By now, you may well have seen this Toys ‘R’ Us commercial:
and you may also have seen much of the blowback Toys ‘R’ Us has gotten for suggesting that kids prefer toys to “nature.” When I first saw this commercial, I felt a bit confused. Even if you’re not some tree hugging nature geek, why actively deride the whole concept of kids going outside? But something else was bothering me, and it didn’t occur to me what it was until I was outside myself watching my kids wedge themselves into a crack in a boulder and scream that they were being eaten by a giant whale.
What I dislike most about this commercial is not that it set up nature vs. toys and toys won, but that it set up a false equivalency, a dishonest thumb on the scale to send the message that nature is something boring adults inflict on kids because it’s good for them, and that the purest joy children can experience is actually through getting toys.
I’m a parent, and my children’s toy strewn bedroom floor is a testament to kids’ universal love of cheap, low-quality plastic toys. My kids salivate over catalogs and curate their Amazon wish lists with a disconcerting fervor. I get that. They love toys. They’d be screaming like idiots if you drove them to Toys ‘R’ Us and let them pick out anything they wanted too. But I am a parent, so I also know that no matter how amazing the toy, they’ve had surfeit of it within a few days. A couple weeks at the outside, for a truly spectacular item. They’re like junkies, and the warmth of that last hit is forgotten as the search begins for the next one.
My kids get to spend a lot of time in the woods too. They move from made up game to made up game, tiring of one thing quickly, yes, but inventing new ones continuously. Boulders, easy-to-climb trees, suspension bridges, old cabins, fallen logs bridging a mucky bog, all are drawn into the service of the game. It’s not one item, one toy they want, it’s to play.
What’s really wrong with the Toys ‘R’ Us ad is this: it sets up “nature” not as an actual forest where the kids are let loose to play, but as a bus ride and a dud of a park ranger quizzing them on leaf flashcards. If we were to offer the true equivalent of that, he should then offer not an actual trip to a toy store, not actual toys, but should instead read aloud from their instruction manuals. “What leaf is this on this flashcard?” is not equivalent to a forest field trip, it’s equivalent to reading “Snap the character selectors onto the top and bottom tracks of the large spacers.” Wow. What gets a kid’s blood pumping more than that? Huh?
You don’t teach your kids to play by reading them assembly manuals, and you don’t teach them to understand and love their environment by quizzing them on leaf shapes. The way you teach a kid to love something is to let them play with it, to play in it.
I realized why the commercial didn’t make me sad, or angry, or defensive. It’s not really a battle between nature and toys, after all. Kids want to play. But if it must be a battle, as long as kids are allowed to go outside and play, I’m not worried about the outcome either–take that busload of kids to a tide pool, or a tent in the mountains, or let them paddle a kayak under a full moon, and nature’s gonna win, every time. Because a toy gets old, no matter how cool. But a tide pool, or the woods, or the mountains are different every time, and play itself is inexhaustible.