Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Character Dilemma

In our school we have a "no characters" policy. What this means is that for areas over which the school has control we do not have licensed characters. For us, it means there are no character toys, books, decorations, or other items. No Dora, Pooh, Elmo, Franklin, Fancy Nancy, or anyone else. This policy does not extend to children and families; children can wear character clothing and parents can bring in snacks sporting licensed characters.

There are many reasons for the "no characters" policy. One of the most important, from our view, is that a character limits the parameters of play. It's not as imaginative to act out a tv show or video as it is to create the setting and rules cooperatively. It also prevents children from practicing the social give and take that's required from purely imaginative play. Those are critical socials skills that lead to success in the elementary grades and beyond.

Here I'm going to quote something from Buy, Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds by Susan Gregory Thomas (a book I wish I'd had before I had kids). Backed up by research cited elsewhere in the book, she says, "the main thing that infants and toddlers learn from such characters, whether on television, juice boxes, or bed sheets, is the ability to recognize them -- which should not be confused with actually learning anything 'educational.' "(p. 143) What she's saying (and that's backed up by research) is that kids don't learn anything from these characters other than to recognize them and later want them because they're familiar. That's right, they don't learn new behaviorial skills or even much in the way of academics. What they do learn children are unable to apply outside of the story on tv without significant adult interaction. So, when these characters are available in the classroom it amounts to free advertising and a tacit approval of commercialism over education. I don't know about you, but if I'm going to advertise something I want to get paid!

Children who spend time watching shows and playing with character-limited toys are not only not learning the important social lessons that they need to learn, but they are not spending as much time on more developmentally appropriate and "educational" activities. Characters are part of our culture that isn't really helping our kids get ready for school. In the case of things like Hannah Montana and High School Musical in preschool, they send the message to young children that they are allowed to behave like teenagers. I don't have anything against those pieces of entertainment and I personally think they have some good qualities, but I don't want a 4-year-old child to get the impression that the sort of behavior displayed by those characters is appropriate for him or her now.

Now don't take me for a character hater. I've watched my share of Little Einsteins, Dora, and Sesame Street. I've been known to say, "seatbelts buckled, everyone?" in my best Ms. Frizzle impersonation. I've got a fairy/princess lover for a daughter and a LEGO Star Wars obsessed son. But I don't do characters at school. And I'm cool with that.


  1. Too bad. How can one have a rich literary environment without characters?

  2. Thanks - I'd never really thought about the characters / no characters thing before. Interesting.....

  3. Interesting - I'd never thought about the characters / no characters thing before.

  4. David, perhaps I wasn't clear. We're not talking about literary characters. We're talking about characters that have been turned into merchandise and heavily marketed. For example, did you know that many young girls who claim to love Cinderella have never seen one of the movies or had a version of the story read to them (this is referenced in at least one study I've read though I don't have the link on hand)? They aren't interested in Cinderella's character traits that make her worthy of reward, they just want to be the pretty girl in the big gown at the party. That's marketing, not literacy.

    I'm all for literary characters. We do lots and lots of reading. For example, Frog and Toad are characters that we DO have around. But you don't see kids coming in with Frog and Toad sneakers, Frog and Toad sippy cups, and a copy of the latest DVD release of their show, complete with commercials for more stuff. We are simply making school a place where commercialism is on pause. We don't tell parents that all that character stuff is bad. Heck, most of the teachers enjoy characters and all their attendant stuff with their own kids.

    And lest anyone think for a moment that I'm anti-Disney, I'll have you know that I went to Disney World this summer, met (Disney's) Cinderella, and had a fabulous time. It's just that there's time and a place for such things.

  5. well, that certainly answered my question and then some! thank you. you raise some very interesting points.

  6. I love this idea. I think it's great.

  7. yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.


  8. you are the first teacher that I hear of doing something like this. I am thrilled. Thanks for your stand on this matter.


  9. Rossana, I suppose I should have put this in the original post, but none of this was my idea. I happen to agree with it, but it's something the director and the parent committee decided a few years ago. It was always an unspoken thing, but they wanted to make it official.

    I'm glad you stopped by. Let me know if there's anything in particular you want to see here.