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December 2015

Pretend, plastic play

The ‘kid who liked the cardboard box more than the toy’ cliché must have been played out somewhere in England this Christmas Day. And who can blame that child. Is there anything more soulless than the adult-sanctioned, plastic-moulded, beeping and buzzing brand of imaginative play that gets dreamed up in focus groups full of stone-hearted creatives?

What good is a Toyrific Market Stall if there is no-one playing with you to request your pretend money, to get flustered when your toy dog knocks something over in the shop, and to tell you “put that down – that isn’t for sale!”

When I think to set up a shop in imaginative play with a child (usually in response to the child saying they need more food for their toys), I turn the Sindy bath upside down, roughly stack some toy food on it, put a puppet behind it, give a little basket to the child, suggest they might want to buy some bits, and then wait to see what they come up with.




Exhibit B is the Peppa Pig Cleaning Trolley. Has there ever been a more monumental waste of physical and mental space?

Yes, cleaning up is a staple of pretend play, but what is far more interesting to children is what has happened to create the mess. A dog has knocked over a cup of tea – won’t someone put him outside and get a cloth? And why has that cheeky little girl just squirted shampoo all over the floor? She will have to clean that up herself. Oh, and watch out little boy, or you’ll get chocolate all over your…. oh dear. And now the dog is licking his shoes. Stop that! And – – ugh – – what’s that cat doing out there in the garden? A cloth and a shared train of thought is all that is required to get these sorts of ideas off the ground.

I joined the Let Toys Be Toys campaign last year. Their petition led to many high street shops pulling down their “Boys’ Toys” and “Girls’ Toys” signs (although it’s still easy to find the junk that is intended for girls, as it is primarily made out of pink / purple plastic, and plastered with princess propaganda).

They released a very interesting analysis last week, a distillation of the language used by TV advertisers to entice girls and boys into buying their tat. Here are the highlights, along with the word clouds.

  • Boys were shown as being active and aggressive, and the language used in adverts targeted at them emphasises control, power and conflict.
    • Ads targeted at boys were mainly for toys such as vehicles, action figures, construction sets and toy weapons
  • Girls were generally shown as passive, unless they were dancing. The language used in the ads focuses on fantasy, beauty and relationships.
    • Ads targeted at girls were predominantly for dolls, glamour and grooming, with an overwhelming emphasis on appearance, performing, nurturing and relationships. Out of 25 ads for toy vehicles, only one included a girl.
  • Ads that featured boys and girls together were usually in categories such as action/board games, art/craft materials, interactive toys and soft toys.
    • Some ads that featured boys and girls together showed them as adversaries, for example the girls screaming and running away from the boy’s Wild Pets remote control spider, or the boy trying to break into a girl’s secret journal.



This is depressing stuff, if entirely unsurprising.

I play in basically the same way with boys and girls. Younger boys, while they do enjoy bashing toys together and going ‘raah’, do respond to nurturing-type play and cleaning up and so on. They need a bit of encouragement to venture into it at times, but this seems to me to be mostly down to difficulties they have with arousal levels (the younger boys that I end up working with often need to learn to calm down). Young girls enjoy slapstick and fighting just as much as their brothers do.

Older boys can be more technical in the way they play, in my experience. More super powers are awarded to the toys, other toys have more sophisticated defences from these super powers, the toys are more likely to be incarcerated, and so on. How much of this comes from the conditioning from the media, who can say. There are certainly no hard and fast rules, and all children’s ideas need to be listened and responded to.

I’ve posted my imaginative play handout here before in parts, but here is the whole thing to download, for anyone who’s got this far through my little diatribe.

Making things happen with words

I received a delivery this morning: 10 massive balloons. I’ll take the elastic bands off before I use them. These were just £2.29 from Amazon. They’ll last hundreds of sessions of language stimulation.

I use these in much the same way as I use my bubble trumpet: to elicit basic words from children who really want to make things happen. So this is words such as ‘balloon’ to request for me get the balloon out of the bag, ‘blow’ or ‘bigger’ before each breath for me to make them bigger, and ‘ready, steady go’ for me to let the balloon go for it to jerk dramatically around the room.

This represents a great deal of language from one piece of rubber. The child has to go via me to get what they want, and most children really do want to see the balloon whizz around (I do remember one child who dry heaved while I began blowing the balloon up… I tried something else with that child). There is also an element of cause and effect with the balloon – the child that requests ‘go’ without first asking ‘blow’ will just see me drop an uninflated balloon on the floor.

This type of approach (holding off before you give something motivating, and always expecting a little more from the child who is attempting to request) is ideal for children with autistic spectrum disorder and more generally for those who lack experience of directing the behaviour of others through language. These children are all, to one degree or another, inexperienced or disorganised with using language to request. They might look at your hand, pull your hand, get frustrated, go inert, do a shake of their body, and so on. They might use words, but at the wrong time. All of this can be seen as being partly intentional behaviour. The therapist’s job is to model the words (or in some cases, the signs), and wait for the child to make the leap and use them.