War toys: the battle continues. Plastic arsenals still abound, as do opinions about their dangers

G.I. JOE has slipped to No. 3 on the best-selling toys list, the Los Angeles City Council has banned the sale of look-alike toy guns, and the numbers of people involved in grass-roots activism against toy weaponry have grown. But the battle over war toys is far from won, say organizers and researchers who are in the thick of this controversy.

They point to the volume of toys that play on themes of conflict and the firmly welded connection between many of these toys and children's television programming. Hasbro, for instance, the largest toy producer in the United States, devotes nearly half of its 1987 catalog (the boy's half, of course) to such combative favorites as Battle Beasts, Air Raiders, and Transformers, as well as G.I. Joe.

Behind the array of war-related toys in stores this holiday season - from plastic guns to ``action figures'' - lies the difficult question of their effect on children and society. On one side are those who feel war play teaches insensitivity to others and instills militaristic attitudes. On the other are people who say such play is natural and nothing to worry about.

Action figures like G.I. Joe and He-Man are essentially ``updated toy soldiers,'' says Doug Thompson, head of the Toy Manufacturers of America. He sees the popularity of these items tied to patriotism and the enduring attraction of battle play for kids. He also views public concern over war toys as largely the work of ``a vocal minority'' and the news media. ``I don't believe they've gotten the attention of middle America,'' says Mr. Thompson.

Nancy Carlsson-Paige, an associate professor of education at Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass., disagrees.

``I've talked to parents from many different social and educational backgrounds, and with differing political beliefs, and they all say the same thing,'' she says. ``Parents know that something is wrong. They know their kids are obsessed with TV-based war toys, that they're asking for them all the time. And they're trapped. Their children are begging for these things and they equate them with love.''

Parental concern may be reflected in the vigor of the nationwide campaign spearheaded by the New England War Resisters League. Since early fall, the league has sold 2,000 antiwar toy organizers' packets to people from all corners of the US, according to Joanne Sheehan, a coordinator for the campaign. That's a substantial increase over last year's orders. Typically, local activists distribute leaflets to shoppers and organize ``alternative toy fairs'' to highlight manufacturers that don't produce war-related items.

Educational efforts are having some impact, says Stevanne Auerback, a child psychologist and head of the San Francisco International Toy Museum. ``But this is just the beginning of it. We have a long way to go before there's going to be a change, as long as there are parents out there buying the toys.''

Contrary to Thompson of the Toy Manufacturers Association, Dr. Carlsson-Paige draws a sharp distinction between current war toys and the cowboys, Indians, and soldiers of the past. She and co-author Diane Levin, an education professor at Wheelock College in Boston, recently compiled their findings and observations in ``The War Play Dilemma'' (Teachers College Press).

They concede the argument that war play has been around for millennia and can help meet children's needs to feel powerful and in control of something - a position taken by many child-development experts.

But toy lines like G.I. Joe and He Man don't give kids much of an opportunity to create their own play and exercise control, says Carlsson-Paige. ``These toys kind of teach you what to do, with all the accouterments, the scenario laid out on the box, and the whole thing replicated from TV,'' she says.

``Play is a very deep process, where a child has control of everything going on and invents the play scenes. ... Issues get worked out in the play process, things like being separated from home or feeling small,'' Carlsson-Paige continues. Some current toys, with scripts supplied by toy companies and TV, ``interfere with the process of play as we know it.''

She and Dr. Levin theorize that the combination of violence-oriented toys and play scenarios developed by adults in toy firms and film studios, instead of by children themselves, leads to ever more violent play. They say that the preschool and elementary-level teachers they've interviewed confirm this.

Bev Bos, who runs the Roseville Cooperative Preschool in Roseville, Calif., agrees that today's war toys present a ``huge problem'' to teachers and parents. Her school, like many, bans guns and other war toys. ``We've got to give power to kids in other ways,'' she says, explaining that she provides so many ``positive outlets'' for children at the school - from art projects to tree climbing to playing in mud - that the war play issue rarely has an opportunity to surface.

But ``when a kid uses his finger for a gun, there's not much you can do about it,'' she admits.

War play often surfaces no matter how hard teachers or parents try to keep it submerged. Bruno Bettelheim, a pioneer in the child-development field, writes in his latest book, ``A Good Enough Parent'' (Knopf, $18.95): ``Often a child's desire to play with toy guns is mainly motivated by his wanting to be able to protect himself symbolically. If his parents prevent him from doing so, he feels deprived of a chance to protect himself by those who ought to be his natural protectors.''

Mr. Bettelheim also recommends, however, that parents take advantage of such play to point out the consequences of shooting and killing in terms a child can grasp. If the target is a parent, for example, he suggests asking the child who's going to pour their milk or serve their ice cream if mom or dad were shot.

That's related to a main point in the book by Carlsson-Paige and Levin: that the best approach by a concerned parent or teacher might be thoughtful intervention in war play, rather than its outright ban or a laissez faire, let the kids alone, stance.

They suggest, for instance, that in the midst of a youthful G.I. Joe battle, a adult could ask whether Cobra (the arch bad guy) has a home, or whether he's hurt and needs attention.

Anything, they say, to insert a bit of humanity and help children expand their play beyond repetitive, stylized violence.

And is there any relation between a child's love of war play and what he becomes later in life?

When children ``wish to engage in such play we should accept it as such: play that is important to them and that foretells nothing about their future lives,'' Bettelheim counsels in his book.

Carlsson-Paige concurs in principle, noting that she was herself an avid fan of cap guns as a child. But she is concerned about the politically tinged packaging blurbs and cartoon plots that envelop some of the action figure toy lines.

The message, she says, is that the world is a dangerous place and you have to arm yourself to be safe. ``We have to think seriously about the culture we're conveying to children,'' she warns.

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