8 Ways To Go “Commercial Free” and Give Play Back to Babies

February 29, 2012 · 11 comments

in Development, Inspiration, Our "View" of Babies, Play

On February 15, 2012, I had the pleasure of (finally) meeting Susan Linn (and her puppet Audrey), at The Third Place  in Los Altos, California. Susan began her talk, The Case For Make Believe, by sharing a bit about how she came to be “an activist and advocate for the rights and freedoms of children to play and to grow up without being undermined by the greed of corporations.”

3778_200_150.jpg (200×150) Susan Linn with Audrey

Dr. Linn is also an award winning ventriloquist and puppeteer who once performed on  Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and co-founder and director of the small but mighty Boston based advocacy group, Campaign For A Commercial-Free Childhood, or CCFC for short. (I refer to CCFC as the little organization whose roar Disney couldn’t ignore. More about that in a minute.) Susan Linn has written two books I have read and highly recommend: The Case for Make Believe:Saving Play in a Commercialized World, and Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood.

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During her talk, Susan explored three main questions: Why do children need to play? How is technology and media influencing their play? And what can we do about it? She began by explaining, “Play is the foundation upon which children build critical thinking skills, creativity, self regulation, delayed gratification, follow through, and the ability to wrestle with life and make it meaningful.”

“Losing — or never acquiring — the ability to play may not sound like much until you realize that play is both the foundation of learning and essential to mental health. Initiative, curiosity, active exploration, problem solving and creativity are capacities that develop through play, as are the more ephemeral qualities of self-reflection, empathy, and the ability to find meaning in life.”

We know that babies are born with an intrinsic drive and ability to participate in relationships, to learn, and to actively engage in understanding their world and the people in it through their own exploration and play. There is an impressive and ever growing body of research that supports the belief that in the first years of life, beginning at birth, optimal intellectual, social and emotional development occurs through a baby’s direct engagement with his world and the people in it. Dr. Linn said, “As human beings, we need to make meaning of things, and we do this through play.” (Magda Gerber developed the basic principles of Resources For Infant Educarers (RIE) on exactly these beliefs.)


Susan continued, “It would seem that as a society, we are doing everything in our power to discourage or undermine children’s play. Witness: academics in preschool,”teaching to the test”,  art, music, drama, and physical education programs disappearing from our schools, recess being cut, over scheduled children, free play being replaced by organized sports and formal lessons, outdoor play disappearing due to fear (stranger danger), and the ubiquitous and widespread use of screen media (A Vinci Touchscreen Mobile Learning Tablet for babies, anyone?) beginning in infancy.”

One of CCFC’s goals is to stop companies from luring babies to screens by making unfounded claims that their products are educational. CCFC encourages parents to follow the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation to keep babies and toddlers under the age of two away from screen media.

Whether you choose to allow your baby to watch TV or not, Susan Linn believes you, as a parent, have the following rights:

  • a right to decide when to introduce your children to screen media.
  • a right to accurate information about the pros and cons of that choice.
  • a right to raise children without being undermined by commercial interests.

Which brings us to Baby Einstein and Disney. As reported in the New York Times, “Baby Einstein, founded in 1997, was one of the earliest players in what has become a huge electronic media market for babies and toddlers. Acquired by Disney in 2001, the company expanded to a full line of books, toys, flashcards and apparel, along with DVDs including “Baby Mozart,” “Baby Shakespeare” and “Baby Galileo.”

By targeting babies, companies are marketing not just products but lifelong habits, values and behaviors — hardwiring dependence on media before babies even have a chance to grow and develop and removing them further and further from the very experiences that are essential for healthy development. Susan Linn

CCFC  filed a complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission against Disney and Brainy Baby for false and deceptive marketing of baby media in 2006. In response, Disney offered refunds of $15.99 for up to four “Baby Einstein” DVDs per household, purchased between June 5, 2004, and Sept. 5, 2009, and returned to the company. Although the company admitted no wrong doing, the New York Times said “the unusual refunds appear to be a tacit admission that they did not increase infant intellect.

For a simple demonstration of how children’s creative play may be influenced and truncated by rampant commercialization and early exposure to screens, I invite you to  participate in the following brief play exercise. (Susan Linn did a similar demonstration during the talk I attended.)

