being determined by the plaything. Since many of the toys that children have played with have traditionally been made by the children themselves, they have been able to make them to specifically meet their own ideas of play. Toy historians Eugene and Asterie Provenzo claim that self-made toys "required the imagination and inventiveness of the child" and "provided the opportunity to penetrate and understand the physical environment in which they live."[3]

Another crucial aspect of traditional play is that it has generally been strongly participatory, as is evident from anthropologies of play such as Helen Schwartzman's Transformations.[4] Traditionally most play has happened among a number of people, often children in combination with adults.[5] A study by UNESCO suggested that in many non-Western countries children and adults played the same games, just as they performed many of the same tasks towards making a living.[6] Neither work nor play was strongly age-differentiated. It is a rather Western and only quite recent trend which sees the life of children as being so separate from the lives of adults. This separation makes the extent to which children participate and learn about the possibilities for participation particularly important since they have less scope for learning it through joint activities with adults. Some play which is of the "traditional" kind still exists, of course, and some play may mix traditional and other values, but the tendency has been, at least in the latter half of the 1900s, to encourage play which is commodity-oriented and to have toys owned by individual children rather than groups of children. This in turn has led to more individual play.

As an activity which children do together, play provides numerous opportunities for participating. Indeed to some considerable degree it is participation which makes play what it has traditionally been. There are rituals and rules laid down that, from time to time, have to be negotiated. The game has to be carried out in the way the group of players collectively interprets it as needing to be played.

Dorothy Singer points out that games with rules might involve competition, but more likely co-operation. Such games usually involve codes that are institutionalised but rules that may have to be renegotiated, re-interpreted or improvised.[7] Players often have to work through or come to some agreement, though this does not necessarily mean that power will be evenly distributed or equally exercised. According to Singer, games with rules are "critical for the mastery of orderly thought, moral judgement, and other phases of operational or logical mature thought."[8] These all bear benefits as useful ingredients for participation. Singer further claims that children learn to share, take turns and co-operate through make-believe play and that such play helps them to develop scripts and order or sequence events.[9] I will argue that most of the modern toys do not encourage children to develop scripts and so cannot fulfil this role.

There are benefits in group play in that children are learning to interact with each other, often in positive ways. While certainly play can be carried out unequally and with some players dominating others, it is one area where children can learn to overcome such dominance and to voice their own concerns. Calls for fairness and for different players to take turns at different roles are common in play, suggesting that there is a strong connection between play and participation, although no guarantee that the former will involve the latter. Other forms of social codes and interaction, including those reliant on race, gender and class, will obviously also bring other factors to bear on play.

Having established that the relationship between traditional play and participation is a strong one, we need to understand how toys fit into this relationship and how they influence it. They exert two basic types of influences, one in relation to toys' location in play and the other relating to the nature of the toys themselves.

In traditional play toys were props but not much more in terms of their influence over play. That has changed dramatically with the emergence of the commodity-toy--or what Beryl Langer has called the "commoditoy".[10] The appeal of these toys far surpasses their functionality, making them strong examples of a phenomenon that Wolfgang Haug has described as "the technocracy of sensuality."[11] Not only are great efforts invested in enhancing every visual aspect of these toys but they are designed so as to confront and tantalise every sense. Many dolls smell of flowers, fruits and other flavours, while lighting and sound effects are maximised across the full spectrum of toys. Some balls even have a gimmick of making noises when thrown, while high-tech versions of the humble skipping rope light up and emit bubbles. However, it is not only at the operating level of the toy that this sensuality takes place. Toys are designed to build up appeal via the relationships they have with each other and with a great many other commodities and events to which they are tied.

Commodities have come to provide many of the symbols and goals around which our society now revolves and, in accordance with this elevation, toys have come to play a decidedly more central role in play, to the extent that toys determine what form play will take rather than play determining what toys should be used and if toys should be used.

