The Taconic Counseling Group

Maria Alba-Fisch, Ph.D.

Are We Putting Our Children At Risk?
The Negative Effects Of Too Much Programmed Play

Are We Putting Our Children At Risk?

Children Do Need to Play


    Adults, generally, know the importance of play for themselves and for their children. For all ages, play replenishes, brings delight and gives life luster.  For children, it does even more. In my clinical work with children, I see the variety of ways in which play is a resource for children's development. Children experiment with ideas and roles, express difficult feelings, master situations that might be overwhelming, try out creative possibilities---all with play.  These are normal and wonderful uses of play and are fun to boot. 


      In more recent years, however, I have been concerned that play has been hijacked by T.V. and mechanical and electronic toys, squeezing the natural creative process into a highly stimulating, but patterned and passive or competitive activity without the initiative, fluidity, flexibility and independent inventiveness of ordinary play. Parents find it hard to unglue their children from television; people have become concerned about video game addiction in teen agers.  Many parents report that children can become rude and angry when their T. V. or video time is limited or interrupted in any way.


      Interestingly, a recent article aired on NPR  Morning Edition, February 21, 2008 reported on the findings, observations and research of Howard Chudacof, Elena Budrova, Laura Berk and Dorothy Singer.  My comments below are based largely on the NPR article, the work of those experts and my own clinical experience. Their findings confirm my concern. Opportunities for imaginative play must be safeguarded; it is important to a child's development, not only for their emotional growth but also for their ability to regulate their attention, emotions and self-control. 


Play went from Imagination to Directive Toys


      In 1955, there was a change in marketing toys. For the first time, television advertising of toys spilled outside the Christmas season and into year round advertising. Howard Chudacoff, a cultural historian at Brown University, observes that children's play, which, until that time, had focused on activities, became, increasingly, focused on the toys themselves.  According to him, children used to wander in groups, more or less unsupervised, and engage in improvised, imaginative play, enacting different roles and dramas with rules and regulation of their own devising. They spent lots of time "just playing", but they were learning a great deal that was important for their development.


      In the last half of the 20th century, Chudacoff points out that we have supplied our children with ever more specific toys and structures for play, and, thereby, we have contributed to reducing children's wide ranging use of their own imaginations.  Additionally, parents' concern for safety and skill development increased during the same time. So, not only did we, as adults, structure children's play by offering mechanical toys that governed their play, we also created safe play environments with increasingly skill focused, supervised activities like lessons and leagues.  Without meaning to, we have contained and constrained children's play, channeling children's growth into pre-set avenues and reducing the possibilities for the kind of exploratory, imaginative play that is governed by their needs and that had, implicitly, required them to develop their own resources. What surprised me about the research is the specificity with which we may have affected children's development in particular ways by changing the format of their play.


Self-regulation is Important for Living

     In recent years, we have come to know much more about the way the brain functions and how different aspects of brain functioning contribute to learning and skill mastering.  For instance, executive function, among other things, is central to the ability to self-regulate.  Self-regulation includes being able to modulate one's impulses, attention and emotions.  Self-containment and self-control are clearly aspects of this.  Good executive function is associated with academic success. Educators and parents, alike, have been concerned about helping children focus their attention and control their impulses. However, the internal regulation of emotion is far-reaching, as well, in terms of a child's ability to learn to experience him or herself as good, manageable, competent and safe both in relation to the self and others.  A child who cannot regulate his/her emotions gets overwhelmed with distress, or anger, or fear.  None of these feels good.  It is easier for us to recognize how important it is to be able to regulate anger, but parents are more often coming in to see me concerned that their child is overwhelmed with distress, unable to ride out the normal bumps they face and defeated by the smaller obstacles that are an ordinary part of life.

Private Speech is a Normal and Important Part of Self-Regulation

     According to Laura Berk, an expert on child development, during make-believe play, children talk with themselves about what they are doing, going to do and how they are going to do it. This is called private speech (even if it is out loud) and has been found to be an important contributor to good executive function.  Russell Baker, an expert and researcher on ADD/ADHD, considers developed private speech central to a child's ability to regulate their attention. So, by removing opportunities for free floating, imaginative, unsupervised and self-regulated play, we have removed opportunities for our children to practice and develop their private speech, an important ingredient in self-regulation.

     Private speech is something we can all recognize.  Don't you some times talk yourself down from an upset?  Haven't you ever talked your way through a difficult task so you will take one step at a time, reducing the likelihood of confusion? I think private speech also keeps us in touch with what we are thinking and feeling.  It does the same for children, especially at difficult times.  You might overhear a child cautioning an action figure or soothing a doll.  They are practicing their own ability to be comforting or masterful. These are the building blocks of emotional self-regulation.

