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When is Playing Not Playing?

(No, It’s Not a Trick Question)

By Dana Johnson

“There is a tremendous hunger in our culture for true play,” says Dr. Stuart L. Brown, an M.D. who has spent years studying play in children. He is among a growing number of doctors, psychologists, child development specialists and other professionals who are speaking out on the apparent lack of true play in children today.

Are they right? Are our children starving for play?

What exactly is play?
To be defined as play, most researchers agree that children’s activities must meet five criteria:

Play must be pleasurable and enjoyable.
It must be spontaneous and voluntary.
A play activity contains an aspect of make-believe.
The player must be actively engaged in play.
Play must have no extrinsic goals.

While most children probably engage in play activities that meet some of these criteria, an activity has to meet all five to be considered “true” play. Activities for children today seem to be lacking in two primary areas: “The player must be actively engaged in play,” and “Play must have no extrinsic goals.”

Today’s passive entertainment
Many toys on the market today encourage passive rather than active play. In this age of high-tech toys, children frequently push a button and are entertained by watching play happen. The construction of the toy sets up the play activity and determines how it will be played with. The same can be said for many other typical activities for children today -- television, movies, computer and video games. The problem with these activities is that the child is not creating anything using his own imagination. The child is not an active participant in creation of the play experience.

Our criteria above state that play must happen for the sake of play, with any outside goals. Much of what we “play” with children today has the covert agenda of teaching them a skill. Many of today’s toys are “educational,” and clever marketing has told parents that they need to stimulate their baby’s brain, use flash cards with their toddler, teach reading to their preschooler. Some of today’s most popular toys carry names such as Einstein, Genius, Mozart and Scholar.

While there is nothing wrong with children learning through play, the point is that learning happens naturally in the course of true play. All children are born with a desire to explore, discover and learn. The most effective means of accomplishing this is through their play. When playing with water, children learn about weight. In selling food in a pretend store, they learn about numbers. By using toys symbolically, they are thinking abstractly -- a requirement for reading. All of these activities lay the groundwork for learning naturally.

The pressure is on
It is interesting to note that although children appear to be lacking in true play experiences, most parents agree that play is important to their children’s development. In fact, research has shown that parents even know the types of play that are most beneficial to children!

If parents acknowledge that play is important and know what types of play are beneficial, then why are children not playing in this type unstructured free play? Developmental psychologists Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Ph.D., and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., say that as parents, “we know what to do, but we just can’t bring ourselves to do it. We are afraid that if we trust our instincts, our children will be missing out on learning some critical skills.” Their book Einstein Never Used Flash Cards proves otherwise.

Taking back the right to play
It is my hope that those of us who consider ourselves to be natural parents will take the lead in bringing back true play to childhood. Just as many of us take back the process of childbirth, just as we trust our instincts regarding attachment, let us also value our children’s need to play creatively and show respect for the importance of play in their lives.

Ways we can each begin to do this:

Make play a part of your child’s daily life. Set a time for free play -- play that is undirected and uninterrupted by adults -- each day.
Allow your child to play for the sake of play. Have no hidden agenda for “teaching” or “learning” during play.
Provide unstructured, multi-purpose toys. Toys that are not detailed encourage active participation on the part of the child. The child has to use her imagination to “complete” the toy. This also encourages creativity and gives the child an opportunity to make believe endless possibilities. In addition, there is some evidence these types of play materials develop out-of-the-box thinking and problem solving skills.
Eliminate or limit television viewing. Television is a passive activity. It can also invite a host of other challenges to true play: children re-enacting television programs instead of playing out of their own imaginations, exposure to violence and commercial marketing and contributing to the need to be entertained.
Be conscious of the images and sensations your children take in. Young children are just beginning to know the world around them. Try to give them a beautiful image of their world. Toys that are made of natural materials such as wood and cotton are particularly nice, as they have a warmth and quality that synthetic counterparts cannot match. Images that are reflective of the beauty of nature are preferable to characterizations and cartoon-like reproductions.
Offer your child a life worth imitating. Young children learn through imitation. Watching you engaged in worthwhile daily tasks will give them lots of things to pretend and roleplay.
Choose a play-based preschool. Children learn best through play. Research shows that children who attend academically oriented preschools do not enter school with better skills or attitudes toward learning.
Educate yourself. Do some reading on child development and the importance of play and play materials. Question marketing of toys claiming to be based on brain research. For example, would it surprise you to know that The Mozart Effect was a study done on college kids, not babies?
Get involved. There are many play advocacy organizations that are free to join, and many encourage parents to do so. The Alliance for Childhood is a great one, providing information for parents and a free e-mail newsletter.

Play fosters the growth of healthy children in every aspect of development – physically, cognitively, socially and emotionally. It really is food for children’s bodies, minds and spirits. Let us nourish them with wonderful “true” play experiences.

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D. and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Ph.D., with Diane Eyer, Ph.D.: Einstein Never Used Flash Cards (Rodale, 2003)

© Dana Johnson

Dana Johnson is a former children's play therapist and holds a master's degree in social work. She is the owner of Three Sisters Toys, specializing in natural play materials for children.



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"The media have become the mainstream culture in children's lives. Parents have become the alternative. Americans once expected parents to raise their children in accordance with the dominant cultural messages. Today they are expected to raise their children in opposition to it."
-- Ellen Goodman, Boston Globe columnist

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