It recently dawned on me, as M was wearing her "Dora the Explorer" nightgown while reading her Dora book and playing with her Dora dolls, that much of her play revolved around commercialized characters. While I don't think that there is anything inherently "bad" about commercialized play, I was feeling increasingly uncomfortable that so many of her toys and play-things were designed as corporate product-lines to orchestrate her play, rather than allowing her to use her own imagination to develop characters and scenarios.
My unsettled feelings about commercialization and its potential effects on kids have been clarified in the book I am currently reading, Taking Back Childhood: Helping Your Kids Thrive in a Fast-Paced, Media-Saturated, Violence-Filled World, by Lesley University professor, Nancy Carlsson-Paige. (Waiting in my reading queue is a similar book, Born to Buy, by Boston College sociologist, Juliet Schor.)
In Taking Back Childhood, Carlsson-Paige outlines the ubiquitousness and impact of commercialization on childhood play and development, shedding light on my recent realization about just how much of my kids' childhood has been dictated by scripted characters even though they don't watch much television.
So we are now in the process of gently replacing our overly-commercialized toys and apparel with more generic things, like brand-less fairies and gnomes in place of Disney princesses, and we'll try to be more cognizant of the origins and potential implications of childhood images.
As for where I am looking for our toys these days? In addition to my city's local, independent toy stores, I am also very much in love with Bella Luna Toys and Nova Natural, two wonderful online stores that focus on natural, non-commercialized, open-ended toys for children. (And, no, I am not getting any kick-backs for these endorsements; I just like these shops and thought you might too!)