This renders the toy a much more influential force in play and allows the nature of the toy to shape the direction of play. I am referring here not simply to the toy and its set of meanings, but to the entire support network built around the toy and from which the toy takes its often highly specific meaning. Toys are nowadays sold via a dazzling array of marketing mechanisms and the rather limited sort of play that goes with the toy is sold as part of that toy. The toy industry is an arm of a broader entertainment and commodity industry which organises its promotions to children so as to reinforce the wares on offer through cross-promotion and multi-layered promotion.[12] The support network includes a range of promotions via advertisements, competitions, mall entertainment, catalogues and magazines for children, but extends also to other commodities. A typical well-promoted toy may have a movie made around it, a television series, a fast-food tie-in, a breakfast cereal linked to it and a plethora of merchandise such as sneakers, lunch boxes and bed sheets featuring the toy on their design.

Due to the involvement of movie and television program producers, and to heavy television and other advertising, the upshot is that a child will be familiar with not just the toy but the storyline which goes with it. Since many popular toys come within series, each character will have an elaborately detailed role which has been played out in fine detail through the promotions surrounding it. This nudges play in the direction of imitation rather than imagination, since the story has been painstakingly thought through and repeatedly played out for the child in the promotions.

As a result, most modern toys involve deliberately closed systems of play. They are not open-ended in the way that traditional toys often were. Play has always unfolded within the limits set by social systems, world views, views of gender and so forth, but now it is the toy itself, in its broader marketing package, which primarily sets the limits, working in with and borrowing from broader social systems, but especially the economic system. Sally Vincent argues that modern playthings are made up of "pre-packaged fantasies...brand name objects, functionless belongings, group identity kits, images from a promotion scheme that leads to the ultimate in passive acceptance of their totalitarian symbolism."[13] I will return to the totalitarian aspect of the toys shortly. Here the relevance of Vincent's claim is that the more limited the opportunities are for play and the more over-determined and highly structured toys are, the fewer opportunities there are for negotiation and for other aspects of participation that have been noted to be generally beneficial in children's play.

Critics of modern toys are especially concerned about the decreased opportunities for imagination which they provide.[14] For instance, "...over structured toys, where the designer has already done the thinking, imagining and creating, reduce the possibilities for imaginative ideas and creative acts on the part of the child."[15] Decreased opportunities for participation often go hand in hand with this tendency. Education researcher Lynne Bartholomew, in working with children, found that creative play around flexible props "encouraged children to negotiate the play script with each other, so that each child felt a sense of belonging and ownership in the play."[16] There was, it seemed, a sense of participation which ran deeper and was more meaningful than the rather more superficial involvement encouraged by overdetermined toys. Bartholomew noted that overstructured toys involved the risk of using less ingenuity and resourcefulness, both of which are useful in co-operation and participatory play.

Do modern toys have to be so highly determined? Do they have to have their stories spelt out in such detail that they leave little to children's imagination and detract from the scope for richer participatory play? According to mechanisms of the market, which ensure that popular toys receive the most massive exposure and carry within themselves the seeds for their own quick redundancy, a high level of sensuality and a closed system of play are essential to the process. The elaborate sensualisation requires over-determination in appearance, so that each toy is highly specific and functional in a precise but extremely narrow way.[17] The Care Bears exemplify the segmentation of tasks and play themes. Instead of a humble teddy bear, this series of bears had their tasks divided up in the same way that the work force had had its tasks heavily segmented and specialised under Taylorism. Whereas one Care Bear was depicted as loving, another had the role of being cheerful, one was fun to be with, etc. The promise made by the typical modern toy is that it will perform a very particular function or strike a very particular image, the reverse side being that it can do very little else. Such toys do not encourage children to seek other functions within the same toy. The type of toy being sold and the marketing hype around it suggest that other toys, with their own highly specific functions, are needed for other play and for other scenarios. Overdetermination in character is therefore essential to the image identity being sought for the toy.

