It’s a common refrain: Children sure don’t play like they used to. And unfortunately, it’s true. Children today entertain themselves for hours on go-anywhere, do-anything devices that most adults over the age of 20 never dreamed of. Long gone are the afternoons playing with friends of different ages in the neighborhood as pirates or knights, princesses or superheroes.
Still, play is play – right?
There’s increasingly strong evidence that children are not only more creative when they’re making up their own games, engaging in what psychologists call symbolic thinking at a higher level, but that a lack of old-fashioned play hinders analytic thinking, maturity and self-regulation.
Not to mention the physical nature of old-fashioned play vs. today’s screen-dependent kids. Everyone knows children are in worse physical shape than they were just a generation ago, but they grow out of that chubbiness — right?
Overweight children can easily become overweight teens, and then overweight adults — with catastrophic health consequences.
Evidence also suggests that rapid-fire electronics are actually changing their brains, making them even less able to concentrate. Yes, kids have always been victims to distractions and time-wasters. But computers and smartphones, and the constant stream of stimuli they offer, make a developing brain more easily habituated to constantly switching tasks, and less able to sustain attention.
Dr. Graham Higgs, chair of the Department of Psychology and Sociology and professor of psychology and education at Columbia College, says he agrees with most of this research.
“Kids who learn to solve their own problems and create their own games end up being smarter, more resilient and more capable of solving problems,” says Higgs. “These kids stand out in my classrooms. I regularly ask students to solve problems, and the ones who shine have grown up in families where television and other electronics were off most of the time. And they’re the ones who change the world.”
So how can you encourage old-fashioned play in your children?
- Unplug! Take away electronics and strictly limit TV time. They will whine and complain, but watch as they quickly find a plethora of other things with which to entertain themselves. Kids are curious. Unplugging accelerates this curiosity. Note that it’s not a good idea to completely disconnect from technology, however; teachers increasingly post assignments and discussion topics online, and your kids need to complete some assignments electronically. Just monitor these sessions and ensure you child doesn’t drift over to Facebook or World of Warcraft.
- Don’t worry about underage- or gender-specific toys. So what if your 12-year-old still plays with her old Fisher-Price kitchen set? And a girl with a GI Joe or a boy with a doll is healthy. Just make sure whatever toy you choose is easy to manipulate. Save tiny, fragile figurines and elaborate dollhouses for when children are older. Huge dolls and stuffed animals don’t work for very small children, either.
- Avoid smart toys. Do you really care what Elmo thinks? Basic plastic animals or simple baby dolls take on far more fantasy roles than any smart toy. When the toy’s battery dies, so does the child’s interest, but a plastic horse will gallop indefinitely, powered by your child’s imagination.
- Give them access to a wide array of household goods such as old clothes and shoes, tools and scraps of lumber, paper, cardboard boxes (in most cases, the bigger the better), scissors and glue, blankets, furniture, plates, pots, pans, cups, spoons and dishes. Encourage them to play dress-up or make their own toys, castles, costumes and tools. And if something goes awry – and it probably will—remember, a sweater or a dish is replaceable, but a child is a child only once.
- Look for opportunities to play with mixed-age groups of children. Simply going to the park or inviting children of different ages over to the house can be beneficial.
- Use everyday situations as play fodder. Point out professionals and talk about what they do for a living, what special terminology and tools they might use, and where they work. Kids absorb everything. And you never know what will spark your child’s imagination.
- Who’s the child here? You’re the adult and they’re the kids, and their job is to construct, direct and do the playing, not yours. This may sound incredibly obvious, but many parents want to direct children’s play. Sorry, your role is at best secondary; you’re a character actor, a bit player, a source of raw materials, a last-minute replacement. Don’t be afraid to play along, but don’t take charge!
- Read to him or her. There’s evidence that being read to increases self-regulation and a sense of security, as well as fires up the imagination while calming a person down.
- Dig out old board and card games. Games are, after all, extensions of make-believe play. Teach your child new ones. There’s nothing wrong with teaching poker or bridge to a child who can grasp the concepts.
- Give your children time to play. Until a generation or two ago, kids had time to be kids. Many kids are over-committed, overscheduled, sleepless and stressed out. If your child doesn’t really want to learn piano, so what? She has other undiscovered gifts.
- Don’t forget the wonders of playing outside. The backyard or local park offer opportunities to run, play and pretend in ways that are different from indoors. Sand boxes, building forts and playing tag all engage the imagination.
- Leave them alone! Intervene only in true crises that involve a lot of broken crockery and bloodshed. Far too often we think our children are in crisis or bored and direct them to some safe, creativity-stifling activity when all they really need is more time or perhaps a nudge in the right direction.
Think about how you used to play with friends in the neighborhood or with siblings. You probably had to be yelled at repeatedly to come in for dinner or when it got dark. Don’t your children deserve those same fond memories to look back on?