Do Licensed Products Stifle Imaginative Development?

September 6, 2012 Published by

Toys which feed the imagination and allow children to create their own play scenarios are powerful tools for child development.

The viewpoints fuelling the debate around licensed products and their role in the development of children’s creativity can be summarised thus:

“Licensed products stifle imagination as children simply mimic the characters’ actions and traditional, non-licensed products provide healthier play opportunities.”


“Licensed products engage children in activities and play that they may not otherwise have thought to explore and children use the safety of mimicking the characters’ behaviour to build confidence but soon extend the play with their own imagination.”

Construction toys help children develop skills such as creativity and logic‘It is worth noting that a product based on a license that is unfamiliar to a child will be played with in the same way as any non-licensed product.’

Like many debates, the issue is not this simple and depends on the child, the environment and other people interacting with the child during such play. However, parents should be reassured that children who are encouraged to take a character from a book or television programme and discuss it, play with it and use it in a variety of settings will not be any less imaginative or creative than children given generic toys.

Independent Play

It is one thing to state that parents can help a child explore play with a licensed product in a positive way, but what about environments in which children are left more to their own devices, playing alone or with one or two peers/siblings?

This all depends on how well the licensed product fits the developmental characteristics of the child at the time, and how familiar the child is with the license.

Children start by mimicking the character (assuming the child is familiar with the license and the typical behaviour of the toy), and progress to bringing in other characters from the license, and then to developing the characters according to their own schema which often results in the licensed characters acting ‘out of character’ to meet the needs of a particular play narrative. The more developmentally relevant the products are to the children, the quicker they will progress through the types of play, as the character will feel ‘safe’ to the child and encourage confidence, in a similar phenomena to that observed by Mary Ainsworth in her famous ‘Stranger situation’ research.

In the most advanced type of play, the characters in pre-school licenses offer triggers for imaginative development as children can control the story and choose what happens to the characters. In a world where children are, more than ever before, subject to a multitude of rules that they have to follow (and which they have had no part in deciding) it is important for their confidence and self-image that they are given opportunities to control a situation. The characters also help the child act out issues that are relevant to his/her own life in a safe, non-threatening way. Thus, given sufficient time and freedom of play, children will take a character and develop play scenarios that extend passed the acknowledged role of the character, into areas and issues that are relevant to that particular child at that particular time.

Are some licenses better than others?

All popular licenses have something to offer children in terms of play opportunities. However, in order for toy companies to provide children with the most relevant toys, it is important that they understand the characteristics of each license and the demographics of the programme’s audience. Children will engage with toys that fit well with the values of the license. Parents should also take heed of the values espoused by the licenses and make sure that they are happy for their child to adopt those values in their play.

It is worth noting that a product based on a license that is unfamiliar to a child will be played with in the same way as any non-licensed product. This can also happen to age-appropriate products that are mis-matched to a license: children tend to ignore the license and just use the product in the way that they would use a generic product. In such cases the child misses out on the additional play scenarios that the license affords.


When licensed products are carefully chosen they encourage development and prolong play by providing children with models to copy which in turn provide a launch pad for a child’ own imagination. Rather than causing concern for parents, licensed products should be embraced and played with by children to expand their imaginations and develop creativity and social skills.Slimey Delight

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This post was written by Dr Amanda Gummer

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