Make-Believe: Free Yet Worth a Million

Make-Believe: Free Yet Worth Thousands

If you want your kids to get into college, let them play, say experts from Harvard professors to preschool directors. “Scientists, psychologists, educators and others who are part of the play movement say that most of the social and intellectual skills one needs to succeed in life and work are first developed through childhood play,” reports the New York Times in Effort to Restore Children’s Play Gains Momentum.

Pretend, dramatic, or make-believe play is when kids act out stories involving various perspectives and playfully manipulate ideas and emotions, and it’s getting a lot of attention these days. Pretend play must seem frivolous or extraneous in today’s competitive, busy world.

Yet play is exactly what kids are in dire need of, child experts are saying, for their mental health and their future success. Here is what people are saying:

Most child development experts agree . . . that play is the foundation of intellectual exploration. It’s how children learn how to learn. Abilities essential for academic success and productivity in the workforce, such as problem solving, reasoning, and literacy, all develop through various kinds of play, as do social skills such as cooperation and sharing.  (Susan Linn, Harvard psychologist and author of The Case for Make Believe:  Saving Play in a Commercialized World, in an article at Babble, October 16, 2009)

The self-regulation skills that dramatic play has been found to develop are “a remarkably strong indicator of both short-term and long-term success, academic and otherwise . . . and have been shown to predict academic achievement more reliably than I.Q. tests.” (New York Times, September 25, 2009)

Children who engage in complex forms of socio-dramatic play have greater language skills than nonplayers, better social skills, more empathy, more imagination, and more of the subtle capacity to know what others mean. They are less aggressive and show more self-control and higher levels of thinking. Animal research suggest that they have larger brains with more complex neurological structures than nonplayers.  (March 2009 report Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School by the Alliance for Childhood)

Why Pretend Play Has Become Precious

Make-Believe: Free Yet Worth Thousands

Even though play has always been considered what children do, and it’s considered a basic human right by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, free play is becoming rarefied. Why?

Proliferation of screens. Traditional play may seem old-fashioned and dull compared to all the technology-related entertainment and games we have now.

No time. With bursting schedules of classes and school programs, children often don’t have time for plain old play. In fact, it seems like allowing your kids to just play is tantamount to not caring about them: enrichment classes and organized sports are touted as the way to prepare your child for a rich future.

Toy superstores. Places like Toys ‘R’ Us, Target, and Wal-Mart mostly offer toys based on TV shows or movies where children already know the script, or electronic toys that only require a child to push a button.

Plainness is intimidating. When the latest and greatest is flashy and high-tech, parents fear their children will be bored with a toy that doesn’t talk, walk, zoom, vroom, light up, or touch down.   In fact, usually the opposite is true. We often joke about how kids are more interested in the box the toy came in than the toy itself, yet we don’t listen to the underlying message.

In an interview with Babble, Linn says, “A good toy, a toy that nurtures creative play is ninety percent child and only ten percent toy. Play is useful for children, and engaging and exciting for children, when they drive the play, when they’re in charge of what’s going to happen in the play.”

Fear of the world outside. Whether it’s true or not, our society makes us feel that it is unsafe for children to play on their own outside. Lenore Skenazy, founder of the Free Range Kids movement, says that kidnappings and other stranger crimes are in fact fewer today than they were when we were growing up. Blame the fear on media hype.

Unfamiliarity with nature. It’s a vicious circle — the less time children spend outside, the less comfortable they are with the great outdoors. Yet being out in green spaces is excellent stimulation for kids’ imaginations and, according to Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, nature can cure us from a host of modern ills.

Homework and busy work. On top of after-school activities and sports, kids often have lots of homework and pressure is everywhere to do more and better.

Competition for education. As the stakes for college seats, tuition, and good jobs rise, children are taking more extra classes in the arts, sports, or academics to help their chances of getting into a better middle school, high school, college, profession.

Yet experts are saying that what kids need is a little bit less programmed time and a bit more dream time. Especially in early childhood, from about two to seven years old, play involving make-believe worlds is associated with enhanced creativity, better language skills, emotional maturity, empathy and self-control, and even increased brain capacity for learning.

So it seems that while there is nothing wrong with spending money on enrichment classes and high-tech activities, imaginary worlds are just as valuable. Or as Coco Chanel said, “The best things in life are free. The second best things are very, very expensive.”

Photo credits: pirates, umbrella, sledding.

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  • Susan July 24, 2013, 9:26 pm

    Great article-I get to babysit my 4 yr. old grandson and granddaughter and 11 mo. old grandson. The two 4 yr. olds love to go outside and love to pretend play. The latest games they play are Daddy and Mommy and getting married (they are cousins but they are role playing.) They will go in a bedroom-dump legos in the middle of the floor and just build things for hours. I wish I could record their conversations-they are a hoot sometimes. It gives me a chance to have time with the 11 mo. old-just picks up everthing you do-he’s never held a cell phone but picked mine up off the table and held it to his ear and can play catch from several feet away-I am blessed to have this time and love watching them learn. We love planting a garden and they got magnifying glass science kits for their birthdays-to look at bugs and stuff. How lucky am I :)

  • Meagan @ The Happiest Mom February 2, 2011, 6:02 pm

    I read today that most kids would prefer an iPad to a new bike. It made me sad, but then, who does the most advertising? It’s not like Schwinn is taking out billboards with iconic shadow people to convince kids that riding a bike is cool. And then even if they had one, a lot of parents won’t even let their kids ride to the end of the block let alone out of their sight. What fun is that for a kid, who can instead “escape” into a magical, independent world inside a video game?

    I really do understand why kids are so drawn to screens and exploring the make-believe worlds within them these days–because we don’t allow them to explore their own real surroundings. The one thing that would make the biggest change, I think, is less parental fear.

    Thanks for the important post, Amy.

  • Suz@ Slow Family February 1, 2011, 11:46 pm

    Hi Amy!

    What a great post! You got so much terrific and important information in. Thanks so much for mentioning my blog. Cheers to more pretend and free play.

  • Beth February 1, 2011, 9:32 pm

    Great topic Amy- I was just wondering what you’ve been working on!