Toys “R” Us undoubtedly thought it had discovered an easy target when the company chose to ridicule nature and environmental education in its recent holiday ad. The TV commercial, which began airing just before Halloween, portrays a group of children on a school bus, getting a head start on their field trip with the fictitious Meet the Trees Foundation in the form of a ranger who enlists the children in a yawn-inducing game of “Name that Leaf”.
After a brief discourse on oak leaves vs. field maples, the ranger rips his shirt off superhero style and announces, “We’re not going to the forest today. We’re going to Toys “R” Us”, at which point the children erupt in screams and squeals, the bus practically careens into the cement wall of a Toys “R” Us store, and the children are disgorged to run through the store and choose among the items.
It’s hard not to root for these kids, in either scenario. Only a grinch would want to take away their holiday toys, and yet we yearn for them to also have quality time in nature, something that is lacking for most children and particularly for the underserved, who were featured in the ad, according to the company.
One girl, in the “princess” aisle, declares of her toy of choice, “A princess is always loyal, and never gives up, and always follows her dreams.” What kinds of dreams are we fostering for children when we pit the awe-inducing experiences of nature against commercial items and activities, many of which leave little room for the imagination?
A growing body of research suggests that time in nature is extremely beneficial for children’s and adults’ health and well-being. Time in nature enhances children’s creativity, and the complex thinking, experimentation and problem-solving that nature affords carries over into their academic and interpersonal lives. Children who spend time in nature have better mediation and conflict resolution skills than other kids, the same skills they will need in the 21st century workplace.
And, perhaps most importantly, nature affords children rare downtime, to be themselves, to get away from increasing academic, media, family and other pressures and discover their own inner compasses and, yes, their dreams.
There’s a reason this ad has struck a nerve with many in the children and nature movement. It has been written about in Christian Science Monitor, Huffington Post and Salon. The North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) wrote an open letter to Toys “R” Us, in which it stated:
It is our experience that children, particularly those from urban areas, are delighted at the chance to connect with nature and explore. It is further disheartening that a large corporation with a sizable platform would choose to amplify such a message instead of create a learning opportunity.
Jeanine Silversmith, founder of the Family Nature Club, Rhode Island Families in Nature, started a petition to pull the Toys “R” Us ad and it quickly gained more than 2,000 signatures. The Children & Nature Network Facebook page and other social media have been abuzz.
Many are responding to the continuing divide between children and nature, despite the best efforts of people like the ranger depicted in the ad and countless other teachers, parents, health professionals and advocates. Some children have so little time in nature as it is — for a variety of reasons, including academic and other time pressures, the lack of safe green spaces in some neighborhoods, and the pervasiveness of shiny media alternatives — that it can take an act of advocacy just to get a child into nature.
That large and continued outcry, among allies of all stripes, is what tells me that the children and nature movement remains one that inspires passion and urgency. As one commenter on the Children & Nature Network Facebook page noted:
My boys would cry if they thought they were getting a forest field trip and had to go to a store.
Something to keep in mind at holiday time and throughout the year, when the gift of time together in nature may be the greatest, and rarest, gift of all.
Watch a Video from Texas Parks & Wildlife that asks, “Is Nature Boring?”
Further Reading and Resources:
Today’s Challenges, Tomorrow’s Progress (Richard Louv on nature and creativity)
Nature Rocks (inspiring families to explore nature)
Selling Toys at the Expense of Nature’s Wonders, Dallas News
Toys “R” Us Teaches Us Toys are Better than Nature, Adventure Journal