Child's Play

Research shows that play benefits the social, emotional, cognitive and physical development of children. As the executive director of the Toy Industry Foundation, Jean Butler ’88 works to put more toys in the hands of children in need worldwide.

By Dave Greenslit

Kids love to play and they love toys. That’s no secret. But over the years, it’s become increasingly clear just how important play is to a child’s development, as well as how toys can enhance that play.

Play, as it turns out, is serious business. Research shows it benefits a child’s social, emotional, cognitive and physical development, as well as his or her creative abilities and communication skills.

And toys are the tools of the trade.

“They facilitate play experiences,” says Jean Butler ’88, executive director of the Toy Industry Foundation, a nonprofit group on a mission to make sure kids in need have toys.

There’s no shortage of kids in need, according to the Foundation. Some are poor, some are homeless, some have been abused or neglected, some have lost everything in a natural disaster, some have special needs, some are undergoing medical treatment.

In these situations, play–and toys–are especially critical, Butler says. “For these kids, a toy is not just a toy. It’s a symbol that someone cares about them. It’s a distraction from a frightening medical procedure. It’s a normalizer that allows children to feel like any other child.”

Danuta Bukatko, a professor of psychology and education who has been at Holy Cross for 40 years, has been interested in how the mind works since her undergraduate days at Douglass Residential College, which is part of Rutgers. She focused on children because she felt adults were already too complicated to understand how their thinking, learning and memory developed.

“I thought it would be simpler, but it’s not,” Bukatko says. “It’s still complicated, no matter where you start.”

That said, she notes that research shows play provides opportunities for children to explore and develop language and other skills.

“Active exploration produces benefits for learning and thinking that are way more powerful than passive exploration,” she says. “Therein lies the benefit of play.”

To Doris Bergen, a professor at the University of Miami in Ohio, the importance of play transcends individual development.

“Our play genes have made us great survivors of the past and should continue to help us survive in the future. We are, among all species, the players,” she wrote in a recent article on play and learning in the American Journal of Play.

Not surprisingly, poverty can be a major impediment to children’s ability to play, depriving them of an environment conducive to play and restricting access to toys that can be so essential in facilitating play.
Without play and toys, kids miss out on the benefits and the critical skills that these items help develop. “How are you going to be successful in academics, with relationships, with careers if those skills are not developed?” Butler asks.

Helping kids in poverty is a major part—and a major challenge—of the Toy Industry Foundation’s mission. The need is great.

According to the 2015 federal census, 8,598,000 families–10 percent of all American families–live in poverty. The poverty level for a family with one adult and two children is a $19,096 annual income.

But don’t assume that toys are not a priority for poor families with kids. Ara Francis, an associate professor of sociology at Holy Cross whose specialties include parenthood and families, points to research showing that consumer goods are a matter of belonging for school-age children. Without them, kids can be considered outsiders among their peers.

“Keenly aware of this, some low-income parents strategically purchase toys or clothing that have the most symbolic value so that their kids can participate socially at school,” Francis says.

She points out that the percentage of families living in poverty has ranged from eight percent to 12 percent over the past 50 years, making poverty a long-standing social problem, not a situation caused by individual failures.

“Charitable, nonprofit organizations offer indispensable help to families in trouble,” Francis says. “Nonetheless, addressing poverty requires large-scale political and economic change that cannot be achieved through philanthropy alone.”

And while those larger-scale changes are in progress at governmental and societal levels, Butler remains committed to making an impact through the Foundation.

Butler, who holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from Holy Cross and a master’s in business from the Fordham University Graduate School of Business, joined the Toy Industry Foundation in 2003 after working in sales, marketing and business development for Time-Warner Inc., the mega-media and entertainment company.

“Essentially, I’m a business builder,” she says. “I view this as a fantastic opportunity to utilize my corporate skills to build a business that would help children in need.”

With support from North American toy manufacturers and the public, the Toy Industry Foundation distributes toys and grants to charities around the world. It has served 23 million children and has surpassed $200 million in toys donated since 2003. In 2015, the Foundation gave to 177 charities. Its national partners include the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and CASA, Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children, with whom they have built the first-ever national toy distribution programs for the US Military and foster children, respectively.

The Foundation’s home is in Manhattan, at 25th and Broadway, in the former toy district that was once home to manufacturers, trade fairs and showrooms.