Overdetermination in the storyline is equally a part of the marketing process, for any toy that is brought to either the movie or television screen requires its stories to be pre-determined.[18] The toy industry chooses movie and television tie-ins for the exposure they give to toys and for the level of hype they can create. It follows that toys that are either designed or translated for the screen must have their stories pre-written. The toy industry does not lament this. On the contrary, it makes the most of it, as pre-ordained storylines allow manufacturers to work into the stories not only the key characters but many of the accessories and assorted characters that make up the elongated toy lines that exist today. In 1985 the then president of toy company Mattel explained that previously "When consumers bought one [toy], they didn't need another, so from a purely financial point of view, most toys failed" in terms of reaching their full market potential.[19] The large toy manufacturing corporations have turned that around so toys now rely heavily on other toys and accessories in the same line. For boys, these lines include mostly male companions, enemies, vehicles and weaponry, while girls' toys have friends, abodes, shops, horses and lots of fashionwear. As toys' functions become more specific, children need more of them to compensate for their limitations. Whereas open-ended toys can be brought into play across a wide spectrum of settings and imagined circumstances, function-specific toys can not.

Privatising play

Another important factor in these toys is their very private and individual nature. This has been achieved not just at the behest of the toy industry, though that industry has certainly taken advantage of this trend. We live in an increasingly privatised world which has put much more emphasis on commodities than relationships and sometimes, due largely to sophisticated forms of advertising, confusion between the two. If it was once thought that a child needed companions in order to be able to play meaningfully, it is now thought that a child needs toys. Moreover, toys often carry names which suggest they stand in for friends or are advertised to suggest this. Some of these include Tyco's series of soft toy dogs in the My Puppy Loves Me line, Friend Bear in the series of Care Bears, the Natasche doll which was advertised as being "ready to be someone's best friend,"[20] and Talking Baby Alive, of whom it was claimed "She will become a special talking friend."[21] Mattel ran an advertisement for Barbie in 1983 under a heading "Will you be Barbie's friend?" After listing some of Barbie's considerable accessories--and therefore serving as a reminder that these were available, should a child not have the full range--the advertisement continued: "Pink and Pretty Barbie has everything but the one thing she wants most. A true friend. Will you be Barbie's friend?"[22]

So, while such toys as skipping ropes, which can accommodate a great many players, still exist, much of the emphasis in today's toy market is on toys which children are expected to own individually, which they can play with alone and which often make claim to being able to substitute for friends and companions. Toys largely subsume play and restructure it so that participation becomes a much lesser part of play. Children might still play with their toys with friends but they are encouraged by neither the toy's prescribed range of play nor the broader social message contained within the toy itself, in which companions are somewhat superfluous. Increasingly gender-specific toys further exacerbate this trend, discouraging children of different sexes from playing together, since these toys construct vast differences in the types of play in which boys and girls are supposed to take part. Obviously, such constraints to participatory play can only detract from children's development along participatory lines.

Adults, too, have become more removed from children's play. Brian Sutton-Smith notes the paradox that "the toy is given so that the child can occupy itself without making any great demands on the parent's time" and that this is as true of toys which are Christmas presents as any other given toys, even though Christmas is supposed to be a celebration of togetherness.[23] An article in Advertising Age also noted that parents were buying toys as a means of assuaging their guilt about spending less time with their children.[24]

Other social forces have contributed to children being increasingly likely to play alone with their toys. The entrenchment of the small, self-contained family over the extended family and the breaking down of communities have no doubt played their part. To an increasing degree, urban and suburban children at least are expected to play, if not indoors, then in their own yards or in other stringently designated areas. This is partly a response to "stranger danger" to which television has contributed a growing awareness and exaggerated perception. There are increased pressures on parents to more closely oversee all activities of their children. Children are often chauffeured to organised activities where they may once have walked within the neighbourhood to less formal activities. Perhaps some of the dangers have heightened, such as the increase in cars and the encroachment of highways and major roads so that neighbourhood streets generally have more traffic and carry greater risk. That the trends extend beyond those that are directly to do with the marketplace in no way diminishes the corporate grab for children. Children are now targeted directly,[25] which has meant that toys are advertised in different places and ways and that the toys themselves are now designed to have quite different appeals.

