A Commercial-Free Childhood

At the Children’s Community School, we are interested in having the imaginations of our children fill our classroom space.  We want what the children dream to color and design our classroom.  To this end, we ask that parents help us to make our school a commercial-free space.  This means no commercial characters (super heroes, princesses, cartoons characters, etc…) on backpacks, lunch boxes, towels, shoes, clothes, etc…  This will help us as we work to encourage children’s sense of independence as well as their skills for nonviolent problem-solving and conflict resolution.  We are open to talking more about this and are happy to answer any questions you may have.  Thank you!

The above statement is from our Staff Handbook (and our soon-to-be released Family Handbook!). At the start of every year, new families have questions about the details of the policy. I (Jarrod) thought it’d be worthwhile to write down my take on the issue.

At CCS, we believe in the power and importance of children’s play. Play is how children learn about the world, how they investigate ideas, how they take abstract concepts and make them real, how they experiment with relationships and interactions and social strategies. And though there is a place for adults’ ideas in children’s play, the real learning happens when children are playing with THEIR ideas. Children have a natural ability to seek out the ideas and the challenges that their brains need. When you see a child finish a jigsaw puzzle and dump it right out again, you might be seeing the child’s brain saying, “I just learned a little about spatial relationships! Do it again so I can learn more!” When you see a child spend an hour chasing in circles around the gym with friends, the child’s brain is probably saying, “There are rules of social interactions here that I need to investigate!” When you see children playing dress up and cooking a dinner for a baby doll, their brains are saying, “We kind of know what it means to be a family, but we need to figure it out with some practice!” When children play with their own ideas, they are seeking out the learning that their brains need.


So where does media come into this? Well, as you’ve certainly seen, children love to imitate things they’ve seen in movies and TV shows. “I’m Spider-Man! Here are my webs!” “I’m Dora, this is my backpack.” “I’m Belle and you’re Ariel and you’re Merida and you can be Mulan.” Sound familiar? There’s no problem with this per se — in fact, taking on characters and acting out scenarios is a crucial way that children understand stories, and a great tool for literacy. But what we’ve seen over and over again — and I should pause to say that, in this case, when I say “we” I mean me (Jarrod), and the staff of CCS, and, by and large, the field of early childhood education as a whole. What we’ve seen over and over again is that this kind of play often fails to ever develop beyond imitation. Children play out a script they’ve seen in a movie, and that’s it. Have you ever seen a child recite with astounding detail the plot of Star Wars, but then balk if you say, “How about this time Darth Vader changes his mind and helps Luke?” In my experience (I’m back to just speaking for me here, not for CCS or the field of early childhood ed), I’ve often seen “play” that doesn’t even rise to the level of imitation, but sticks to straight-up recitation. “I’m Iron Man!” “Great! What does Iron Man do?” “… I’m Iron Man!”


Children in these situations aren’t playing with THEIR ideas — they’re imitating the ideas of (let’s just be blunt here) multi-national corporations. Not that those ideas are intrinsicly bad. (For instance, I personally find many Pixar movies to be about as good as cinema gets.) But if children aren’t making the stories their own, then the learning that’s going on is surface-level at best.”Okay, fine,” says the astute reader, bringing superior critical-thinking skills to bear on the issue, “Why not just encourage the children to make the ideas their own? You’re a staff of dedicated educators. Why not push the kids to take that energy they have for media and channel it to good use? Have all the Disney princesses in the room go on an adventure to solve math problems or something?”


It’s a great idea, and last year the Oak class gave it a go. Throughout the early spring the children in the 3-day group showed a powerful interest in superheroes, in their talk and play and art. The play was a little simple — lots of shouting “I’m Batman!” and swinging their arms at each other, with no plot to speak of — but so much of the class was so interested in it. So, with a little trepidation, we decided to follow this interest and see where it would lead. We didn’t allow images of commerical superhero characters, but did a lot to bring our considerable curricular resources to bear on superheros, and a lot of it was, frankly, pretty cool. There was a costume-making and mask-making project that was very process-oriented but still resulted in some fantastic pieces of wearable art. There was a project where groups of kids would make up stories about superheros, then act out the stories, and then illustrate them and make books. We read Greek myths and folks tales that explored different ways to look at power and magic that the children were interested in. We investigated how kids can “save the day” even if they’re not superheros. And we had protracted class-wide conversations about how to keep other children safe when playing rough, how to listen to others’ ideas, how to cooperate in big group games. There was a LOT of great curriculum that happened, and the kids were pretty enthusiastic about it.But I remain ambivalent about the whole thing, because three months after we started, what did the kids do when we just let them play freely? They ran around shouting “I’m Batman!” and swinging their arms at each other, with no plot to speak of. We couldn’t see that their THINKING about superheroes had evolved at all, despite three months of intense investigation. They just wanted to act out the familiar scripts. The whole point of emergent curriculum is that the children’s interest will drive a project that will lead them to deepen their knowledge and thinking on a particular topic. The superhero project had a lot of great stuff in it, but it failed to deepen the children’s thinking about superheroes. (Or at least, as Merryl pointed out to me, their thinking about commercial superheroes, which isn’t the same thing…)

So, back to the “Commercial-Free Childhood” policy. For me, it’s fundamentally a question of creating our school as a space where children’s ideas are the primary thing. It seems like commercial narratives and characters get in the way of that, so as a school we choose not to allow images of commercial characters. It’s perhaps a simple response to a complex issue, but in our experience it makes a difference in how children learn and play.


What do YOU think? How have you seen commercial narratives and characters influence children’s play, or children’s thinking? What school policies have you seen successfully support children’s learning and meet children’s needs around media and commercial culture? What are your memories of commercial characters and play from your own childhood? Add your thoughts to the comments section of this blog post.

One thought on “A Commercial-Free Childhood

  1. I am a big fan of the non-commercial policy for school. But I also have observed great play emerge from commercial dramas at home. Max (in his 3rd year at CCS now) loves to watch Fireman Sam videos on his iPad. He will watch the videos and emerge within a half hour to put on all his make shift fireman garb and start acting out his own created scenes of putting out fires and rescuing people; and he is constantly initiating fire rescue play with friends. I credit his experience at CCS for his ability to transform the commercial drama to imaginative play; and I think the content of the program matters as well. So he is also a fan of Shaun the Sheep and Peppa Pig, but I have observed zero imaginative play emerge from those programs.

    Given the exposure to so many commercial brands, I would think initiating complex imaginative play is challenging with or without commercial brands present at school.
    I like the policy for a different reason; that kids don’t use precious school time to show off and talk about their cool new depictions of their favorite brands; i.e. focus on possessions and material wanting. The absence of brands encourages the creation of a semi-sacred, safe space where kids can be kids; and they can develop the all-important love for learning and curiosity in the world.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s