Six, Going on Sixteen

By Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin

Illustrator: Henrik Drescher

Illustration: Henrik Drescher
Fighting ‘age compression’ and the commercialization of childhood

“I saw you on My Space!”
“Yesterday after school Trina and Shayla got in a catfight over Brandon!”
“My butt is hot!”
“I got his phone number!”
“She thinks she’s cuter than me.”

These comments may or may not raise an eyebrow in any middle school classroom, but the year they became a common occurrence in my kindergarten and 1st-grade classroom threw me for a loop. It was just a few years ago, and at that time I had been teaching for 18 years. My combined kindergarten and 1st-grade classroom was in a small, urban K-8 school serving about 165 students from a mix of cultures and classes. The student population is about 45 percent black, 27 percent Hispanic, and 23 percent white. That particular school year was one of the most challenging I have experienced. The social dynamics were a constant source of stress and strife for my students, my families, my assistant teacher, and for me. At the end of a particularly frustrating day I described the situation to my principal: “We have two ‘middle schools’ in our school. The middle school and the K-1!”

In a nutshell, that is how the year felt. The problems I encountered, mostly around the over-sexualization of my students, caught me off guard and utterly unprepared. I had 5-year-old girls vying for the attention of the “coolest” 1st-grade boy. They would push to be near him at the sand table, and groan audibly if I didn’t place them in his book group. Students in the class thought of each other as “boyfriend” and “girlfriend.” Freeze dance and soul train, which are usually a big hit and lots of fun, had a new dimension as students danced out the social scenarios they had seen in music videos. Performer Chris Brown was the ultimate favorite, though 50 Cent and others were also on the scene. My 5-, 6-, and 7-year-olds played out and talked about “being in the club” and “drinking Heineken.” They wrote about the music world in their journals and turned the block area into a radio station. Sometimes they used the hollow blocks to build a stage to perform on. Small cylindrical blocks were their microphones. This type of play was OK with me, except who was “in” and who was “out” was a constant social battle.

There was another aspect of this that negatively impacted our classroom community, and that was the idea of certain kids wearing the “right” sneakers. This was among a group of boys, but the rest of the class was affected. It was something we had class meetings about, and tried to minimize the negative effects of, but it was a continuous struggle. One morning, as they walked up the stairs to our second-floor classroom, a kindergarten boy and a 1st-grade boy got in a pushing and hitting fight because the younger boy said he was wearing “Carmelo Anthonys” and the older boy said, “No, those are Jordans.” Another boy, whose mom refused to buy expensive sneakers, had repeated meltdowns (crying, throwing things, yelling) when other boys arrived at school with new sneakers, stylish shirts or outfits, or big plastic gold rings.

One day in June, things crystallized for me as the three K-1 classes rode a big yellow school bus on our annual trip to The Farm School, in Athol, Mass. The Farm School is an important part of our school culture. Everyone in the school visits the working farm at least once a year, and starting in 4th grade students get to sleep over. The K-1’s were excited. The school bus was happily buzzing with kids talking to each other about the farm, the animals they would see and hold, what they had in their lunchbox—general happy kid talk. Then, the bus driver decided to put on the radio. I was very near the back, so I had a good vantage point. The music pumped for just a few seconds, but the mood in the bus changed dramatically. All of a sudden kids popped up in their seats and checked out who else heard the song. They knew the song, but I didn’t. I saw and felt the change in energy. They were looking for other kids who were “in the know” and related to that teenage/grown-up world of popular music. They weren’t talking about the farm anymore. My assistant teacher and I exchanged knowing glances and sighed. We understood this is what we had been struggling with the whole year, the negative effect of mainstream media on our young students—the way it was taking away their chance to just be little kids excited about a day at the farm.

Throughout the year, I tried many strategies to counteract the negative impact that all of these complicated factors were having on our ability to live, learn, and laugh. We had class meetings and made rules. I partnered students with classmates they didn’t usually work with; had lunch meetings with the powerful core group; set up a series of lunch meetings for my most involved girls to meet with our counselor; talked a great deal to moms and grandmothers; devoted some of my weekly newsletters for families to this topic; brought back some of my former students to help create a positive counterculture; brainstormed with families and colleagues; cried and yelled. Some strategies helped, but it was an ongoing, uphill battle.

We made it through the year. That June I remember meeting with the rest of the staff at our end-of-the-year retreat. I shared my struggles and my determination to get a better handle on what felt to me like a crisis in the early childhood realm. I had consulted with colleagues throughout the year, and some of them knew what I had been up against. Others were amazed, shocked, and saddened. One friend and colleague made a suggestion that ended up being the best and most transformative advice I’ve received in a long time. She told me about Diane Levin, a professor at nearby Wheelock College, and she suggested I enroll in the two-day summer media institute, called Media Madness: The Impact of Sex, Violence, and Commerical Culture on Children and Society.

