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.