With the shift towards more singular play and more individual toys and the social circumstances that encourage this, the well understood benefit to the toy industry is that a lot more toys can be sold to children who largely play by themselves or who, even when playing together, need their very own toys and all the accessories that go with them. All this reduces the quantity and quality of participatory play.

Moreover, the problem is not only that children are more likely to play alone, but the wider context where their social lives are dissipating in several areas. Dorothy Singer has noted that "When grandparents, parents and children live together, they form networks of educational, social, economic and cultural ties and interdependence."[26] She points to studies suggesting that "children who have active contact with their grandparents have a stronger sense of family, values, traditions and self-esteem."[27] Children's social networks are increasingly influenced by the marketplace. With the breakdown of many traditional codes, relationships previously built largely by family and community now have an increasing input from the market.

To some extent, then, toys now stand in for family or friends both in play and in teaching social roles. The ideological content of popular contemporary toys suggests that commodities are essential and are appropriate solutions to all problems. The toys which claim to be friends, already referred to, are an example of this phenomenon. In such ways, commodities promote themselves in an ongoing spiral, both presenting and claiming to solve problems. Commodities now stand in for communities in many instances and deliver a world view which is largely centred around goods rather than relationships.

This brings us to the second aspect of the relationship between toys and participation, the ideological socialisation of children by toys and how that pertains to their understanding of and expectations of participation.

Playing 'out' participation

Toys are clearly mechanisms of socialisation. Birgitta Almqvist, for instance, states that gender socialisation through play "is assumed to influence children's anticipation of their future adult roles."[28] Just as play delineates roles and acceptable spheres and aims for each gender, we can envisage, too, that play, by either including or restricting socialisation into participatory processes, will give rise to either narrow or broad perceptions of participation and contribute to different sorts of expectations for what is a "normal" or desirable level of participation in adult life.

I have argued that different toys involve different levels, and sometimes different types, of participation. Traditional play tended towards participation with others and involved application and changing of rules, often by popular agreement, as well as showing a strong emphasis on co-operation. This is much less apparent in play involving modern popular toys, either because the children play alone with their toys or they play with others but the toys are too overdetermined to encourage the full range of participatory possibilities.

There is another strong force which may also be working against participation: the ideological content of the toys themselves, much of which derives from the supremacy of the market. Richard Sclove asserts that conventional markets "nurture egoism, not moral development or citizenship."[29] This is characteristic also of the toys of the marketplace, which heavily emphasise individualism, narcissism and instant gratification and make an extravagantly wasteful and consumerist society seem natural. This is evident in the number of toys which themselves promote commodification and notions that shopping is bliss. There are numerous shops among Barbie's accessories, the talking version of that doll asks "Let's go shopping?" and even non-Barbie fans may find games such as Mall Madness in their toy boxes. This promotion of gratification and the other recurring themes is an inherent part of the strategy by which appeal is fostered for just such toys. These commodities therefore contribute to a popular culture which justifies and promotes precisely those attributes which result in their being strong sellers.

The promotional aspect does not end there, for, as previously mentioned, there is a great deal of cross-promotion involved in the marketing of toys, so that toys advertise a great many other commodities and entertainments which, in turn, promote the toys. This has so heavily influenced the direction of toys that "advertising toys," as so many of these toys can be called, are empty of almost every quality save for purely commercial "qualities." These promotional objects often have instant appeal which is linked to the advertised company or good.[30] There are a great many toys which advertise McDonald's, Pizza Hut, retailing chains, toy stores, and even other toys put out by the same company. For example, Polly Pocket Barbie promoted a quite separate line of dolls, Polly Pocket, put out by Mattel, the same company which manufactures Barbie. Fisher-Price, now a subsidiary of Mattel, in turn promotes Barbie and Hot Wheels on several pre-schoolers' toys. This verifies Andrew Wernick's claim that