     Consistent with this idea that children today have fewer opportunities to develop private speech, research has shown that children's capacity for self-regulation has, in fact, diminished over the last 60 years.  Elena Bodrova, at the National Institute for Early Education Research, reports that when children were required to stay still, today's 5-year-olds were acting at the level of the 3-year-olds of 60 years ago. Today's 7 year olds barely approached the level of a 5-year-old of 60 years ago.  Further, Dorothy Singer, a psychological researcher at Yale, notes that teachers and school administrators are continuing to reduce the time available for imaginative play because they just don't see the value in it, despite all the evidence to the contrary. She thinks pre-school educators are under increasing pressure to get kids to learn skills early and to pass tests.  Play is being viewed as a waste of time because the real learning within play is not sufficiently understood. Learning is being thought of in overly focused ways connected to measurable and demonstrable goals---skills, test scores and specific achievements.

Imaginative Play also Helps Social Development

     I would further suggest that social learning takes place in imaginative group play.  When children talk with themselves in private speech, they are beginning to develop social comfort and social skills, as well. By talking with themselves, they become better able to talk with each other, and, together, learn to develop a game plan or a drama. As they work to develop a game, together, the children need to figure out the social nuances and obstacles that exist within a child's social world. They get to practice different roles and, at the same time, discover what works with other kids and in their own world, a place of independence with no consequences in grades, in winning or in adult-evaluated experience. Berk reports another interesting result.  Children who are effective at complex make-believe play are more likely to take responsibility for cleaning up after playing and will assist others, as well. Thus, both social and cognitive development  are enhanced by children's engaging in unstructured imaginative play.

 Parents can change the direction we are moving in.

     Fortunately, when children get an opportunity to engage in imaginative play, their self-regulation improves, again. So, parents can make effective changes.  

     Let's assume that being part of the current culture does mean that children, most likely, will learn from T.V., mechanical toys and video games. I am not recommending eliminating structured play, but I am recommending that parents make a real and active effort to create opportunities for free floating play.  Since T.V., lessons, sports and video games do not provide opportunities for free floating play and do not do much to promote self-regulation, parents will need to put time limits on T.V. and video games. The next step is selecting which lessons and which sports will truly benefit your child. Eliminate the others. This will create some time for imaginative play.  The third step is to encourage activities that do promote imaginative play. Below I have listed some suggestions compiled from my own experience and from researchers Laura Berk, Deborah Leong, Elena Bodrova. While I do think this takes time and specific effort, at the beginning, it can really become fun for all.

  • Encourage your child to engage in imaginative play. Have props for young children and dress-up possibilities.  Older children can write plays and get younger children to perform them. Encourage them all to make do with what is at hand so that they convert ordinary items into props.  At Halloween or Purim, help them think up a costume and make it with ordinary items.
  • Use your own imagination with your kids.  Lie down on the grass and talk about what objects or animals clouds resemble.  Enjoy it and be playful so that they know it is a time to relax.  
  • Check out the story books you read your kids.  Do the characters display the desired traits of problem solving, self-regulation and planfulness? We all remember Piper's, The Little Engine that Could. Wild adventurers are exciting, but check out what other values and competencies they convey.
  • Make up stories with your children.  When they are little, you can do it all.  When they are older, create choice points where they direct how things will develop. Let them know you like the twists and turns they create.  Continue the same story on another night, or with the same character, and make a series.
  • Try playing the games you played as a kid.  Old games like Charades require acting with silly imagination as a major ally. Do you remember, Simon Says and Red Light , games where you have to think about what you are doing, listen carefully and need NOT to do something?  Do you remember Statues, where you have to go from activity to perfect stillness? Try these with your kids. Let them call you old fashioned.
  • Teach them how you develop your own solutions, the steps you go through, the errors you make, the patience you need, the daydreaming you do, the way an idea pops in and later gets refined, etc. 
  • Let your kids hear you walk yourself through a complicated task by talking to yourself. When they are having trouble with a task, encourage them to talk their way through it.  Let them know it can help and is a good thing. You will be modeling self-talk and helping them learn tricks of concentration and step-wise problem solving. 
  • Give them free time to do whatever, and let them know they will come up with something interesting on their own.  Remind them of when they have done so.
  • Set up activities that require planning. Games with complex directions, patterns for constructing, steps for building models, recipes for cooking--- all require planning and care in moving through things a step at a time.