Instead, according to Robertson, schools would benefit more from programs that help students develop social and academic skills. The NIDA prevention guide highlights many evidence-based programs that do just that. One, called “The Good-Behavior Game,” trains teachers to encourage children’s positive behaviors and extinguish negative ones—and Robertson said that changing those behaviors has been shown to have long-term effects on children’s lives, lasting well into their twenties and early thirties.
When my family returned to the U.S., I found none of the NIDA-recommended programs at our elementary school. Instead, my children had Red Ribbon Week, which encouraged them to wear crazy socks one day to “sock it to drugs” and put on sunglasses the next to “shade out drugs.” To make sure the message was clear, organizers hung a large “just say no” sign at the front of the school.
Little research has been done on the effectiveness of Red Ribbon, yet every year about 90,000 schools across the country participate in the drug-awareness week. That’s proof enough for Peggy Sapp, the president of the National Family Partnership, which sponsors the Red Ribbon Campaign.
“The bottom line on all this is: If nobody is participating, then I don’t care how many little control studies and groups you have, that’s research for research’s sake,” Sapp said. “A huge part of the measurement of ‘Does Red Ribbon work?’ is people wouldn’t be participating in it if it didn’t work.”
By this measure alone, the toy-free kindergarten could also be considered a success in Germany. The project is well-known, and its widespread use is partly due to the fact that, like the Red Ribbon Campaign, it’s free. Aktion Jugendschutz makes all the necessary materials for implementing a toy-free kindergarten project available without cost on its website.
Yet, the project’s popularity has not come without controversy. In 1997, the conservative magazine Focus quoted several psychologists criticizing the toy-free kindergarten project as lacking scientific evidence and causing children unnecessary stress. Hans Mogel, a psychology professor from the University of Passau, went so far as to call it a form of child abuse. “To give children no toys is toy deprivation,” he said in an interview with Focus. “This is a form of child abuse. Deprivation comes at the expense of feeling secure and developing a healthy self-esteem.”
While it’s true there is no long-term research on the project, several independent studies of toy-free kindergarten have been conducted, including one by the psycholinguist Anna Winner published in 1997 in the journal Prävention and another in 1998 by the Austrian Institute ÖIBF. These studies indicated that children who had participated in toy-free time showed increased social interaction, creativity, empathy, and communication skills.