The ideology of these toys, then, is the ideology of the marketplace and of promotion. The closest they come to encouraging participation or being part of a community is to urge potential consumers to be part of a "community" that eats at McDonald's, shops at Toys R Us and wears Reebok shoes. (Barbie, for instance, wears Reebok shoes and promotes these companies, among many more.) At a cultural level, realignments are made around products and brand-names. According to Tom Panelas, "Much of what passes as symbolic communality among large and geographically dispersed subcultures is based primarily on consumption patterns."[32]

Democracy, as it is defined and practised in its more conservative and limited applications, can be an obstacle to more meaningful participation at a political level, with claims that such participation is impractical, unnecessary or even an interference in the democratic process. Similarly, the marketplace can impede a flowering of participation behind its construction of pseudo-participation.

In this way we see the validity of Vincent's claim that toys are operating in a system of totalitarianism, although this is clearly not the model of totalitarianism commonly portrayed, where there are not enough goods in the marketplace or where the state determines what goods in what numbers are put on the market. This totalitarianism is about the pervasiveness of the toy and its often seedy message which preaches the primacy of commodities, the very system from which the commercial toy itself sprang. "Vaguely familiar playthings now come with their own book of rules, as though some invincible mastermind has already played with them and determined the parameters of their place in a child's life," says Vincent.[33] She uses the example of the toys linked to the wider marketing concept of Judge Dredd to demonstrate that the storylines themselves fit into the totalitarian pattern. "Dehumanized and licensed to kill he [Judge Dredd] has no emotional being, no personality, no social dimension, no conscience."[34] Dredd lives in Mega-City One, a city he describes as having "800 million people and every one of them a potential criminal. The most violent, evil city on Earth...but, God help me, I love it." He "may enter a citizen's home to carry out routine intensive investigation. The citizen has no rights in this matter."[35]

Judge Dredd is not alone in providing a much more detailed blueprint for violence than for citizenship and community rights and responsibilities. Many of the toys designed for boys have a militaristic basis and the military, of course, is one arena where participation in decision-making is off the agenda. If girls escape the militarism, they are more likely to be caught up in the appeals to narcissism, with groups of toys promoting vanity, fashion and, once again, shopping. Those toys depicting malls which include fashion and beauty shops can indulge all these narcissistic ideals at once. The idea of community or of groups of people working through problems or situations in co-operative, innovative and sensitive ways is missing completely. Video games are largely given over to killing or assisting a helpless female escape. Those video games which are designed for girls focus on matters such as designing new outfits for Barbie. The rules in these video-games are fixed and allow little chance of working through alternative solutions or different ways of coping with problems. In particular, they discourage collaborative attempts to encompass varying viewpoints towards resolutions. "Interactive" video games are far from participatory.

Marsha Kinder argues that children's and teenagers' entertainment, consisting of Saturday morning television, home video games, movies and all the commodities that tie in with these, do prepare young players for participation but it is "participation in this new age of interactive multimedia--specifically, by linking interactivity with consumerism."[36] This is the pseudo-participation I referred to initially and it demonstrates how the concept of participation has been appropriated and used in the interests of marketing. If participation means only taking part, then yes, there is participation at every glance, with people taking part in the celebration of commodities, the razzamatazz of the market and the rituals of mass consumption. But if participation means taking part in decisions about what technologies and goods should be designed and produced and for whose benefit, then participation is still very rare.

Participation has proved a slippery concept indeed and one which has been too easily adapted to the dominant philosophy. Carole Pateman has noted that under fascism there was a tendency for participation to be linked with totalitarianism rather than democracy.[37] Constituents under fascism were swept into a show of solidarity with the regime which had constructed a short, simplistic, superficially exhilarating agenda while trammelling any mechanisms for a more meaningful participation. Now the market is the new totalitarian force, with consumers, including children, being urged to participate. However, the domination of the market is invisible because it comes with a democratic image which belies the grip which it has on people and the paucity of choice that really exists in an arena which is supposed to be all about choice. The totalitarian features are most clearly seen in the ongoing attempts to have everything come under the umbrella of the market so that the needs of the market determine the nature of education, allowable levels of environmental pollution and a great deal more. Each time a crisis arises, the market is looked to to provide a solution, even though it is often the root of the problem.


