‘The Indian in the Cupboard’: Giving Kids Real Toys, Not Screens

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At a time when action figures and Barbie dollhouses have been replaced by phones, tablets, and computers, it has never been more difficult to fully experience childhood. I recently rewatched one of my favorite films growing up: The Indian in the Cupboard. And while I expected the film to retain its charm, it also made me think about how much the world has changed for children over the past twenty-five years.

Many children do not play outside anymore, and the days of make-believe seem to be on their way out the door. Toys “R” Us, a top children’s destination for seventy years, filed for bankruptcy in 2017, only recently attempting a comeback. In place of physical toys, children are enraptured by the trance-like state brought on by social media, YouTube, and downloadable applications. And this does not seem like it’s going to change any time soon.

In contrast to the experience of today’s young people, my formative years were filled with endless trips to the ice rink for hockey practice, playing pickup soccer games with my friends in an abandoned field, and holding back tears from bloodying my knees after wiping out on my bicycle. But it seems that the days of children actively engaging with the world around them are a relic of the past. And for this reason I believe The Indian in the Cupboard should be revisited and shown to young people.

The Indian in the Cupboard—based on a children’s book of the same name—tells the story of Omri, a boy who is gifted a toy Indian and old cupboard for his birthday. After placing the Indian in the cupboard one night, the boy realizes that the cupboard magically brings to life whatever toys he places in it. And while Omri is initially fascinated by the idea of bringing all his toys to life, he quickly learns that, no matter how small, these toys turn into real people. The film is a parable and cautionary tale about appreciating other human beings, regardless of their size or status.

The film came out in 1995—the same year as Walt Disney’s Toy Story. Both stories center around the concept of children’s toys coming to life. And both of these stories portray toys as having feelings, wants, and desires. There is something charming about a child’s toys coming to life in this way, but there is also something psychological about it.

A research team at Cardiff University published a paper in 2020 that described how neuroscience was used to explore the positive effects doll play has on children. The research revealed that doll play, in both girls and boys, activates regions in the brain that allow children to exercise empathy and social-information-processing skills—even when they are playing by themselves.

While the study was funded by toy manufacturer Mattel, the study authors note that Mattel did not have “final say in the study design nor played a direct role in the collection or analysis of the data; interpretation of the results; or writing of the manuscript,” and the results do seem like common sense parenting.

Dr. Sarah Gerson explained that the temporal sulcus—the part of the brain responsible for empathy and social information processing—is used “when we think about other people, especially when we think about another person’s thoughts or feelings.” She went on to say that “dolls encourage [children] to create their own little imaginary worlds, as opposed to say, problem-solving or building games. They encourage children to think about other people and how they might interact with each other.”

Even though there is a significant upside to children playing with Barbie dolls and action figures, the activity may be being replaced. Sixty percent of children are now engaged with smart phones by 12 years old, two-thirds of children use a tablet by 12, and 44 percent of children younger than 12 use a laptop or computer. How much of the time children spend on those devices was once time spent in the real world, playing with real toys?

While numerous reports and studies suggest that the increase in antisocial behavior in children stems from their family life, it seems likely that this adverse behavior could also, in part, result from the kind of play children engage in today. Indeed, one need not look far to find studies pointing out how screens negatively impact children’s social-emotional development.

It is perhaps not realistic for children to abandon electronics entirely, but there is evidence to suggest children benefit when parents offer physical toys rather than phones or tablets. And while this change may not happen overnight, films such as The Indian in the Cupboard can be instructive for children about how imaginative and beneficial physical toys can be in a world that overemphasizes the digital universe.

Image credit: YouTube