Interesting to note: When I showed this video clip to 36 month old J. (without the sound and without any prompting questions), when he saw the first toy he said, “Hey, that’s a froggy. A Daddy froggy who says ‘Ribbit  Ribbit’, and I play with him.” When he saw the second toy, he said, “I ride him. He’s a horsie who says ‘Neigh’, and he chomps!” When, he saw the third he said, “Hey, that’s Elmo, but why he’s not singing ‘La La La, La, La, La’?”

Susan asserts, “The best toys are 10% toy and 90% child. This means the toy just lies there until the child picks it up and makes it do something. And yet, the best selling toys are 5% child, and 95% toy (think:Tickle Me Elmo). Babies aren’t born thinking Elmo is important- babies are trained to have Elmo be important.”

(Speaking of early “training”– in January of 2011, Disney reached a new low by trying to “brand” babies at birth by “hiring Our365–a newborn photography service/marketing firm–to promote its new Disney Baby line in maternity hospitals around the country. Moms who request a newborn portrait during their hospital stay are pitched Disney Baby by their photographer, given a branded onesie, and encouraged to sign up for email alerts from DisneyBaby.com.”)

Again, Susan’s words echo Magda Gerber’s who believed children should be the “main producers, script writers, and actors” in their own play, as Janet Lansbury explains in  Better Toys for Busy Babies:

Magda Gerber believed in “busy babies rather than busy toys”. She suggested we keep toys simple so that our babies could investigate them thoroughly, use them imaginatively in multiple ways, and be encouraged to be active explorers. As she explains in Dear Parent – Caring For Infants With Respect, “…entertaining kinds of toys (such as mobiles or, later on, wind-up toys or battery-operated items) cause a passive child to watch an active toy. This trains the child to expect to be amused and entertained and sets the scene for later TV watching.”

Alas, CCFC, along with the American Academy of Pediatrics and many early childhood professionals and play advocates, including me, are facing an uphill struggle, not only against corporate marketers, but with reaching parents with this crucial message.

Consider these statistics quoted by Dr. Linn: 19% of babies have TVS in their bedrooms, 40% of three month old babies are regular viewers of TV, and 90% of children under the age of  two years old have some involvement with screens.

This, despite the fact that there is “NO EVIDENCE, NONE  that TV viewing is educational,” and “recent research indicates screen time for babies may be habit forming, contribute to sleep disturbances, inhibit the development of language,  contribute to attention deficits, and leave less time for hands-on, active and creative play, or fewer interactions with parents. Another concern is that “screen-saturated babies will never learn how to soothe or amuse themselves independently.”

The question that most interests me is this one:Why do loving, conscientious, well intentioned parents ignore the AAP guidelines? Susan has conjectured,

“Today’s overworked, over stressed, under-supported parents don’t really want to hear that videos such as Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby are not educational and that screen time may even be harmful. By believing they’re beneficial, parents can justify using electronic media to get what may be a much-needed break from hands-on child care.”

Certainly, the conversations I’ve had with parents over many years of working with families would seem to indicate that this is indeed the case. Janet Lansbury writes, “parents desperately need breaks from the 24/7 job of baby care, especially in those first years (been there!). Sometimes TV can seem the easiest or only answer.”

Further, many parents DO believe that shows like Sesame Street, and videos like Baby Einstein and the ilk are educational, and some fear that their babies may be left out or left behind if they don’t have access to them, a point poignantly brought home to me when I was working as the supervisor of an Infant/Toddler Center and a young Mom came to ask me if I knew of anyone at the Center who had purchased the Baby Einstein videos and would maybe allow her to borrow them to make copies, so she could show them to her young son. This Mom shyly explained that she and her husband spoke only Spanish to their baby at home, and they had no income to spare to purchase videos, but she wanted her baby to have the advantages that other children had, and she felt the videos would help her baby learn to speak English better than she and her husband could. I was happy to be able to help her to understand that her baby wasn’t missing out on a thing by not having access to such videos.