Toys are a technological arena where the possibilities for participation in and beyond play are diminishing. This is largely due to the changing nature of toys and their dominating role in play. For those designing and manufacturing toys, questions of play are subservient to questions of marketability. Toys are helping reshape play towards less imaginative, more solitary, more commodity-based and more pre-determined activity.

Play and toys feature strongly in the socialisation process. Therefore the nature and extent of participation allowed or involved in toy play contribute to a child's expectation of participation in future life. Can we seriously expect toys which virtually exclude participation or leave it off the agenda to give rise to citizens who make great claims for participation? If modern toys are contributing to children's expectations and understanding of participation, then those children are being guided towards a participation which relates only to the marketplace and relationships which are between people and commodities rather than between people and people.

To use a market phrase, surely it's time to "shop around" for a stronger brand of participation and a type of play which will give rise to citizens who might more strongly demand it.


I thank Sharon Beder, Lyn Carson, Brian Martin and Therese Taylor for helpful comments on a draft of this chapter.

Commentary by Lynne Bartholomew[*]

In considering Wendy Varney's chapter, I am faced with a dilemma. As an educationalist I agree with many of the points she makes regarding societal changes, market forces and the pressures these impose on parents and children. As a parent however, I have to confess to having succumbed to that pressure!

Action Man was the toy of the moment at the time and became the focus for much sustained play. I remember being charmed to find him tucked up for the night under a rhubarb leaf in the garden, serving as a legitimate doll for my son. It is sad that after a certain age it is considered sissy for boys to play with dolls. In that sense I feel that such toys have a role in the development of children's imaginative play. Bruce refers to the importance of the transitional object, seeing this as one of the earliest sources of representation:

Action Man can be seen as an extension of earlier play with, for example, a teddy.

It would seem well nigh impossible to counter the pressure of market forces but I believe there are ways that parents and educators can foster children's imagination. I remember a colleague using a My Little Pony and a Barbie Doll as story props for the legend of Pegasus to an entranced class of 3 and 4 year olds who had English as a second language. In this way, she not only took the children into history and mythology, but also illustrated how such toys can be used in rich and different ways.

Providing children with natural materials so that conventional toys can be used alongside them helps children to become creative thinkers. Mud used as icing on a leaf makes a fine tea for Barbie!

The work of Athey, Bruce and Nutbrown on schemas or patterns in learning and development gives much insight into why children opt for certain toys at particular stages.[39] Identifying these schemas and using the knowledge helps informed adults to make provision that will enhance and enrich children's learning.

It seems that the prospect could be a gloomy one when looking at play, toys and participation. To take a constructivist stance, as with the examples cited, it is to be hoped that there are enough interested and committed adults to at least counter the onslaught of unsuitable toys that are currently being marketed. The greatest hope lies in the children themselves having the resourcefulness to use toys and other materials with flair and imagination.

Commentary by Sudarshan Khanna[*]

Talking of toys, our mind seems to rush to the neatly packaged things in toy shops and stores. Yet in countries like India, the majority of children still don't have access to these mass marketed "good looking toys." The culture of toys made by children and artisans is now struggling to survive.

I have often noticed that it is the self-made or even artisan-made toys that bring a sparkle to the eyes of children, rich or poor. I remember that, as children, we used to spend happy hours in playing with toys like a leaf flute. Just roll the right type of leaf in the right manner and blow it in a particular way to create sounds and music. The fun part was also to compare the sounds, and to help teach younger ones. Even today, in every part of the world, you will find children making and playing with paper aeroplanes, watching each one for its gliding performance. We can make a long list of the value and worth of these priceless toys.