It was from Diane that I learned how the corporate world deliberately targets vulnerable children. I learned how child development experts now work with marketing firms to optimize the impact of commercials according to the developmental stage of the target audience and how the toy market has dramatically changed since children’s television was deregulated in 1984. I also learned about “age compression.” In Levin’s recent book, So Sexy, So Soon, she describes age compression this way:

“Age compression” is a term used by media professionals and marketers to describe how children at ever younger ages are doing what older children used to do. The media, the toys, the behavior, the clothing once seen as appropriate for teens are now firmly ensconced in the lives of tweens and are rapidly encroaching on and influencing the lives of younger children. In addition, there is a blurring of boundaries between children and adults, as demonstrated by the similarities in clothing marketed to both groups by the fashion industry. Age compression is especially disturbing when it involves sexual behavior. Children become involved in and learn about sexual issues and behavior they do not yet have the intellectual or emotional ability to understand and that can confuse and harm them. (pp. 69-70)

Here’s a true story that helps illustrate my experience with age compression. It was the first day of kindergarten, fall of 2005. I had brought my class to the cafeteria for lunch. The students were assigned seats at one of our 10 round tables. I sat down next to a 5-year-old girl who was beginning to eat her lunch. “That’s the popular table,” she said matter-of-factly as she gestured over her shoulder. I was taken aback, but followed her finger to see where she was pointing. I looked again at her and asked, “Popular? What do you mean by that?” “Oh, you know, they have nice clothes,” she explained. I thought about that for a moment, and since it was the first day she’d ever been in school, I asked, “Where did you learn about that?” Without a moment’s hesitation she answered, “The Disney Channel.”

On the upside, my school is a pilot public school, so we have autonomy over curriculum. Despite No Child Left Behind and the current high-stakes testing frenzy which have sadly turned many kindergartens into heavily academic 1st grades, our 5-, 6-, and 7-year-olds still get to play with blocks and playdough. They love to dress up, play with puppets, cuddle the baby dolls and draw hearts. And they have time to play. Even the “coolest” kids will sing “The Pizza Song” and “Make New Friends.” “Can we sing it in a round?” they’ll ask. Also, I have students for two years, so I have time each summer to think more about them and what they need and what I can do. I was determined to have a better handle on the issues, find more strategies for the classroom, and extend my small one-on-one conversations to begin a broader community conversation.

As the new school year began, I knew that one huge goal was to find ways to bring back childhood—making even more time in the day for creative and imaginative play. I also wanted to encourage kids to turn off their screens and become more connected with the natural world, their classmates, and their own selves. To this end, I titled my fall curriculum unit, Garden Friends: Taking Care of Each Other and Taking Care of the Earth. I had studied gardens with young children before, but this time I had an added goal of lessening the influence of screen messages. I knew from experience that one excellent antidote to screen addiction is nature. Children are fascinated by it. It’s also affordable and available, even in our urban school. We got our hands dirty and looked closely at snails and spiders. We also spent time in those first few weeks, explicitly practicing positive problem-solving skills. At the media institute, Diane had described “problem-solving deficit disorder” and “compassion deficit disorder,” two critical social problems affecting our children as a direct result of current media and popular culture. These terms described beautifully the issues that I had felt firsthand in my classroom. I realized I needed to be even more explicit and deliberate in my problem-solving lessons, activities, and discussions. For example, I needed to teach some of my young children how to look at each other’s faces and interpret others’ reactions and what words to use to solve conflicts. Throughout the school year I used my weekly letter to families to let them in on our struggles, conversations and solutions. Families are on the front line in the battle against corporate encroachment into children’s lives and I wanted them to stay connected with our work at school. I knew their support was one important factor in our growing success. Here is an excerpt from a November letter to families:

I added baby dolls to the dress-up area, and watched and listened as the week unfolded. Monday and Tuesday had children claiming baby dolls as their own, and conflicts and tears arose. On Wednesday morning, with 8th-grader Darren’s help, we did a skit about the baby dolls. Darren pretended to play with a doll and our student teacher pretended to snatch the doll so she could play. I pretended to add fuel to the fire, making the situation even worse by yelling and stomping my feet. The students laughed at how silly we looked, then helped brainstorm ways to be safe and take care even when we disagree. For example: stay calm; take a deep breath; count to 10; use nice words like, “Can I please use that?” or try playing Rock, Paper, Scissors.

By Friday, our project time was more satisfying and productive. John pretended his baby needed surgery and Jared was the skillful doctor. Keisha pretended she was a childcare worker taking care of a few babies. I overheard Jennifer listing the symptoms of her baby as Louisa (the doctor) listened closely, nodding her head and asking questions about the baby. When conflicts arose, I saw students trying our techniques.

