The value of play

Back in the day when I was a kid, I can still vividly remember playing with my best friend in the back yard. We would assemble something from Lincoln Logs or an Erector Set, commence a rapid countdown from 10, and proceed to blow it up. While these explosions did not involve live ordnance, we made darn sure they were as real as possible. This usually involved throwing dirt, sand, and other debris into the air in slow motion along with producing loud explosion sounds with our mouths.

As we got older, our play episodes involved the destruction of model airplanes and cars with firecrackers. Quality and craftsmanship did not matter as we quickly slapped parts together. Before the glue even dried, these sloppy creations would eventually be blown to smithereens in the back yard.

We would run around the house playing Batman and Robin in costumes we made ourselves while creating our own dialogue and episodes. In our teen years, we produced short movies and interviews with other friends. We wrote our own scripts and made our own props. We wore outrageous costumes and invented ridiculous accents. We would produce cassette recordings of hilarious situations involving odd family members complete with sound effects in the background.

If my best friend and I were kids today, we would probably play with the same imagination and creativity as we did back in the day. Back then, we were in charge of our own play. We invented everything because there was nothing predesigned for us to engage in. Our imagination was out of control.

Today, video games and other electronic gadgets provide the imagination while kids simply react and engage in the activity. It’s become cause and effect without the imagination. The explosions and special effects have now been created by adults and not the kids.

Sadly, the culture of imaginative play today in the United States is vanishing. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study found that today’s kids spend an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes per day in front of a screen.  Another study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) discovered that only one in five children live within walking distance of a park or playground.

Children’s lives consumed with adult organized and structured activities such as soccer, baseball, tae kwon do, dance, homework, etc. have little room left for playtime. According to Temple University Developmental Psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek: “Play is just a natural thing that animals do and humans do, but somehow we’ve driven it out of kids”.

Scientists, psychologists, and educators who have become advocates for the importance of imaginative play all agree on these important facts:

  • Most social and intellectual skills one needs to succeed in life and work are first developed through childhood play.
  • Children learn to control their impulses through games, learn to solve problems, negotiate, think creatively, and work as a team. 
  • Play is defined as a game or activity initiated and directed by children, not an electronically predesigned or programmed medium.

Since starting her Discovery Toys business in 2005, my wife has become an evangelist for the value of imaginative play and selling toy products that make a profound difference in children’s lives. At her company’s recent convention in Chicago, the keynote speaker was Dr. Jane Healy, a teacher and educational psychologist who has written several books on childhood development. On the subject of play, Dr. Healy states: “Unlike the play we experienced as kids which was driven by the imaginations of our friends and siblings in the back yard, today’s play has evolved into adult-led play”.

Almost 80% of the toys sold today are electronic in nature. Many of these toys are licensed based products tied to television shows, movies, pop stars, or books. Many are programmed and do not offer an open-ended play experience. While these toys are entertaining, they do not place children in charge of their own play or in control of their own play experiences.

We are not doomed, however. We can change this. We just need to shut off the computer and television, power off the Xbox, take a baseball bat to the Zhu Zhu Pets, and cut loose with duct tape and a cardboard box.

Personally, I recommend making some short movies wearing outrageous costumes and using ridiculous accents. All filmed in HD of course.

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