The recent New York Times article about the demise of imaginative play and efforts to bring it back reminded me of a bizarre commercial I saw when my husband and I took my son to see Toy Story 3. As anyone who’s been in a theater during the past five years knows, the audience now has to sit through commercials before the previews. (This makes my blood boil, but that’s another post for another day.) One of the commercials we saw was for the then-new Toy Story 3 video game.
If I had come across this commercial while watching television, I would have assumed I had stumbled on a Saturday Night Live commercial parody. In it, one of the video game creators chuckles warmly while musing about “imaginative play” and what it means, followed by footage of children jumping and running against a white backdrop, presumably using their imaginations. Then, Lee Unkrich, Toy Story 3’s director, laments, “In this modern age, there isn’t a lot of just plain old playing with toys anymore.” He then states that the video game designers have really captured “what it was like to just simply play with your toys.”
What it WAS like? Was? Did I miss something? Have toys been banned by some totalitarian regime, leaving children with nothing but the virtual experience of a video game? Well, no, obviously. But as any teacher, pediatrician, or child psychologist can tell you, children spend too much time in front of screens (both televisions and computers) and not enough time engaged in unstructured, imaginative play, the kind that the makers of the Toy Story 3 game hope you’re dumb enough to confuse with a video game.
As I sat in the theater I restrained myself from shouting, “Why not turn off the stupid game and give them some toys to play with?” Which was a good thing. I don’t want my boy thinking you solve problems by yelling in public, especially at people who aren’t really there.
But months later I still find myself incredulous. The makers of Toy Story 3 are lamenting the demise of something they are helping to destroy: creative play. Video games don’t count, because the child is not using his or her imagination, no matter how carefully the makers try to mimic real play. And movies don’t count either. Passively watching a child onscreen playing with toys is not play. It is telling that, while the commercial shows children running and jumping against a white screen, it only briefly shows them staring glassy-eyed at a screen while they play the game.
If the makers of Toy Story 3 really cared about the demise of play, they would put their considerable celebrity weight (and money) behind efforts like Play for Tomorrow, a consortium that promotes the importance of play, instead of promoting a game that robs children of the experience it purports to save.