In the spring my curriculum theme was Imagine, Pretend, and Play. I designed the unit to celebrate and highlight children’s ability to be in charge of their own learning as they create stories, invent problems, and evolve as powerful individuals. I wanted all students to know that pretend play is important and to practice making choices that involve imagining, pretending, and playing. They would learn how to create their own entertainment and that many things can be used for play—rocks, sticks, dirt, cardboard boxes, scraps of fabric and unmatched socks, for example. We focused our literacy work on reading stories that celebrate imagination, such as Amazing Grace, by Mary Hoffman, Gilberto and the Wind, by Marie Hall Ets, and Roxaboxen, by Alice McLerran. I found related poems to recite and songs to sing. The students had special journals to record and reflect about their play. I had students practice describing how they felt while they were engaged in their chosen activity. We invited our families for a special breakfast and exhibition as we displayed our accomplishments. I shared with families a quote from a wonderful book to help illustrate my curriculum decisions: “The ability to play is central to our capacity to take risks, to experiment, to think critically, to act rather than react, to differentiate ourselves from our environment, and to make life meaningful.” (Susan Linn, The Case for Make Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World, p. 19).

One student stands out in my mind. In his early years, he had been exposed to a great deal of media. He was literally tuned in to the teenage/grown-up world and had trouble making friends his own age. I struggled to find ways for him to be comfortable and happy at school. During the Imagine, Pretend, and Play curriculum he found some of his happiest school moments. He used recycled materials to build his own skate park and used found objects (boxes and bottles) to make his own drum set. He worked on and perfected these projects over a number of weeks. One day, when reflecting, he said, “I was pretending I was downtown. I had the bass drum, the solo drum, and the high drum.” He added that, “It was hard to get the pretending into me. Once I started, I felt good.”

Along with changes I made in my own classroom, I also worked with my colleagues and the school as a whole. A few of us formed a small media work group where we could meet and share ideas and resources. We wrote front-page newsletters to the community. Every Friday our school sends a newsletter home. It includes a front-page letter, usually written by the principal, but often written by other staff members, occasionally a parent and sometimes even a student. Besides the front-page letter, there are columns written by each of the 10 classroom teachers, hot topics, and more. Our school uses our Friday newsletters as a place to share ideas, reflect, inform, pose questions, and stimulate conversations. Here are some excerpts from one newsletter:

The trouble is that media-linked toys limit children’s play. Children need to play creatively. They need to invent. They practice problem-solving as their play evolves. Picture a child playing with wooden blocks. She builds a tower, pretending the smallest blocks are the people. As she plays, another child joins and builds nearby. Someone gets the idea to connect their two buildings, and they decide to turn them into a hotel and a parking garage. Their play continually evolves as they share ideas, make decisions and solve problems. They end feeling powerful and satisfied.

Media-linked toys, however, lead children to imitate the scripts they have seen. How often have you seen children playing “Power Rangers,” “Cheetah Girls,” or some other show? The boys have to be violent and the girls have to be sexy. That’s what they see, so that’s what they play. When children act out the scripts from TV shows or movies, they aren’t in control of their play. They aren’t creating, they are imitating. This isn’t a satisfying kind of play.

In December, we sent home an excellent resource to all our families. It was TRUCE’s Toy Action Guide. Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment (TRUCE) is a group of national educators actively working to raise awareness about the negative effect of violent and stereotyped toys and media on children. They are supporting teachers and parents in their efforts to promote healthy play. Their free and downloadable guide is a powerful tool for parents. The guide helps parents understand healthy play and how it is a critical part of healthy development. It helps them understand how open-ended and simple toys are actually better than the glitzy electronic toys that are expensive and limiting to problem-solving and creativity. The guide lists books, articles, organizations, and websites for further support. Again, parent response was overwhelmingly positive, though a few parents lamented that it was hard to find good toys at the stores that are convenient to shop at. Even toys such as wooden blocks and generic puppets can be hard to find, and they can be expensive.

Those comments spurred me to work on opening our Toy Lending Library. I asked around for donations and found some underused materials already in the school. IKEA donated a set of shelves and bins, and even some great creative toys. I got donations from other stores and parents. The library became a hit. Once a child in one class borrowed a set of blocks, puppets, or a marble run, other students wanted to do the same. It was a big project to undertake and organize, but it has proven to be a fun resource and conversation starter. The Toy Lending Library also helps counter our country’s consuming culture, since the toys are not purchased but shared within the community.

