For his birthday Ben got a push truck from his godparents, a character from the film Cars. One morning right after he’d received it, Dom said casually to Ben, “That truck is called ‘Mater’.” Ben rather ignored it and went on playing as if Dom hadn’t spoken. He wasn’t at all interested in the character name. Later that day when Ben was napping the girls were playing with the truck. Sophie was pushing it about, pretending to be a farmer plowing a field. Bella was pretending to load it up with seeds to plant in the fields. I noticed they were calling it Otis, after the tractor in the book we got Ben for his birthday.
I was really struck by the contrast between the girls’ creative play and the kind of play that I’ve observed children who know the characters and the story engage in. Children who have watched the movie or the shows often feel constrained to follow the script for those characters. They don’t feel as free to name them and let them have their own story lines. My girls certainly use plots and characters from books they’ve read; but they mix and match elements. When they play at being princesses Sleeping Beauty has a wicked stepmother and ruby sandals.
I generally avoid buying “named” toys that tie into television shows or movies. It irritates me how children are targeted by branding that seeks to make them into name-aware consumers. My girls kind of know who the Disney princesses are from their cousins. I think Bella especially knows the names of Cinderella and Belle and Snow White. But in general they stare blankly when people talk to them about various characters from shows they don’t watch and movies they haven’t seen.
They do have one little Belle figure that they were given and she doesn’t have a name. They just call her “Princess.” I rather prefer it that way.
I love watching them play with their menagerie of animals. The cow called Mooah, the horse called Slyer and her foal named Sly. The elephant named Dad and the ostrich named Greydial. (The donkey, goat and rooster are just called Donkey, Goat and Rooster. Obviously they are supporting characters.) I love the fact that they have renamed the apostles in their set and that one of them is named George and another is “Johnny Pat Snuff”. That is really my all-time favorite name.
I’m glad that they don’t clamor for Dora and Thomas the Tank Engine and all the other characters that people so many American playrooms and I think that preference is more than just a snobbishness. I really am more than a bit disturbed by the way brand awareness begins so early, the way children are being groomed into the culture where people are called to identify with products, where they actually create an identity from brands they love. Even my kids know “Target” and “McDonalds”. I’d rather they lived in a timeless land where toys just happen and they aren’t the targets of marketing campaigns. I know I can’t keep them in this bubble forever; but I will be very sad when it bursts. For now when Sophie asks me the name of the Princess on her pull-up, I just say, “I don’t know. What do you think she’s called?” (For the record, her name was “Isabelle” or maybe “Kellahlay”.)