Toys R Us We Are Watching

I had a great day today. When I got home around four pm, I was feeling tired, in a way only the sun can bring about fatigue. I was calm and feeling content and peaceful. Getting out of the car, my kids were sweaty, hair wind-swept and their feet were dirty. They carried with them flowers they had found on the ground to give to mommy, who was at home recovering from a cold. In short, I was basking in the glory of a day well spent at the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve and Bollywood Veggies. See for yourself:

As my children prepared for bedtime, someone in my network posted this article with a link to the following Toy R Us commercial.

I was immediately stewing in indignation. I tweeted a few angry tweets and shared the video clip on Facebook, but was left unsatisfied. I knew I would not be able to leave this alone until I wrote about it and explored why I was so upset.

I am lucky. I do not live in the US where my kids are constantly bombarded with TV ads. But I do still feel the effects of corporate bullying on our family’s collective psyche. And ads like this are more than just a cute way to get kids to buy toys. Ads like this are weapons used by consumer culture advocates to create a new generation of kids who are becoming more and more disconnected from nature, and more and more obsessed with consuming corporate culture.As parents and teachers, we have a responsibility to say something, do something when we see flagrant disregard for our own values in the face of this consumer attack.

It’s hard being a parent. I get it. I love the movies. I even love the toys. I occasionally shop at Toys R Us. I have two kids, how can I not? But at the end of the day, how far I allow my kids to be manipulated by this kind of garbage is up to me.

I sat Kaia down and showed her the commercial and asked her what she thought. She is seven. She mentioned that a trip to Toys R Us to get whatever she wanted sounded pretty cool. (She actually used the word amazing!) My rage was palpable.  But what about today, I asked. Didn’t you have fun? Would you rather spend time in the toy store or sitting under that fig tree we saw. (This tree was amazing by the way)

No, the farm was really cool. She said. It was fun seeing all the fruit trees and watching the Skinks in the mangroves. Ah, there it was satisfaction! The fact that kids love nature is no mystery. I can remember countless hours spent exploring western Marin county and Samuel P. Taylor Park. But like most things in their lives kids need our help to gain exposure to nature. I am beginning to wonder if addressing Nature Deficit Disorder is not a bigger problem than showing kids how to use iPads. Take a look:

Why are we not having regional conferences on how we can bolster our schools outdoor programs?  This problem with urbanization and distance from nature, seems to be a global problem. The thing that makes me so mad about the Toys R Us ad, is that it is hard enough getting kids to engage with nature without the not so covert corporate interference. But their tactics are nothing new:

So what now? Who cares? What do we do?

1. First step, should always be to talk to our kids! Our own children as well as the ones we teach. Show them the ads, talk to them about the messages, show them alternatives. Expose them not only to nature, but show them the contrast to the corporate culture that thrives on their disconnections from nature. I plan on showing this post and the videos to my Be The Change class first thing Monday. I suggest you do the same.

2. Take the kids outdoors. Embolden your outdoor ed programs. Take your kids outside and let them play and explore and get dirty. Teach them the names of plants and animals. Arrange field trips. Spend your weekends as a family in nature.

3. Speak up. Tweet, share, write about these companies and tell your friends to do the same. In this day and age of connectivity, it is audacious for  a company like Toys R Us to make an ad like this and not expect massive blow back. Show them that we are here and not happy about what they are teaching our children.

4. Boycott? Not sure on this one. I am not against toys. I remember the thrill of going to Toys R Us as a kid, and I see the value of toys (even corporate ones) I want my kids to be aware not shielded. I want them to notice and see the grotesque commercialism of some products and ideas versus other more Eco-friendly ones.  I want my kids to be able to enjoy a great day at the Nature Reserve and come home and play with  dolls they love. I know corporations only listen to the dollars and cents, but I would like to think that a powerful campaign could do more than not buying my kids toys. However, I will limit my shopping at stores like Toys R Us and try to find alternative stores that offer better toys.

5. Let’s make some posters and videos and projects to get kids excited about nature and share them amongst our schools. Student generated ones would be even best. I will ask some groups in my Be The Change course to take up this cause. I will share what they create.

I feel better! I had to get that off my chest. I wish you could have seen the look on my kids faces as they ran between cocoa and coffee trees barefoot today. As they saw a “real” scarecrow. Felt the humid heat and enjoyed the rain drops. Felt the mud between their feet and saw where bananas come from.

Sorry Toys R Us! I have never seen them look like that leaving one of your stores. It was a magical day. One that was much more exciting and memorable than wandering your florescently lit aisles looking at toys that try to show my kids how to be girls.

Would love to hear your thoughts! What are you doing as a parent or a teacher to get your kids exposure to nature? What project ideas do you have? How can we show Toys R Us that this type of message is unacceptable?


17 thoughts on “Toys R Us We Are Watching

  1. avatarNeil Ringrose

    Firstly, I am a little jealous of your day…and your trip to the beautiful places where you are.
    Secondly, as a parent and an educator and a human I thank you.
    I thank you for your time, your thoughts, your photos, your writing and your ideas.
    Lets make it happen!
    Sleep calmly.

