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Backlash Builds as Schoolyards Evolve Into Pokemon Trading Pits

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They arrived in America from Japan about a year ago--cards bearing big-eyed little characters with names such as Charizard, Wigglytuff and Bellsprout whose enigmatic powers fascinated children. But the trouble began when the little “pocket monsters” began coming to school--stuffed in the pockets of cargo pants, encased lovingly in acrylic photo albums and stashed in Hello Kitty backpacks.

Now Pokemon cards are being sent to the principal’s office, banned from playgrounds even in schools where toys were not already taboo. School officials from Connecticut to California have concluded the cards are disrupting learning, poisoning playground friendships and causing such distraction that some children forget their homework, tune out in class and even miss school buses as they scramble to acquire one more card.

The Los Angeles Unified School District is leaving the decision of how to deal with the invasion to individual schools--and several are joining the anti-Pokemon trend. “It just became such a monster,” said Judith Franks, principal of Valerio Elementary School in Van Nuys, who banned the cards last week.

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Among children from preschool to middle school, collecting and trading Pokemon cards has fired imaginations and touched off a frenzy of entrepreneurship. The cards--about 150 in all--depict pint-sized fantasy critters who do battle with one another but “faint” rather than die when beaten by another player’s cards. The cards come in packs of 11, costing from $3 to $11. But they are in such demand that a secondhand market has sprung up, driving the cost of the most sought-after cards beyond $100.

At Daniel Boone Elementary in San Diego, Principal Barbara Bethel banned the cards after she learned that, in addition to their milk money, children were bringing cash wads of up to $40 to school, hoping to buy a coveted card.

And that financial dimension is what school administrators and psychologists say distinguishes the Pokemon craze from earlier kid frenzies over marbles, yo-yos or even Beanie Babies.

“The thing with the Pokemon cards is that kids are really aware of . . . their value,” said Robert Butterworth, a Los Angeles-based child psychologist whose son was until recently a devoted “pack rat,” as Pokemon card aficionados are called. Recess at his son’s school “turned into a little flea market. . . . They had their calculators out. It really became a buy-and-sell bazaar.”

Even in schools that allow kids to bring recess-time games, principals are beginning to agree.

“Kids were spending more time admiring the cards and cutting deals than they were on instruction,” said Bil Zahn, principal of Burleigh Elementary in Brookfield, Wis., who in mid-September banned the cards and announced they would be confiscated if brought to school. “Whoever came up with this marketing strategy is a genius. The excitement, the intensity of it. . . . I wish they’d be that focused on mathematics.”

Parents, meanwhile, appear to be of two minds on the matter.

When Harry Miale, principal of the Gastonville Elementary Center in Finleyville, Pa., banned the cards recently, many parents sought him out to thank him.

Others see the cards as a good way for their children to develop skills they will need later. “It teaches kids negotiating skills,” Sophia Romano, a mom and financial advisor in Rolling Meadows, Ill., told the Chicago Daily Herald.

But principals say they are seeing the dark side of the deal-making: tears, fights and, ultimately, appeals to teachers to arbitrate trades later regretted.

“Fights started breaking out,” said Franks of the card trading at Valerio Elementary. “Children would swap the cards or lend them, and then it would take me and an act of Congress to get them back.”

Jenny Bendel, a spokeswoman for Wizards of the Coast, which produces the cards under license from Nintendo, said the company understands the principals’ actions. But she was quick to add that many teachers have called the company asking that game experts visit their school. “They’re finding that the game is a good learning tool,” she said. By encouraging children to search out more information about their favorite characters in books, she added, the cards help kids “teach themselves to read.”


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