Susan concluded her talk by saying,”This is an issue for our society, not just an individual issue. We pass on our values with the stories we tell, and the toys we give children. We tell them- ‘We like this.’  ‘This is what men and women should aspire to.’ ”

But do we want to buy the bill of goods corporate America is selling to us and our children? It’s an important question to consider, especially since our “boys are being sold violence”,  and our “girls are being sold princess culture and sexualization.” It’s a somewhat bleak picture, but not one that we can’t change if we choose. Let’s return childhood and play to our children, shall we?

If you are interested in learning more, or wondering what you can you do to support, encourage, and protect your baby’s innate ability to play and learn without the use of screen media, or undue influence from corporate marketers, here are some suggestions and resources:

1) Become aware and informed. CCFC offers reliable, trustworthy information through their web site and newsletter, and an incredible number of free resources for families, educators, and advocates, outlining what the issues are, and offering ways to be proactive in fighting the over commercialization of childhood. They also offer resources for families and educators who wish to be intentional and conscious in the use of screen media with children.

2) Consider following the American Academy of Pediatrics’ advice, and don’t expose children under the age of two to any TV at all. Limit TV viewing and screen time for preschool aged children to no more than one hour per day of educational programming, and try to watch with them, if you do allow them to watch.

3) If you are a parent struggling with the question of how to keep the TV off  while still managing to cook a meal or take a breath once in awhile, I can’t recommend Janet Lansbury’s posts No Need For TV, Baby, and A Creative Alternative to TV Time, highly enough. She gives concrete, solid guidance and suggestions that help to address the very real dilemma parents face.

4) Consider purchasing toys, books, clothing, food, diapers, and accessories that do not feature Disney, Sesame Street, or other cartoon characters. Look here for good ideas about toys for babies and young children that are 10% toy, and 90% child.

5) You can watch the documentary Consuming Kids for free online.

6) Don’t put a TV in your child’s bedroom, and don’t turn on the TV during meal-times.

7) Consider participating in Screen Free Week (which falls on April 30th – May 6th this year). Susan says it’s not necessary to give up the use of all screens for the week in order to participate, although CCFC will “go dark” on their site, facebook page, and twitter account for the week. You can use Screen Free Week as an opportunity to evaluate and assess your family’s use of screen media, and to experiment with ways to enjoy time together as a family without the distraction of screens. For the first time ever, CCFC is offering a free organizers kit. Get yours today!

8) Finally,  I invite you to share your thoughts, challenges, resources, and what has worked for your family in the comments below.



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Rebecca February 29, 2012

Thanks for the interesting post!! I feel like a complete hypocrite, though. I know the dangers of TV viewing and TV background noise for babies and toddlers, but I’m afraid to admit that there hasn’t been a day in my 2 1/2 year-old’s life where she wasn’t exposed to either. At first, it was just me watching TV, out of boredom and laziness. She wasn’t interested in watching TV, but it was still on for my benefit. Just recently there’s been a change in our TV viewing– she is the one watching TV all day long. I made a terrible mistake in recording “Maisy” and letting her watch it. It’s a cute show, and she loves it, but it has gotten over our heads– we’re addicted. Now she demands it all the time. She gets frustrated and upset when I do turn it off. I know that I can fix it because at the same time that she’s been watching her shows over and over and over again, I haven’t been watching mine. I feel that I now have a foundation to stop my addiction to my TV shows. The challenge will be if I can stop using the Internet while she’s watching her shows that way we can be busy together, and not be tempted by background noise (I like the TV on, so it’s not so quiet. Sometimes we listen to music, though.)

Bence Gerber March 1, 2012

Wonderful post and a great video. For another perspective on appropriate toys see Magda Gerber’s advice to a grandmother about what toys she recommends for infants: http://www.magdagerber.org/vol-vii-no-2-spring-1986.html

threeundertwo March 2, 2012

We unplugged completely about the time my kids were born. Best thing we ever did. My kids had a rich, imaginative playful childhood and didn’t know any characters until we introduced them to Disneyland at about age 5. They never begged for particular toys at Christmas, so we were able to give them simple things that we thought they would enjoy. They became great readers.

Now they are teenagers, and very high achievers. We’ve watched “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” on Netflix *together* and enjoyed the shared experience. But television shows are not a part of their day-today lives. I’m very proud of their musical, acting, and dance talents. I really think they got the best possible start in life by not having any television.

