Creative Play with Rigid Scripts

My two children and a friend (then ages six, five and three) were playing with the most recent craze from the toy industry, teenage mutant ninja turtles. Of course, all such toys these days come with a script--from commercials, video movies, TV cartoons, comic books, package instructions, older, more "informed" siblings--detailing the kind of adventures these particular action figures are supposed to have. I was not pleased to have my house invaded by this rigid, violent, creativity-stifling creature of the toy industry, and I went to work in the kitchen, subconsciously trying to avoid contact, I think, and considering the phenomenon of mass culture.

There are terrible toys and models out there. If they don't glorify war as a way of solving all problems for boys, or romance as a comparable solution for girls, then they're full of highly improbably cutesy niceness that does nothing except obscure reality and profit its producers. In addition to having all of these products to contend with in one way or another, we have to deal with the scripts that go along with them. You aren't just supposed to play with these toys; you're supposed to play with them the "right" way. Children can pick these messages up very quickly--and you can watch the freshness go out of a game as they try to faithfully reproduce what they heard or saw or read.

No matter what we think of it, our children want to participate in and understand what they see around them. Finding ways to remove these toys from our environment--both personal and societal--would be great. But in the meantime, the immediate issue of concern is not the toys in themselves, but whether a child is being limited or internalizing warped values as a result of playing with them. And we have more power than we know to make use of these toys and the scripts that they come with. We can use them as openers for talking about important values issues. And we can offer creative changes in the scripts that will shake them up in good ways.

As I was pondering over the issue of how to insert fresh points of view into the children's game, I heard snatches of their dialogue. Intrigued, I came in from the kitchen. The ninja turtles, under the guidance of their flesh-and-blood owners, were busy making little bowls and candles out of modeling clay so that they could go out trick-or-treating. Later on, the turtles were bowing down to the Baby Jesus. The children had beaten me to it. The deadening force of mass culture just hadn't been able to stand up to the power of their imagination and creativity. I knew it wasn't a final victory, but there certainly was hope. I went back to my work, immensely relieved.