When Toys "R" Us Pits Toys Against Nature, the Children and Nature Movement Wins

About the Author

Susan Sachs Lipman (Suz) has more than 25 years experience as a writer, editor, social media manager, community builder, and advocate for getting children into nature. She is the author of Fed Up with Frenzy: Slow Parenting in a Fast-Moving World, which was named a TIME magazine Top 10 Trend of 2012. She has written for the New York Times Motherlode blog, the Christian Science Monitor’s Modern Parenthood blog and others. Suz serves as the Director of Social Media Promotion and Partnerships for the Children & Nature Network.

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:

A Momentus Week for the Children & Nature Movement

Forest Play Boosts Preschool Mediation Skills

Today’s Challenges, Tomorrow’s Progress (Richard Louv on nature and creativity)

Nature Rocks (inspiring families to explore nature)

Parks Make us Smarter: Science Proves It

Are Your Kids “Vitamin N” Deficient?

Selling Toys at the Expense of Nature’s Wonders, Dallas News

Toys “R” Us Teaches Us Toys are Better than Nature, Adventure Journal


  1. Wonderfully written, Suz. You keep the focus on the kids and their joy, and don’t become a Grinch by making a case for the alternative. I’ve been seeing several petitions circulating about this. thanks for writing this blog!

  2. One year on my birthday my parents took me to Toys R Us to choose a gift. I was amazed at the size of the place, but found the content lacking. It took me a while to decide, and I ended up with a hand held video game which I played with for a few weeks. What struck me then, and even earlier was how quickly I became bored with toys. But something I have never grown bored of, even to this day, is spending time in nature, climbing trees, discovering trails, swimming in springs, lakes and rivers. These are the things that make my heart sing. Sitting on a rock, watching the sky… What more could a kid want?

  3. Um…it’s just free toys. Kids love toys. They can have fun in nature as well, but…come on…it’s free toys. 🙂

  4. This is a truely awful advert and I hope it never appears in the UK, but if any child was offered an outdoor trip where they were excessively controlled and told what to do ie naming leaves and excessive use of worksheets, I expect they would prefer a visit to a toy store. I object more to how the company have portrayed experiences in nature…. Particularly the portrayal of the ranger.

  5. Suz Lipman

    Thank you for all your great responses and your continued enthusiasm for getting kids out into nature. Wonderful videos, Dani and Brighton! And terrific story, Clark. Michael and Marilyn, I know you’re doing countless things to help others enjoy the profound positive benefits of nature. Keep on!

  6. I agree with all of the factual information presented. However, using the work of cognitive scientist, linguist, and political commentator George Lakoff as a backdrop, people think with frames and not facts. Unfortunately, the Toys R Us commercial presents an effective frame. Frames tell a narrative or a story. Frames are made up of the following components at a minimum: 1) some type of pain or discomfort, 2) the person or group imposing the pain or discomfort, 3) a form of relief or rescue from the pain or discomfort, and, 4) the identity of the person or group able to provide relief or a rescue. In his work, Lakoff unpacks such cognitive frames as “tax relief” and “death tax.” So, lets see if we can take a stab at getting at the Toys R Us frame. Here’s what I saw (and I only saw the commercial once when it originally aired):

    1) Pain or discomfort = having to go on a field trip out into nature to look at trees and leaves and the such.

    2) Person or group imposing the pain or discomfort = parents and other adults such as educators, naturalists, and non-profit volunteers (notice that parents are largely hidden but implied).

    3) Relief or rescue = the naturalist turns into a superhero and provides relief or rescue by redirecting the bus toward Toys R Us. Toys are presented as a form of relief or rescue from the burden of nature.

    4) Person or group providing rescue or relief = this would be Toys R Us in specific or any entity that provides toys, especially entertaining technology. The not-so-subtle message to parents is for them to provide relief from nature by providing toys, especially electronic toys.

    It could be argued that the Toys R Us commercial uses a “nature relief” frame. Again, unfortunately, the Toys R Us commercial uses good framing. And you would expect nothing less from a commercial that went through extensive planning and cost substantial amounts of money. With respect to frames, Lakoff makes this important point: when a person or group negates the frame, the frame is engaged and becomes active, and the result is a strengthened frame. Can a person or group fight frames? Yes, with an effective frame and not necessarily with facts. Sure, you can present facts, but unless those facts are then framed, they will fall on largely deaf ears. Richard Louv’s “Nature Deficit Disorder” is an example of an effective frame.

    For a quick introduction to frames, see Lakoff’s book “Don’t Think of an Elephant.”

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