  2. avatarAloni

    Great post! Thanks for this.

    It is interesting that this topic has been on my mind already today upon my return to Singapore and a drastic shift in my daily habits. (It’s funny how somethings and certain ideas seem to cluster together – drawn to your attention with unusual frequency.) I spent a huge portion of my day today on the computer – checking recent events, editing videos, sharing pictures, making plans and communicating with people. At the same time, I was reminded of the contrast between this and the the past 2 weeks where I didn’t have my computer with me. I was scuba diving and swimming everyday, engaging with people from all of the world, partying on the beach, exploring, having long and meaningful conversations, eating local food, thinking, sleeping well, getting tons of exercise, loving the fresh air and energy. I was in my own paradise. I was not checking facebook or email very much. I was not skyping with family. I was not thinking about school work.

    Today a friend in Canada posted this article on FB: It references “the screen” and “technology” as devils in disguise. It made me think of the way I was ‘educated’ by my school about the dangers of drugs in the 90’s. I don’t think of technology as a danger because I’ve always been able to balance a love of getting out into nature and a love of technology – most of all, and most effectively blending (or at least balancing) the 2 in my teaching career.

    The Toys R Us ad makes me laugh. Why play up the boring “field trip” intro? Conducted properly, a trip to “a field” or a forest would have made those kids more happy than the plastic toys and gadgets in a shopping mall. It’s all about the delivery. As with everything in teaching, it is all about engagement. Successful Outdoor Education has to be done skillfully, enthusiastically, honestly, and with purpose. I agree whole-heartedly with all your thoughts on consumer culture. I plan to evade it as long and as much as I can, especially if I ever have kids. It is one of the reasons that I know, without a doubt, that Singapore is not a place where I can maintain personal happiness and and overall wellbeing.

    As for how to make OE more of a focus in our schools and in our lives – well it already is. UWC does an incredible job getting kids authentically and actively involved in exploring the outdoors. It also shows them explicitly how and why it is meaningful education, and not just a trip. Tying Service Learning into this mix (most projects involve an element of OE and/or are in remote places where OE happens organically) makes it even more effective. As well, Singapore has an Outdoor Education Association ( that hosts conferences every year. Round Square is also a huge promoter and facilitator of Outdoor Education around the globe. When compared to technology, OE is just as much a passion and focus for many schools and teachers is in this region and even more so around the world. Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the UK have much more of a regional focus on OE than they do on Technology in Education. But let’s not forget that it doesn’t have to be a matter of either or. It’s not the angel and the devil and shouldn’t have to be a good vs. evil argument (like the article above). For me, as a teacher, it’s a matter of balance. What is interesting for me at this current stage in my life is that, over the past year and looking into my future, I’m definitely tipping the scales towards more Outdoor Education than Technology in Education.

    I hope you come and visit me on my little slice of paradise when I become a scuba instructor. Bring your girls when they are teenagers and I’ll teach them the wonders of the most diversely populated 70% of our planet that most people never explore! <*<<

    1. avatarJabiz Post author

      Great response. Thanks for taking the time to engage with these ideas. I agree with you about the balance. I was not trying to make this an either/or situation. Like you, I think, I love both my tech and my nature, I was merely saying that it feels we have more focus on tech, but thanks for the reminders about our work at UWC and the Round school programs. I guess I was hoping for more!

      Is there way to have a 1-1 program with OE. Beyond just activities and trips, but as part of what we do everyday! Not sure what this looks like, but feels necessary. Thank for the links. I guess I just need to become more invovled myself.

      Finding that balance in everything is so key. I want my kids to know about consumer culture and choose how to engage with it. I want them to be aware when they have been on screens for too long and be aware of the value of muddy feet. As for Singapore and well being, that is a personal decision, but it feels more and more that one needs to adopt an “alternative” lifestyle to escape it. Or maybe I ma just copping out. No one said this (life) would be simple.

      But I love the idea of you diving and free and away from it all. Trust me my girls will be divers and I look forward to a time we can dive together. Maybe once before you leave.

  3. avatarErika

    Great post. And what a ridiculous commercial. Don’t ge me wrong, I agree with your daughter that the chance to go to a toy store, and pick any toy you want sounds amazing! What disturbs me is how they chose to make a chance to explore nature seem boring and unimportant. It’s an insult to kids everywhere, who given the chance, are fascinated by and with nature. I feel blessed to be raising my kids in some of the most beautiful places on earth, where the outdoors and nature are so much a part of the fabric of the places. My boys love toys as much as the any kids, but they also love nature, learning about and being with nature, and I find that often the two overlap. The fascination of the moment in our house is sea life. Aquarium visits, books, movies all revolve around this topic – and whenever we go to Toys r Us, we walk out with toy whales, dolphins, and a variety of sea creatures. But given the chance to go to Toys r Us or the tide pools… nature wins every time. Thanks Jabiz.

