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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.

Three things we buy for children that sound like a good idea, but aren’t

Just because I live in the present, it doesn’t mean I have to like it. When I look at the TV that is created for our children, the amount of time the average child spends with a working parent, the level of distraction these parents submit themselves to, and the products we surround our children with, I truly wonder at the motives of the architects of this situation.

Q: When is a bed not a bed?
 A: When it is a toy. A toy that completely undermines the first rule of infant sleep hygiene – bed is a place for falling asleep, sleeping and waking up in.

This product is designed to milk parents who are struggling to get their children to sleep in their own bed. ‘He doesn’t like going to bed – he just wants to play’. ‘He falls asleep on the couch and I lift him into his bed’. ‘When he wakes up in the night either I let him into bed with me or he’s up the whole night’. These are the kinds of things I hear all the time in my job.

Some children find it hard to wind down at the end of  the day. Some children lack the emotional tools to understand that it is ok to be alone for a little while in your room. These children are not going to be helped in any measure by a bed such as this.

“Black sky” double-decker pram of doom
Which baby would you rather be? Front or back? I’d go for back every time. True, you might come to the conclusion in the end that the sky is black (unbelievably this product’s name is ‘black sky)’, but at least you might be able to get some proper sleep in there.

Quite simply, our prams face the wrong way. Can you imagine what it is like down there? Feet clattering. Cars, buses, fire engines, all careering along, just feet away. No control over the direction of travel. Exposed to the elements, until someone decides to wrap damp, smelly plastic around you. And that someone – how to get her attention? What is she thinking at the moment? What is she looking at? Is she looking at the same thing as me? This is a recipe for increased levels of anxiety and delayed development of language and joint attention. And studies do seem to be pointing strongly in that direction.

Baby ipod ‘aptivity’ case
Young children want to play with electronic toys. And no wonder – they are transfixing enough for us. These children are living miracles! Steve Jobs is ‘changing their OSes‘! Unfortunately, the online generation of the future also see us as a cause and effect toy.

Baby apps and so on are great if they are used for very short periods of time and if the experience can be explained and shared with another. However, we all know that this is not how these things are used. They are a babysitter that robs our children of the ability to find wonder in the normal, the prosaic. Maria Edgeworth, in Practical Education (1798) got it spot on:

When a nurse wants to please or to pacify a child, she stuns its ear with a variety of noises, or dazzles its eye with glaring colours or stimulating light. The eye and the ear are thus fatigued without advantage, and the temper is hushed to a transient calm by expedients, which in time must lose their effect, and which can have no power over confirmed fretfulness. The pleasure of exercising their senses, is in itself sufficient to children without any factitious stimulus, which only exhausts their excitability, and renders them incapable of being amused by a variety of common objects, which would naturally be their entertainment.

Childcare is in a total mess in the UK and we're going to make it worse

BBC News – Childcare: One in four providers ‘make loss’
BBC News – Childcare review launched as nursery reforms urged

I think it’s fair to say that childcare is in a bit of a crisis here in the UK (although I’m sure that Scotland and Wales are somehow absolutely perfect like usual). Parents pay huge sums for childcare (and four or five times as much in London as elsewhere, I read today) and places for some 2- and all 3- year olds are centrally funded at one of the highest cost-levels in Europe. Yet nursery managers are apparently taking home an average of £13,500 a year and the workforce, despite all the training they have to trundle through, and despite the sheer complexity of trying to squeeze a child into the EYFS, they get the minimum wage in almost every case. It’s not much compensation for the sheer weight of responsibility heaped on these people from both directions – upwards from busy parents and downwards from nervous law-makers.

The same thing can be seen in social care for the elderly. Councils pay quite large sums, private tenants’ cross-subsidy to the council-funded tenants is frankly eye-watering (my grandmother pays £900 a week for what seems to me to be rather hands-off care), and once again it doesn’t seem as though the people who own care homes are bothering the rich list particularly.

Another thing these two sectors have in common is the fact that hardly anyone ever has anything positive to say about the people on the ground providing the care. Today the problem is the fact that nursery workers and childcarers in general lack an A-level equivalent qualification, and that their literacy and numeracy skills are inadequate.

Admittedly there must be something very wrong with the numeracy skills in a sector where some settings have taken it upon themselves to pay 92p a pint for milk… but I digress…

Was it the the Swedish model or the Finnish model we were meant to be following? I forget. We failed either way.

The first component of these models must have gone unnoticed by the legislators when they were on their jollies in Scandinavia. They were presumably overawed by the settings they saw, and the top-class early educators they met, without considering the fact that the countries who get childcare right can afford to do so because they make full use of the adults (neighbours, family) in the community to deliver informal child care the rest of the time. Of course in this country, even two female police officers can be prevented from looking after each other’s children because they are not registered as childminders. We need to do something to develop ours into a compassionate society where people do things for one another simply because they can and because they want to. Certainly we could start by getting rid of any legislation that prevents us doing so. We overpay for care in this country because we don’t, or can’t, care enough for one another without being given some sort of financial jolt to do so, or without having a badge that says we’re allowed to.

The second component of these models was the one they focused on, but again they didn’t look deeply enough. These settings understand that young children learn from play, from direct experience and from each other. In many countries in Europe, sit-down learning starts well after a child reaches 7 years of age. In the former Czechoslovakia, it used to be, if your child couldn’t draw a circle clockwise and anticlockwise, and if he couldn’t touch his left ear with his right hand, and his right foot with his left hand, he wasn’t made to sit in a classroom to learn. Here we have taken on the bits of the system we like, without actually considering the experience of the child. Some reception teachers understand that it is too much to expect children to adopt a rigid learning plan just because they happen to be turning five years of age before some random day or other. Likewise, some nursery staff understand that a total absence of structure is confusing for young children. But the bulk of children in this country experience the shock of transition from Child-Led (read “child-left”) Play to ‘sit-down and listen’ without any consideration for where they are in their development. In this country we have the option of holding a child back a year. But one day that child has a serious dose of reality coming their way when they have to get back into their correct year group before a change of school.

So to get back to the original point – the supposed need for early years’ staff to be educated to A-level level. I couldn’t care less if they can’t read a story to the child. What I want to know is, can they make a story up off the top of their heads and tell it in an exciting manner? Can they leap into the child’s world and instinctively offer intellectual morsels that draw the child’s thinking onwards through the proximal zone of their development? Can they spot something the child is doing today that they weren’t able to do last week? Do they know what the child likes to do? Do they enjoy doing what the child enjoys doing? Are they able to make the child understand that they enjoy getting involved in what they are doing? Do they even like children?

None of these things (apart from the last one) are easy. It is precisely because delivering child-led learning, to a skeleton curriculum, on the hoof, pitched perfectly to arouse a group of disparate souls is so difficult that we have lost our way in childcare in the UK. It takes a special person to be able to nurture children in all domains, to understand them and to love them, and with every policy review we get further and further away from getting early “education” right.

When we find our workforce, they may or they may not have additional skills in administration and accounting. It could not be any less relevant for the children.