Does TV content determine how children play?

Lucas Harskamp

By Lucas Harskamp

July 6th 2017 at 11:46AM
UPDATED July 7th 2017 at 12:23PM
Does TV content determine how children play?

It’s no question that TV plays an integral part in how kids choose the toys that they play with today. Lucas Harskamp, project lead at Dockview Communications, takes a look at how children’s TV shows inspires playtime.

Many brands have had television content for their toy brands over the past decades – from Transformers to Barbie and TMNT to Care Bears. Right now there is a lot of attention with the superhero universes. Many succeeded, others failed. But what are the underlying reasons why successes or failures are had?

Many believe that the process is partially or mostly based on luck and marketing whether it catches on or not – which isn’t true. The process is simply not well understood.

The reason the TV shows exist is to promote play with its toys – the trick behind it is to immerse the child in the universe being presented, then let it adopt elements from it. These elements would be used in the events created in the child’s make-believe play, which the toys help supplement to the experience.

However, if in a show all the characters sound and act the same, why would a child remember any of it in an hour or week from now?

If the plot is based on ludicrous events that barely tie together, why would the child root for the supposed cause and be inspired by its events? Why would, or how can the child incorporate it into its play?

Proof of this can be found all over the place; some believe that simply having a dumb character creates comedy, that ‘whacky’ stuff that jumps all over the place keeps a child’s attention and that mere visual designs seal the deal. Just find any old toy-based TV show that people barely remember and you can see it.

Do note that this is more about having a lack of content that a child can use rather than about believability. A show can be littered with plot holes and stupid moments, but if there is one nugget that can be used, that element is still having an impact, however small. It is not recommended though, since any form of breaks in a story can have a negative impact on the immersion and therefore inspiration a child has.

The reason the TV shows exist is to promote play with its toys – the trick behind it is to immerse the child in the universe being presented, then let it adopt elements from it.

Even if your content is inspirational, everyone responds differently and takes different elements of it to incorporate it into its play.

This can be predicted with some degree of truth. The stage of cognitive development a child is in tells you a lot about it. Culture, innate differences between boys and girls and so forth need to be accounted for as well. Boys tend to be more focused on a us-versus-them plot and conflict, whereas the girls are more geared towards intrigue and interaction, like a tea party. The results of this we can see.

For example, the ‘little girl's audience’ of My Little Pony Friendship is Magic tends to be more oriented on laid-back small simple events and the personalities of the characters. Bronies are more interested in the universe’s lore, conflict-based events and larger plots. Another example: more than 20 years ago Hasbro tested a playhouse it hoped to market to both boys and girls. It went differently. The girls played house with the dolls. The boys played war by catapulting the toys from the roof.

When the child goes to buy the toys, why would it want to play with toys that are not relevant to what has been shown on the screen? Why should the commercials be in a completely different tone than the rest of the content? If this is the case, it could just pick any other similar toy, but not the one from the brand.  

Even worse would be the commercials spoiling specific plot points to follow, for example showing off a villain that is yet to be revealed, breaking the immersion the child has.

The trick to avert this is simple; analyse the story of the product in detail and include tone and music. From test audiences and other means one can deduce what will be something that inspires the audience. Then stay true to said content and incorporate it into the merchandise.