Posts Tagged environmental education

Toys ‘R’ Us Uses Kids to Push Their Products

Published by — The toy corporations mocks environmental education to make a profit.

Here’s a painfully-clear portrait of our post-moral culture: A recently-released advertisement uses real kids, not actors, to deliver the message that Nature is deadly dull and that over-priced, made-in-Elsewhere consumerist toys bring true joy.

The kick-off to Toys”R”Us’ holiday season is here on YouTube.

At this point, everyone over age 5 is onto advertising’s lies. So clever corporate America has created a new technique called “reality prank,” which sets up a situation that captures real people having genuine, heartfelt reactions. The non-actor responses are hugely compelling. In two such “prank” ads — see here and here — unsuspecting people are put in scary if not terrifying situations. The pranks provoke pricelessly big, honest reactions — for the purpose of selling TVs and beer, respectively. Apparently using people for corporate or personal gain is okay, as long as it’s entertaining.

Toys”R”Us uses a busload of urban kids. The set-up is a fake environmental organization called “Meet the Trees Foundation,” which is taking them on a field trip to the forest. Actually, the one aspect that didn’t seem real was the kids’ seeming boredom about taking the trip. I’ve never seen elementary students be anything but thrilled to be on a bus taking them just about anywhere other than school. Not sure how they did that.

“Ranger Brad,” an actor, leads the expedition. As the bus pulls away, he preps them to play arguably the most boring game ever conceived: Name that leaf. Students yawn, as I would. When a boy gamely ventures a wrong guess, he’s gently put down, a moment designed to boil the blood of environmental educators.

But the pain is quickly over. Time for the reveal:

Ranger Brad strips off his colorless, tree-hugger’s shirt, revealing a deep red, designerly version of a Toys”R”Us employee shirt. His voice loses its environmentalist piety and amps up to full pitchman: “We’re not going to the forest today,” — because who on earth would want to do that? — “we’re going to Toys”R”Us!” The kids scream and whoop. Brad seals the deal with: “You’ll play with all the toys and you can choose any toy you want!” For a poor urban kid, life doesn’t get any better.

From there, the advertiser has easy, downhill sledding. We see shot after darling shot of kids loose in a candy store, riding bikes, wide-eyed at games, thrilled over the possibilities. “I’m going to cry,” says a kid in the throes of overwhelm. “This is sooooooo cool,” bursts another. This rich sequence ends as a lovely girl takes a fluffy stuffed creature into her arms and melts with pleasure. Cue corporate logo and cut.

The message is that environmental education is not good or bad, but why bother? Clearly it bores the daylights out of the team who made the ad. Why they threw Mother Nature under the bus is a head-scratcher, except that corporate America can’t make a buck off kids and nature.

Educators, ecologists and some parents would argue passionately that teaching children about protecting the environment is critical to our survival. I would add that Nature has a spirit that could become a real friend to urban kids, if they only had more access and exposure to it. Like any friend, kids need to become familiar with nature’s spirit, over time. Without bells and whistles, it’s not obvious what entertainment can be gotten out of it. Nature only “works” as a toy when you’ve explored it and know its treasures, like European kids who attend forest kindergartens. They whoop and scream too, but over mud, imagination, twigs and tools — much more accessible to a low-income kid.

Making kids happy is an ancient and desirable pleasure. In moderation, it’s a good thing. But thrilling urban kids with a shiny consumer object starts to look like a quick first fix. Hyper-marketed toys, like movie-tie-in products, are interesting for a surprisingly short time. Many new parents have been sorely disappointed to see the child far more thrilled with the box than the toy itself. As the novelty recedes, new and fancier toys must take their place to keep the child amused and not, God forbid, bored. The trendy toy of the year resembles the beginning of an addiction more than a prop for a child’s imagination and exploration.

But what I got from this whole phenomenon of “reality pranks” is that it no longer matters whom you use, or what values you trash, in order to sell product. In a post-moral culture the common good can’t possibly compete with entertainment. If we use kids — or terrify adults — to make the dollar, that’s kind of clever, no? Environmental educators matter so little no one is going to fuss about dissing them.

Although, I’m not the only one to object. Petitions are circulating. But as of this writing not even 1,000 people have thumbs-downed the ad. However insulting, unhealthy and greedy the message, the unfortunate values asserted are not much rocking anyone’s world.