Earlier children had access to another alternative source for toys. Just twenty years ago, many fairs all over India used to be like roadside toy expositions. The fairs had many indigenous toy makers, as well as stalls selling mass-produced cheap plastic toys. Today the toy makers are being replaced by stalls selling the same stuff. There is also the organised toy industry, growing every year. This sector operates much like "commodity toy" manufacturers elsewhere.

I liked reading Wendy Varney's chapter. Many of us have been voicing our concern over the erosion of our heritage of indigenous playthings. I am not against the modern, mass produced, mass marketed toys but deeply concerned over the decline of self-made and artisan-made toys. I am convinced that mono-cultured, market-driven toys are not only expensive but have a limited role to play, and these cannot replace the timeless, popular creative playthings made through the genius of generations of people.

Varney's well researched chapter has clearly brought out the less known "other side" of the "good looking toys": that most of the fancy, highly promoted commodity toys are devoid of real play participation and that an elaborate, highly advertised, pseudo-participation is being sold for genuine participation. The motives and methods adopted by the present-day entertainment and commodity promotion industry have been revealed in a forthright manner. They include the promotion of privatisation of play, the subtle advancement of the individual ego and greed, and the social and ideological context of the belief that mere products can replace friends and peers.

Varney has been systematic and forthright in bringing out the inadequate, the negative and even the harmful aspects of the glossy "advertised-commodity" toys. But these are products of the present time and present-day minds. While I agree with the broad perspective, I think the main problem is that today we are totally replacing diverse indigenous cultures. "This or that," "get the best" seems to be the approach. The "best" often gets mixed up with "latest, the most faddish and the conveniently available." Otherwise, how do we explain giving inferior or even questionable play material to our children? This is so in spite of the fact that today more parents are "educated" and there are more people professing an interest in "child development" research. How do we go ahead? In general it is necessary to promote diversity and indigenous development. It is important to realise that modern mass-marketed mono-cultural toys cannot replace the indigenous ones but that they will and can co-exist.

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[*] Wendy Varney is a fellow in Science and Technology Studies, University of Wollongong. As well as her research into toys, which was the basis for her PhD thesis, her research interests include leisure technologies and politics of sport. She is a feminist and environmentalist with a concern for all issues of social justice.

[1]. Antonia Fraser, A History of Toys (London: Spring Books, 1966), p. 160.

[2]. This can be seen as a transition period. A commodity was now necessary for play and each player was expected to have her own, though borrowing could be arranged. There was not, however, a great deal of importance attached to the type of doll. Any doll would do the task as ably as the next in allowing its owner to participate in the play.

[3]. Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr. and Asterie Baker Provenzo, The Historian's Toybox: Children's Toys from the Past You Can Make Yourself (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1979), p. 1.

[4]. Helen B. Schwartzman, Transformations: The Anthropology of Children's Play (New York: Plenum Press, 1978).

[5]. Philippe Aries, Centuries of Childhood (London: Jonathan Cape, 1962), p. 68.

[6]. Gabriel Chanan and Hazel Francis, Toys and Games of Children of the World (Paris: Serbal/UNESCO, 1984), p. 14.

[7]. Dorothy Singer, "Play activities that build bridges across the generations," paper presented at the International Toy Research Conference, Halmstad University, Sweden, June 1996, pp. 11-13.

[8]. Ibid., p. 12.

[9]. Ibid., p. 13,

[10]. Beryl Langer, "Commoditoys: marketing childhood," Arena, No. 87, Winter 1989, pp. 29-37.

[11]. Wolfgang Fritz Haug, Critique of Commodity Aesthetics: Appearance, Sexuality and Advertising in Capitalist Society (Oxford: Polity Press, 1986), p. 17.

[12]. Wendy Varney, "The Social Shaping of Children's Manufactured Toys," unpublished PhD thesis, University of Wollongong, 1995.

[13]. Sally Vincent, "Here's a Dreddful Noël to you all," New Statesman, 20-27 December 1985, p. 11.

