We had never heard the name “Elsa” until we had our first baby. Like most new parents, we swore we’d never visit Disney World and pledged to keep any corporate characters out of our home. But, as the months and years passed, Elsa crept in — along with all her best “corporate character” friends. We wondered where we’d gone wrong, and what we could do about it. Sounds familiar?
Handling the corporate character curse is easier than you think, says Allison Klein, early childhood education expert and founder of Rose & Rex, an online toy boutique that specializes in imaginative play. “Find a balance between exposing your child to corporate characters, whose behavior and storyline are predictable, and providing your child with open-ended toys and dolls where the play evolves based on the child’s imagination,” she says.
Below, Allison explains how to reverse the Elsa Effect, no matter what stage of corporate character immersion you’re facing, and recommends 5 playtime swapouts that can help put you on the path to imaginative success.
1. Who’s Elsa? I’m still pregnant or my baby is too young to care about corporate characters.
Babies begin engaging in sensory play as early as 6 months old, but what we think of as true imaginative play usually begins between 18-24 months old. At this age, imaginative play is particularly essential because children are curious and are naturally using their imaginations as a tool to make sense of the world and process their emotions. The best and easiest way to incorporate more imaginary play is to simply notice and support those beautiful organic moments when your child is pretending.
If your child sees a bird and starts flapping his or her arms, ask an open-ended question like, “How do you think it feels to fly?” or “If you could fly, where would you go?” At home, nurture imaginative play by keeping open-ended materials accessible like Play Dough and, for children ages 3+, wooden set of building blocks. The activity of building reinforces cognitive and physical fundamentals. So watch as young children excitedly construct, explore their senses, and create from their own imagination. When it comes to dress-up, choose dolls, plush animals or costumes without pre-determined expressions or identities so children can apply their own. Most importantly, engage in their play! By getting involved, you validate your child’s creative process, reinforce that play is valuable, and open up vital lines of communication.
2. The Occasional Elsa Appearance. My child loves playing Elsa during playdates, requests an Elsa birthday party and opts for Elsa on our monthly family movie nights.
The best thing you can do to balance Elsa play, or any corporate character play, is expose your child to a variety of open-ended play opportunities. If your child is beginning to love Elsa, ask yourself why. Do they love Elsa simply because of overexposure or do they resonate with a specific part of her character? Understanding what attracts them to Elsa will help you better understand how to make her a catalyst for imaginative play.
For example, if your child is fascinated by Elsa’s ability to freeze people, he or she may be exploring concepts of power and authority. Offer play alternatives that explore the same ideas and help them process their feelings, such as playing school, building a habitat for a powerful animal, pretending to be that powerful animal or creating a magic show. These subtle prompts shift the direction of play toward new possibilities. Make sure to offer open-ended suggestions that encourage original thinking and self-expression, rather than direct ideas for them to create.
3. All Elsa, All the Time. My child only dresses, decorates and requests to be called Elsa.
If a child is playing Elsa all the time, a parent may want to consider offering alternative stories and characters—you don’t want your child thinking that they are only one thing, can only take on one kind of role or can only solve one kind of problem. We want our children to feel comfortable being their authentic selves.
To reverse the Elsa effect, reach for children’s literature! Read a variety of fairy tales, myths and short stories. Pay attention to what parts of the narrative interest your child most. Once you complete the story, offer open-ended toys and materials to form a new tale or activity. For example if you read Strega Nona by Tomie DePaola—a favorite book involving magical pasta—you can complement the story by giving the child a pasta pot, tools from the kitchen and an empty pasta box from dinner. This provides a dramatic play experience that extends the story into their imaginary world.
TRY THESE PLAYTIME SWAP-OUTS:
Bunny & The Pea Set. “Once upon a time…” can take a child anywhere! Inspire your young storyteller with this enchanting, luxuriously crafted fairytale set. $127. Buy it here.
Princess Anything Doll. Perfect for your young storyteller, this modern princess invites endless possibilities for imaginative play. A true friend, this handmade doll helps them make sense of their world, both real and imagined. $100. Buy it here.
Make a Mermaid Kit. Take your adventures under the sea with a mermaid doll you make yourself. This easy-to-assemble kit nudges the dreamer and doer in young children, encouraging them to follow their creative impulses and enjoy the process. $20. Buy it here.
Fairyhouse Kit. This set introduces your child to the wonderful world of fairies, and with the treasures hidden inside (moss tufts, feathers, acorn caps, fairy dust) they can build their own fairy house. $40. Buy it here.
Design your own Butterfly Wings. This enchanting kit invites children to bring their creative vision to life by crafting their own butterfly wings and shaping a story to go with it. $35. Buy it here.
Castle Block Set. A beautiful catalyst for building, storytelling or dramatic play, this wooden non-traditional castle puzzle inspires infinite fantasies, sparking the imagination without defining one direction. $55. Buy it here.
Homepage photo by Mary Grace Bernstein.