But I can tell you that Toys”R”Us has seen the last of my dollars.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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Great Communities Are Healthy and Healing Places

Published by — “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

This year’s theme for the recent Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference was “Healthy and Healing Places.”

Dr. Richard Jackson was their on-point keynote speaker. A pediatrician and Master of Public Health, Jackson has worked to improve public health by tackling underlying conditions of ill health, namely physical environments and public policies that actively promote disease. He all but rails against the on-going degradation of children’s health — rising rates of obesity, asthma and mental illness. Many kids are growing up to be adults doomed to struggle with chronic health issues. Medical science can prolong the quantity of life, but only by restoring the health of our land, habits, and communities will the quality of our lives also improve.

He tells this story:

During his distinguished career, he directed the National Center on Environmental Health at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, aka the CDC. Their head office is in Atlanta, a hip, happening city, but also one gridlocked by bad urban planning and endless freeways — the poster child for urban sprawl.

One sweltering summer day, Jackson was stuck in traffic on an 8-lane highway watching an older woman trudge along the freeway’s shoulder, breathing smog, lugging bags of groceries in each hand. Jackson knew she was returning to her low-income neighborhood that had no grocery store — such places are “food deserts” — from a wealthier one that did.

“If she collapses and dies, it will be heatstroke resulting from an absence of sidewalks, trees, and good planning. Currently, the difference in life expectancy between people in poor neighborhoods and those in comfortable ones is 10 years.” Where you live can be very bad for your health.

By contrast, Jackson shows us an awe-inspiring example of urban planning that reversed terrible decisions made in the past. Historically, the Cheonggyecheon River ran freely through downtown Seoul, Korea. In the 1960s, city “improvers” poured concrete into its large bed and built an elevated highway. Then, in the 2000s, a visionary mayor wanted a more eco-friendly environment and so initiated the removal of the concrete and highway, and the restoration of the stream itself. Opposition was loud and strong. But the 5.8-mile linear park was a resoundingly-popular success. People stroll, bike, hang out, meet up, and have lunch. Instead of an industrial gash through the city’s center, people have a lovely greensward. Air quality improved. Downtown became more accessible by bus, subway, bike and foot, so traffic thinned. With more people using alternatives to cars, even the outer rungs of the city saw traffic relief.

Uncovering America’s rivers is one of Jackson’s pet goals. As a professor at UCLA, he fights with the state of California to uncover the Los Angeles river. Good luck with that. He’s got guts and vision, this guy.

So, giant Take-Away #1: communities should make all planning decisions with the health of their grandchildren in mind. Reviving our land’s health will take at least two generations, but we’ll reap benefits in the process too.

Dr. Jackson Take-Away #2: tax the bejesus out of everything that is bad for us. Start with sugar, which is killing us. Don’t even get him started on super-sizing.

“Our food system is designed to make us unhealthy. Things that are bad for us are half as expensive as they were in 1980; and the reverse is true. In 1983, 32 percent of the population reported having excellent life function. In 2010 the percentage dropped to 13. Smoking is down, but obesity is way up. In 1983, 17 percent of the population reported doing no physical activity during the week; in 2010 it soared to 52 percent.”

In 1960 our government subsidized neither fructose (sugar) nor ethanol (corn-based gasoline). Now the subsidies are huge. Conversely, fruits and vegetables get zero government support. Enormous subsidies go to the highway system — but not trains — even though car accidents are the leading cause of death among children.

Transportation and food policies are public health issues.

“The health people (doctors) are not having success at the end of the disease pipeline. If they could look upstream, they’d have more success. Systemic disorders (like obesity, diabetes, mental illness) require systemic treatment.” Instead, public agencies, doctors and therapists are each chasing after a variety of symptoms that have the same underlying cause.” Routine exercise, like walking to shop and do errands, would reduce cars, pollution, obesity, isolation, and the list goes on.

“There’s enormous political pressure to ignore (environmental) science. We don’t convey our message well. Honestly, just as one third of Europe died of plague, I think one third of the planet will die from climate change. We don’t like science when it hits us in the pocket book. And yet the Federal Reserve is worried about how to pay for future healthcare costs.”

Quoting from Proverbs, Jackson intones, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

So imagine a tree-lined walk, preferably by a river, made safe by its popularity, where an old Atlanta woman can wheel her groceries in a push basket, occasionally taking breaks on amply-supplied benches, perhaps running into a friend for a chat, to boot.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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