Make-Believe: Free Yet Worth Thousands

The media has recently been touting the benefits of make-believe play for children.

In December, CNN said Want to Get Your Kids Into College? Let Them Play.

Last month, the New York Times noted in the Effort to Restore Children’s Play Gains Momentum that “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.”

In today’s competitive world, play seems frivolous and purposeless.  Yet play is exactly what kids are in dire need of, child experts are saying, for their mental health and their future success.

Here are some more opinions:

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

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 digital media. Traditional play may seem old-fashioned and dull compared to TV (and computers, video games, hand-held digital devices, iPods, cell phones…).

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 have to make time for homework or flash card drills.

Competition for education. As the stakes for higher degrees and college tuition seems to rise infinitely, children are taking more and more extra classes in music, dance, or sports to help their chances of getting into a better middle school, high school, college, profession.

Ironically, experts are saying that what kids need is fewer programmed activities and more just plain old play time.

For more on how the free play movement is gaining momentum, see Suz Lipman’s blog, Slow Family.

This post is the first in a three-part series.  Next up:  How to Encourage Pretend Play in Your Children.

What is your take on free play?

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!


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