[14]. Roland Barthes in Mythologies (St Albans: Paladin, 1973), pp. 53-54, was among those who lamented these decreased opportunities for imagination. For a more detailed list of the breadth of critique, see Varney, op. cit., pp. 74-76.

[15]. M. A. Pulaski,"Toys and imaginative play" in J. L. Singer (ed.), The Child's World of Make-Believe (New York: Academic Press, 1973), cited in Lynne Bartholomew, "Choosing appropriate toys for children--can the concept of Piagetian schemas help us there?," paper delivered at the International Toy Research Conference, Halmstad University, Sweden, June 1996, p. 3.

[16]. Bartholomew, op. cit., p. 2.

[17]. Varney, op. cit., pp. 48-57. Tom Engelhardt, "The Strawberry Shortcake strategy" in Todd Gitlin (ed.), Watching Television (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986), provides a poignant example of this phenomenon in his story of the development and marketing of Strawberry Shortcake.

[18]. Stephen Kline, Out of the Garden: Toys, TV and Children's Culture in the Age of Marketing (London: Verso, 1993).

[19]. Quoted in Penny Gill, "The joy of toymaking," Nation's Business, December 1985, p. 25.

[20]. Toy Kingdom's undated catalogue, circa 1995.

[21]. Grace Brothers Christmas catalogue, 1995.

[22]. Toys International and the Retailer, Vol. 20, February 1983, p. 21.

[23]. Brian Sutton-Smith, Toys As Culture (New York: Gardner Press, 1986), p. 23.

[24]. Cara S. Trager, "Parents don't just want to have fun toys," Advertising Age, Vol. 56, 14 February 1985, p. 24.

[25]. James U. McNeal, Kids As Customers: A Handbook of Marketing to Children (New York: Lexington Books, 1992).

[26]. Singer, op. cit., p. 5.

[27]. Singer, op. cit., pp. 5-6.

[28]. Birgitta Almqvist, "Letters to Santa Claus: an indication of the impact of toy marketing on children's toy preferences," paper presented at the International Toy Research Conference, Halmstad University, Sweden, June 1996, p. 1.

[29]. Richard E. Sclove, Democracy and Technology (New York: Guildford Press, 1995).

[30]. Wendy Varney, "The playfull sell: marketing through toys," in Stephen Frith and Barbara Biggins (eds.), Children and Advertising: A Fair Game? (Sydney: New College Institute for Values Research, 1994), pp. 57-61.

[31]. Andrew Wernick, Promotional Culture: Advertising, Ideology and Symbolic Expression (London: Sage, 1991), p. 190.

[32]. Tom Panelas, quoted in Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr., Video Kids: Making Sense of Nintendo (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), pp. 15-16.

[33]. Vincent, op. cit., p. 10.

[34]. Vincent, op. cit., p. 11.

[35]. The Best of 2000AD, Judge Dredd comic No. 4, January 1986, p. 1.

[36]. Marsha Kinder, Playing with Power in Movies, Television and Video Games (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), p. 6.

[37]. Carole Pateman, Participation and Democratic Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), p. 2.

[*] Lynne Bartholomew is a senior lecturer in education and is the coordinator of Redford House Nursery, situated at Froebel College. She was previously deputy head of a nursery school in Southall, West London, and is co-author, with Tina Bruce, of Getting to Know You: A Guide to Record-Keeping in Early Childhood Education and Care (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1993).

[38]. T. Bruce, Early Childhood Education (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1987).

[39]. C. Athey, Extending Thought in Young Children (London: Paul Chapman, 1990); Bruce, op. cit.; C. Nutbrown, Threads of Thinking (London: Paul Chapman, 1994).

[*] Sudarshan Khanna is a design educator at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, India. He has authored two books, Joy of Making Indian Toys and Dynamic Folk Toys. A series of video education films has been made on his work on the subject "Toys and Education." Besides teaching design, he also works with children, teachers, artisans, craftspeople and development organisations.

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15 April 1999