A simpler schoolwide initiative was the Family Game Night we had in January. The entire school community was invited to come for a potluck dinner and games. It was an “unplugged” night with no remote controls, video games, or electronic gadgets. Many staff members volunteered to oversee a wide range of games. We had fun playing Twister, Uno, bingo, blackjack, charades, and more. The biggest hit was a fast-paced card game called Spoons, led by our middle school humanities teacher. Even families who usually play board games at home were excited. “We usually only get to play with our small family. It was so much fun to play with so many people.” “When can we have the next Game Night?” I was asked excitedly the next day by parents, students, and staff.

In February, we had a Family Council Meeting on the topic of media influences. Our media work group facilitated the evening, and over 30 parents and staff gathered to share information and strategies to combat the media onslaught that we felt was attacking the well-being of our children and families. One idea that stemmed from the meeting was for our school to celebrate “Turnoff Week 2008,” an annual event sponsored by the Center for SCREEN-TIME Awareness.

The National Turnoff Week coincided with spring break, so we chose a week in May that worked better for us. In the weeks leading up to our Turnoff Week, we launched a campaign to build enthusiasm. For many people, it isn’t easy to just turn off screen entertainment. You have to prepare for it. You have to schedule other entertainment and a plan for what you will do. Students throughout the school brainstormed alternatives. At our Friday Share (a weekly community gathering of the entire school community) we dedicated one entire assembly to the event. Teachers did funny skits about kids who played too many video games and watched too much TV. We recited poems and sang songs about turning off our TVs. In the end, Turnoff Week was a great success. Over 50 students and staff from kindergarten to 8th grade successfully turned off their screen entertainment for one week, and many others watched less than usual. However, it was the conversations that were the most important indicator of the event’s success. In classrooms from kindergarten through 8th grade, classes talked about why we were having the event and how media impacts our lives. In the end, we heard from students who read more and played more outside instead of watching TV. They did puzzles, picked dandelions, got better at basketball, and helped their grandmothers. Parents thanked us, saying things such as, “Turnoff Week is the best thing ever.” They played more with their kids and got projects done around the house. Some parents noticed their children slept better and were thinking about keeping the screen entertainment off during the weekdays. Five days after the Turnoff Week ended, one 5th-grader said to me, “I watched my first show last night,” meaning she’d gotten out of the TV habit.

More good news is that the conversations have continued. Parents and colleagues send each other links to related news stories. For example, the Feb. 2009 Scientific American Mind’s cover story, “The Serious Need for Play” has been making the rounds. The staff is hosting another unplugged Family Game Night this year, and the Family Council will have a follow-up meeting about media influences. In the weekly newsletter, a “Portraits of Play” column documents how our students engage in imaginative play.

A few years ago I felt hopeless. Now, armed with more information and support from colleagues, families, and key organizations, I am hopeful and empowered. The students are better supported in their efforts to learn how to just be kids. I know that I am not alone when I join successful letter-writing crusades from Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which among other successes has pressured Scholastic to remove the highly sexualized Bratz doll merchandise from their school book fairs and book clubs. I gain inspiration from the Alliance for Childhood, which works to educate policymakers about the benefits of child-centered play, and from places such as Quebec, which bans all advertising to children younger than 13 under the Quebec Consumer Protection Act. And finally, I’m inspired by parents who share stories.

Children are complex, and pop culture and media are not the sole cause of their troubles. However, protecting them from a corporate world that forces them to grow up too soon, and promoting their creative play are two giant leaps in the right direction.


Books for young children that encourage imaginative play:
Amazing Grace, by Mary Hoffman (Dial Books for Young Readers, 1991)
Come Out and Play, by Maya Ajmera and John D. Ivanko (Charlesbridge Pub., 2001)
Fix-It, by David McPhail (Unicorn, 1984)
Gilberto and the Wind, by Marie Hall Ets (Viking press, 1963; reprinted by Puffin Books, 1978)
Mud Is Cake, by Pam Muñoz Ryan (Hyperion Books for Children, 2002)
Roxaboxen, by Alice McLerran (HarperCollins, 1991)

Songs by Brady Rymer:
“Water, Sand, Blocks, and Clay” and “Instead of Watching My TV”

Books for teachers and parents:
The Case for Make Believe, by Susan Linn (The New Press, 2008)
Consuming Kids, by Susan Linn (The New Press, 2004)
Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2006)
So Sexy, So Soon, by Diane E. Levin, Ph.D. and Jean Kilbourne, Ed.D. (Ballantine, 2008)
Taking Back Childhood, by Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Ed.D. (Hudson Street Press, 2008)
Teaching Young Children in Violent Times: Building a Peaceable Classroom, by Diane
E. Levin, Ph.D. (Educators for Social Responsibility, 1994 and 2003)

Alliance for Childhood ~
Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood ~
Center for SCREEN-TIME Awareness ~
TRUCE ~ Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children?s Entertainment ~
New American Dream ~

Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin ( helped start the Mission Hill School in Boston, where she taught for 11 years. She is currently staying home with her twin 4-year-old boys.