I was doing my usual holiday pre-shopping (which generally entails perusing the Target Web site for its selction of Playmobil sets before getting into the car and actually DRIVING to Target to purchase one) when I stumbled upon Roman Arena action set and the following angry review by "Proud to be a Christian 'Mandy B'":
I'M APPALLED AT YOUR JUDGEMENT AND SELLING THIS 'TOY'
Are you kidding me??! You need "0" stars above or a space where we can give our "real" feedback.
What kind of sadistic toymaker would come up with this "toy" for a child age 4-8? or for any age for that matter? What was fun about the slaughtering of Christians by the Roman empire? What do you think the lions were for?? This is nauseating. I can't believe Target would sell such a disgusting toy just to make some $. I will not ever shop in your store again unless this toy is removed from your shelves.
Past loyal Target cardholder and past frequent shopper
And below it was this more tongue-in-cheek critic, who penned himself Maximus (Pompeii):
This toy is quite valuable for teaching young children about the Roman Empire. Countless hours can be had playing Gladiator vs. Lion and Gladiator vs. Gladiator in mortal combat. Children and take on role playing acting as the Caesar giving the good ‘ole “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” as they learn logical consequences as a part of early childhood development.
Parents should thoroughly preparing for the onslaught of educational and historical questions that will arise from the hours of delight acting out mortal combat in front of the thousands of Patrician Romans leisurely spending their idle time.
Some questions that parents should be prepared for are,” Who did the lions attack besides the Gladiators?" Of course the answer would be the criminal Christians who were guilty of treason by not worshiping the state Caesar who was considered God by decree.
Perhaps some extra figures of unarmed Christians could be a useful addition to the group and in that sense would round out the historical accuracy of murderous spectacle.
Which got me thinking. ... What IS inappropriate as a toy? You know ... aside from our preferences as parents and our kids' preferences as players.
Is it the TOY or the PLAY?
I'm of the general opinion that toys aren't the problem. The Roman Empire has returned from ancient history. Popular culture - such as wildly popular HBO series, "ROME," has brought it back into the minds of Christmas-shopping parents, and the history IS fascinating.
Of course the Playmobil version does seem to mix its timeline - setting its stage with Caesar but keeping the Christians and other 'criminals' (save gladiators) out of the arena (which actually seems to be the case in 313AD under Constantine, when religious persecutions were banned and Christianity slowly started to become Rome's official religion). But who cares, right? Christians were persecuted. People's lives were not valued they way we value them today.
But where was I?
Plaything appropriateness ...
Is it glorifying war to play with war toys?
There have been lots of conflicting studies over the past two decades as to the effect violence and violent play has in shaping young minds; and most of it seems to have biases that coincide with current events. A sharp upturn in violent crime in teenagers during the 90s, for instance, seems to have made experts conclude that it couldn't hurt to dissuade parents from allowing their kids to play with guns or to engage in any violent roleplay. Skip forward a little to a post-Columbine era and zero-tolerance policies aimed at stopping violence altogether, even at the thought-level, became the norm. If a child drew a violent picture they were referred to school counseling.
More recent research seems to be of the opinion that violent role play is not only normal, but it can be healthy for most youngsters. One theory being that it's not just that children learn from play, they work out their perception of the world through it. Keeping them away from roleplaying we as parents find distasteful or shocking, might actually keep kids from learning the necessary lessons of controlling their natural aggression.
It seems what's most needed is for parents to be present. What the kids learn about their own play, whether it be with toy guns or toy harlots or just pretend play without any props, is related to what we are reminding them of: The realities, good or bad. When that happens my guess is everyone will learn something useful.