Its latest initiative, in partnership with the Nemours Children’s Health System, involves helping children and families in health care settings. Nemours is one of the country’s largest pediatric health systems, operating in five states, with two children’s hospitals and more than 40 outpatient facilities.

With a $400,000 grant from the Toy Industry Foundation, Nemours will first research how play can help children cope and heal while in the hospital. With additional fundraising from the Foundation, it will then develop kits with play materials and other resources to alleviate stress in children caused by illness, injury and painful medical procedures. The kit and its play interventions would be the first designed for families, according to Nemours and the Toy Industry Foundation.

“Our groundbreaking partnership with Nemours represents the next step in our journey to expand our reach by bringing the healing power of play to sick children and families living through unbelievably stressful circumstances,” Butler said in a release announcing the initiative. “We are thrilled to partner with such an esteemed leader in the pediatric health care system and look forward to how the use of toys, games and other playful ‘tools’ may bring healing and happiness into these children’s lives.”

Dr. Stephen Lawless, senior vice president and chief clinical officer at Nemours, stated in the release that the ability to deliver the best care includes understanding the psychological impact of being or having a seriously sick child.

So, what are the best toys for kids?

If you ask Bukatko, she says toys that are graspable, allow exploration and are attractive, but not too complicated. Board games, even simple, made-up board games, enhance thinking and math skills, according to Bukatko. Butler favors toys that allow for role or pretend play, as well as physical play outside.

In her article in the American Journal of Play, Bergen wrote that so-called educational toys are no better than traditional toys in the development of a child’s mind. For example, a toy that prompts a child to respond to numbers is not as effective as one a child can use for a range of pretend activities. Bergen also notes that playing with blocks on an electronic tablet is not the same as physically holding and building with blocks. Just how this difference affects brain development is under study. She says using technology might make a child a “reactor” instead of an “actor” in play, although she adds that an electronic toy, with all the bells and whistles, can be more exciting.

The Toy Industry Foundation also has a relationship with the National Toy Hall of Fame, located in The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. More than 60 toys have been inducted, chosen because they have inspired creative play over a sustained period of time.

Many of the toys are those you might expect: the baby doll, bicycle, Lincoln Logs, Scrabble, Monopoly, Nintendo Game Boy. But others are common items not usually thought of as toys, though kids have been playing with them for generations: the blanket, cardboard box, even the stick, which the Hall of Fame calls possibly the world’s oldest toy, used as a sword, fishing pole, light saber and magic wand, among countless other things, limited only by a child’s imagination.

Fisher-Price Little People, the role-playing and strategy game Dungeons & Dragons and the swing were inducted in 2016.

Bukatko says toys need not be fancy or expensive, as some of those elected to the Hall of Fame have proven over the years. “The objects of play can actually be common household objects,” she says, things like paper towel rolls, a frying pan or a pair of chopsticks.

Two other crucial elements in child development are unstructured play and interaction with parents.

Recent years have seen a decline in unstructured play as kids get outside on their own less, instead playing sports or participating in other activities organized by adults, or sitting with their eyes trained on electronic devices. Noting that experts recommend a “balanced diet of play,” Butler says the average child plays outside eight fewer hours per week than 20 years ago.

“Unstructured play is very important,” she says. “It’s how kids learn to express themselves. It’s how they learn to problem solve, to socialize with other children and really self-regulate. That unstructured play time is very critical when it comes to child development.”

As is interaction with parents or caregivers.

“Kids actually value time with adults more than things,” says Bukatko, adding there’s no need for parents to keep buying their children more and more toys. “What kids really appreciate is the time they have to share with adults.”

Noting how busy parents can be, Butler says it’s important that they schedule play time with their children—“even a little is better than nothing”—and provide them with the right mix of toys, crafts and games, as well time for physical play outdoors.

While her business experience prepared her for leading the Toy Industry Foundation, Butler says her years at Holy Cross grounded her in the core skills to carry out the Foundation’s mission of providing for kids in need. She lists service to others, critical thinking, effective communication and ethical treatment of others as a major part of her education at Holy Cross.

“Holy Cross has unequivocally shaped me and helped me develop the career I’m in now,” she says. “Working at the Foundation has turned out to be one of the most rewarding chapters of my career.”  ■

If you are interested in contributing to the Toy Industry Foundation or donating toys to their Toy Bank, visit Every $1 donation provides toys for six children in need.