  4. avatarBrighde Reed
    Twitter: brighde

    2 more documentaries to watch! Thanks for sharing. I 100% agree with what you are saying. I too was so fortunate to spend most of my childhood in nature and outside playing. In the past couple of years, I have spent some time thinking and reading about these issues. Some resources that have helped me on this journey are:

    Reading a Place for Wonder

    Power and Promise

    Zoe Weil who wrote power and promise also has an Institute of Humane education where you can undertake a number of courses which you can take from a short 6 week online course (on how to teach Humane education) to a Masters in Humane Education. A huge focus of the courses is looking at the issues we are talking about here.

    I like and think the outdoor education or WOWs are pretty fantastic and without a doubt are worth the considerable time and effort to put them on, but I am not sure it is enough time. Just a couple of days a year. Kids usually develop and grow so much in those short few days, then surely they would develop and grow even more if they were doing this every week, that’s not to say that the school should be responsible for doing this, but certainly the family should be doing this too.

    Perhaps another idea would be to screen these docos at our schools for interested members of the community to see what they think of it? Perhaps they would realise the value of a monthly family jaunt to a local national park, or even just a park and actually do it!

    Thanks for sharing….

  5. avatarWilliam Chamberlain (@wmchamberlain)
    Twitter: wmchamberlain

    My kids spend a lot more time outside than in a toy store. We have acres of land with trees, caves, and all sorts of stuff to be explored. The closest toy store is probably an hour’s drive away. I suspect my kids would pick a trip to the toy store since they don’t go regularly (or even yearly.)

    Just one of the real benefits of living in the country, even in the USA :)

  6. avatarRob Houghton

    Great post and, on behalf of Outdoor Educators the world over, thank you for your ire. I detest this rank commercialisation of childhood and would actually welcome a ban on advertising to children though I do realise they also present a learning opportunity in the right hands. However, what really gets my goat about this particular specimen is the false dichotomy presented here: nature is boring, spending is fun.

    You’re right to highlight the need to bolster OE programmes (though I would say that, wouldn’t I?) and the growing concern over Nature Deficit Disorder. There are, however, glimmers of light and I don’t necessarily agree with you that NDD is a global problem as Scandinavian, central and eastern European countries have no such concern with a connection to nature right there in their everyday lives and explicitly in the curriculum. And that’s not to mention the necessary connection to nature that most children have in the developing world.

    Yet NDD does remain a problem. As Aloni points out, OE is being introduced into the curricula of many schools (though not enough) and is at the core of the UWC and Round Square movements but there is often a gap between what is talked about and what is actually done. For some schools, OE is a box to tick and a quick visit to a commercial jungle gym suffices. Even the mighty UWCSEA which has it’s own dedicated outdoor department and genuinely runs some of the best and most integrated OE I’ve ever had the privilege of working on doesn’t pay its full-time, highly qualified and highly professional Outdoor Educators the same as it does its teachers of other subjects. This just relegates OE as subject.

    The benefits of immersion in nature are too manifold to expound here and whilst there is nothing wrong with toys per se, it is worth remembering how many of them we still play with from our own childhoods. I still draw daily pleasure from the great outdoors.

  7. avatarMike

    Thanks Jabiz,

    You are singing our song. I will post my keynote once it’s uploaded. We need to make this a priority in schools. Lets talk about how BTC can make it so!

  8. avatarAnn Oro

    Thanks for sharing the video clips. I might give a Nature Around the School project a try. It would give me a reason to get the students outside, looking around, and identifying during computer class. My 19 year old still favorite walks in National Parks to being indoors on vacation. Your children will always have a love for outdoors from all I’ve seen in your shared photos over the years. Ann

  9. avatarDiane Cordell

    Yes, the kids are disengaged when the adult is nattering on about tree leaves, but get them off that bus and exploring, and you’ll see a whole new level of excitement as they interact with nature. I like “toys” as much as anyone, but they can never replace a ramble outdoors.

  10. avatarTracy Armstrong

    Hello Jabiz,

    First of all, thanks for posting the beautiful pics you took at the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve and Bollywood Veggies. Second of all, I wanted to let you know that I share in your disappoint of that advertisement. The nerve of them to portray a field trip as boring was appalling. I would have rather the ad to begin with taking the children on a field trip to see the beginning stages of toy making and then ending with a trip to their store to view the finished product. I think that would have made for a great Art Education experience. Let us not get discouraged Jabiz because as good parents and educators, we are responsible for giving our children and students the balance that they need in their life. Keep the passion and all will be well. Follow me on twitter @tafulofaith.

  11. avatarLouise Murray-Leung (@weasie23)

    Commercials like the one for Toys R Us make it very hard to help kids learn that few things in packages are worth wanting, really.

  12. Pingback: Ubiquitous Exposure | Intrepid Teacher

  13. avatarBenny Johans

    That is a reason they say, “don’t raise your kids in big cities”. I may not totally agree with it, but there is a sense behind it. This so called ‘corporate culture’ which they call future Gen? I don’t I am not loving the environment of drifting away from the real ‘nature’, and more and more into internet world, TVs, etc. Our kids should be encouraged more into natural environment. If we are in cities, we should get our kids different types of toys, say jumping castles, etc. not to let our kids submerge into artificial world.

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