Our children need imaginative play

“It seems that in the rush to give children every advantage—to protect them, to stimulate them, to enrich them—our culture has unwittingly compromised one of the activities that helped children most. All that wasted time was not such a waste after all.” —Alix Spiegel, NPR


I am a member of a newly formed community playground committee. Our goal is to raise enough money to purchase and install a big play system in our city park, a couple of other smaller structures, and to create an account to cover repairs and upgrades as they are needed in the future.

It’s a big job considering the starting point is $0. But we’re a committee of parents who really believe this is something that will benefit the kids and in the bigger picture, the town and it’s future.

At least when considering how much a nice park determines the success and stability of any town. We think it’s pretty significant and hope many others agree.

There’s a lot of talk about how kids don’t spend enough time in play. There’s also a lot of talk about how far behind American kids are than some others. How kids don’t show any initiative, or have as much interest in doing anything creative or productive.

We could blame it on video games, TV, parents who don’t care, recess being cut from schools, arts programs being cut from schools…the list goes on and on.

So, what’s the solution? More play or less? It might come down to what we consider “play” to be.

This is something we struggle with in our house, too, because let’s face it, it is easier to flip on the Disney Channel for awhile after work. The kids are quiet and dinner gets made. There’s too much television time and (surprise!), the Wii isn’t necessarily “physical” play.

NPR put out a story about the developmental impact of playtime called “Old fashioned play builds serious skills.” This introduced me to the “Thunder Burp.” You’ve never heard of it either?

In 1955, the Mattel toy company used television advertising to market this toy gun. This marketing strategy was a new concept outside of the Christmas season.

Considering most of us probably haven’t heard of it, I’m not sure it was money well spent. But, as NPR pointed out, it changed the idea of play overnight. Suddenly, play became focused on “things” instead of activity.

Let’s see how far we’ve come. We’re bombarded with commercials for toys and it’s definitely not exclusive to Christmas time. I’ve seen more Blendy Pen and Moon Sand commercials than I could have ever dreamed of.

This, according to a number of reports and everyday parents, is part of the problem. We have lots and lots of stuff to play with, but “play” is suddenly a missing piece for our kids. Psychiatrists say it’s because the definition has changed. The make-believe element has gone missing. This reduces kids’ cognitive and emotional development and problem-solving skills.

Researcher Laura Berk explained that make-believe playtime is so powerful for kids because it allows them to “self-talk,” where they talk to themselves about what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it.

“It’s not just children who use private speech to control themselves,” Berk said. “If we look at adult use of private speech… we’re often using it to surmount obstacles, to master cognitive and social skills, and to manage our emotions.”

When play sessions are always controlled, built around specific lessons, or when toys begin to actually inhibit crazy, goofy imaginative play, there’s less room for experimenting and fewer opportunities for their minds to run free.

To our committee, at this point in the game, the three-tier structure looks like one big fat dollar sign.

But we can also see it through the kids’ eyes. In addition to a tool for cognitive brain and social development, it’s a pirate ship holding a captured maiden below deck, a remote island facing certain destruction from a flowing river of hot lava, an alligator-infested swamp, a wild cat’s lair, a secret hideaway for the queen of the world or a launch pad for the next space shuttle mission.

There’s some big stuff going on in the park.

This is our vision. It’s our hope that the community will do what they can to help us put this equipment in place, give our kids something to yell about, our families somewhere fun to go, and our community something to brag about.

We should all find a little more time to waste.

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