I was coordinator of TV Turnoff Week back when they were in elementary school and it really ended up being a fun experience for the whole community. We hosted a lot of alternative evening activities for families. I really recommend the program.

Casey March 2, 2012

Great post and as my children get older, I’m even more grateful for Susan Linn and CCFC. I hope more parents will ask that important question: But do we want to buy the bill of goods corporate America is selling to us and our children?

Evelyn March 4, 2012

You know, I love this article. I think our kids do need to play!! I shiver when I see kids pick up an i-pad to play on. I remember just having a creek to play in, bikes to ride, pogo sticks, and a garage full of things to make forts, obstacle courses, and who knows what else. I cannot blame corporate America, though. Parents have the responsibility– not the businesses– for their children. No one will EVER help themselves, or in this case, their child, if blame needs to be assigned and the perpetrator (so to speak) brought in. No. We are stronger, smarter than that. I don’t need Baby Einstein videos to be bought back from me. I need to be educated about what is good and then I need to make GOOD CHOICES. No one can do that for me. I am thrilled to have my little girl. I’m thrilled to teach her to build dams in the creek, make obstacle courses in the woods, and eventually even watch national geographic. Thank you for the article– but as for the Corporate America blame? It doesn’t serve me.

Lisa March 4, 2012


Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. It’s so wonderful to hear how you support and encourage your daughter’s play. I absolutely agree with you that parents have a responsibility to become educated, make good choices, and take responsibility for raising their children in the ways they want them to grow. This post (and all of the posts I write) is about providing parents with information that will hopefully allow them to make informed choices for themselves and their children. I don’t blame Corporate America for anything- but I DO hold businesses and big corporations (especially those that market to children and families, and spend billions of dollars annually on both advertising, and researching the best ways to reach and influence children) responsible for ethical, honest advertising practices. I tend to agree with Susan Linn that this is an issue for all of us, and goes to the core of what we value as a society, and what kind of world we want to live in and create for our children. I’m well aware that it takes two to tango. If WE (meaning all of us collectively) don’t buy what companies are selling, if we question their methods of advertising, if we hold them to ethical standards, if we tell them we don’t want, and won’t buy ipads for our babies (and back this up with action), then corporations will be up a creek without a paddle (so to speak). So, it’s not about playing a blame game- it’s about helping to bring awareness, and advocating for positive change.

Susan Caruso March 4, 2012

Thanks Lisa for a fine post that let me imagine that I was sitting right there next to you during Susan Linn’s talk! She is one of my heroes. Bravo for mentioning her books, “Consuming Kids” and “Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.” Fantastic resources.

Lisa March 22, 2012


Susan Linn is one of my heroes, too!

Michelle March 22, 2012

I think this is a great article on a very important subject. I wonder though, why more people aren’t discussing Rudolf Steiner’s ideas for early childhood development?

Lisa March 22, 2012


I’m not sure. I don’t discuss Steiner’s ideas here on this blog, because I primarily write about infant/toddler development, from a RIE perspective.Steiner focused more on children age three and up, although he did write a bit about infants. Hari Grebler is a Waldorf educator who is also a RIE Associate, and at Hari’s Studio in Santa Monica, CA, she teaches Parent Infant Guidance classes that combine elements of Waldorf education and environment with RIE philosophy. In recent years, many Waldorf infant and toddler educators have come to RIE for training, and incorporated Magda Gerber’s teachings into their work. If you search on-line, you’ll find a number of writings by Waldorf educators who have also had at least some training in RIE. Waldorf education remains somewhat outside the mainstream, so that is another reason Steiner’s ideas may not be discussed as widely as some others. Also, while I can’t claim to have studied Steiner in depth, I have read a number of books by him, and about Waldorf education, and while I have found much of value there, I have to say (in my opinion) some of Steiner’s ideas about young children are just strange, and not based on any solid scientific inquiry, nor do they offer very practical guidance for parents on the issues that most often trouble them. I do appreciate the careful attention paid by Waldorf educators to creating a beautiful, peaceful environment for children, the use of natural materials, and noncommercial toys, and also the emphasis on keeping the TV off through the early years. Erica Orosco Cruz is another RIE Associate who is also a Waldorf educator, and she has long provided care for young children in her home. I wonder what Erica would have to say about your question. I will have to ask her!

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