Toys 'R' Us messes with Mother Nature: trees vs. toys

Toys "R" Us commercial pokes fun at nature – suggesting toys are more fun. It's a troubling ad setup for a mom who worries about the millions of American children who rarely get outside or have a chance to interact with nature.

A Toy's 'R' Us commercial that portrays nature outings as boring has garnered online criticism.

Hey kids: Forget boring nature. Get a new plastic toy instead!

That’s the basic message behind this new Toys "R" Us ad touting a surprise outing in which they took a busload of kids and let them each pick out any toy they wanted in a Toys "R" Us store.

Giving a free toy to kids in need is great. What’s not so great is the way Toys "R" Us chose to frame this special outing, both to the kids and to viewers of this “make all their wishes come true” promo.

The kids are told they’re going on a field trip to the forest, and get on a green bus with “Meet the Trees Foundation” painted on the side, along with a faux ranger, who tells them, “We’re not going to waste any time. Let’s play ‘Name that leaf.’ "

The camera pans to yawning kids, and we’re all invited to ridicule this totally lame field trip, until the actor rips off his fake ranger uniform and announces, “You know what I like more than trees? I like toys. We’re going to Toys "R" Us, kids!”

The kids erupt into screaming, jumping, joyful chaos.

Every kid loves toys. In critiquing this ad, I’m not trying to be a killjoy who says that toys – especially for kids who don’t have much – are a bad thing.

But as a parent who cares deeply about getting my kids outdoors, and who worries about the millions of American children who rarely get outside or have a chance to interact with nature, I find the setup of the ad troubling.

I also find it ill-informed, based on adults’ preconceived notions of what must be “fun” or “boring,” rather than on kids own sensibilities. Anyone who has spent much time with children who do get to go to the forest, and have free play with dirt, sticks, trees, and stumps, knows how much they love it.

Give them an experience in nature with a gifted educator who can show how exciting catching a water bug, or finding an earthworm, or trying to construct their own nest can be – as opposed to an actor deliberately trying to make nature “boring” – and you’ll see kids with shining eyes and an exhilarated sense of discovery.

They may not be screaming with the out-of-control abandon they exhibited at the mention of Toys "R" Us – even kids have learned when they’re supposed to be really excited. But I would argue that the joy they get from that natural experience is far deeper, more long-lasting, and will pay much greater dividends over their lifetime than any object they bring home from the toy store, which more than likely will be both broken and forgotten in a short time, another casualty of our throwaway culture.

In his landmark book, "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," Richard Louv documents the degree to which we as a society – and especially our children – have become disengaged from nature, and the harm that it causes.

The percentage of children who live close to school and walk or bike there has declined 25 percent in the past 30 years, and only 20 percent of kids live within a half-mile of parks or playgrounds, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Children have fewer hours of unstructured play, are often not allowed to play outside due to safety concerns or neighborhood association restrictions, and are consuming more electronic media than they used to

Poor and urban kids – the same kids that Toys "R" Us is targeting in its ad – are even less likely to have access to green space or to a truly natural area.

And yet, research consistently shows how vital that time outdoors is, and time engaging with the natural world, whether in a tiny green patch in the midst of a city or an unspoiled and protected forest. Time outdoors reduces obesity, improves academic learning and behavior, and helps gets kids excited about learning. The Children & Nature Network catalogues a convincing amount of research showing myriad ways in which connecting with nature can help children.

Our society teaches young people to avoid direct experience with nature,” writes Mr. Louv in his book. “Yet, at the very moment that the bond is breaking between the young and the natural world, a growing body of research links our mental, physical, and spiritual health directly to our association with nature – in positive ways.”

I’m fortunate to live in Colorado, with beautiful open space a short walk from our front door, and a plethora of green space and mountains. My kids – aged 4 and 6 – regularly hike, play in fallen leaves, hunt for roly-poly bugs, and get excited when they spot a Cooper’s hawk or a Stellar’s jay. I can think of few times I’ve seen them more genuinely joyful than when they’re playing outside. I know how fortunate we are.

But I worry about the many children growing up totally divorced from nature – whether they live in a city or suburb – and who have never experienced the joy of being in a forest. Field trips of all sorts – including to natural places – seem to be decreasing, pushed out by the pressures of testing.

It was generous of Toys "R" Us to give toys to a group of needy kids, and possibly savvy of them (despite the negative comments that have been appearing in response to the ad in their Facebook feed) to film the experience and document their generosity.

But if they really want to make a difference in the lives of those kids, perhaps they should have taken them on that promised field trip to the forest.

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