The importance of creative play for children: two perspectives

July 24, 2008 | By | 4 Replies More

If you buy your child an expensive and detailed toy based upon the latest new movie, you’ll end up with a toy that can be used in only one way and your child will quickly get bored with that toy. It’s happened over and over. I’ve seen it with my own children and with many of their friends. The solution of many parents is to replace that new toy with yet another new toy based upon yet another newly released movie, all with the same result.

If you find yourself buying your child all of these new fancy toys, you will also depriving your child of creative play. The importance of creative play is the focus of a new book by Susan Linn, The Case for Make-Believe (2008). Susan Linn is a psychologist and therapist based at Harvard. She is instrumental in running Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. I’ve previously posted a video of an interview I arranged with Josh Golin of CCFC.

In her book, Susan Linn asks why there is so much interest in promoting expensive toys. The simple answer is that “Society on all levels conspires to keep children from playing; in a market-driven society, creative play is a bust. It just isn’t lucrative.”

Why isn’t creative play lucrative? It’s because satisfaction derived from creative play relies more on the child who’s playing than on the object with which the child is playing.

They can transform a blanket into a tent one day in a cave the next. A stick can be a magic wand, a sword, a light saber or a mast for a schooner. The toys that nurture the imagination–blocks, art supplies, dolls, and stuffed animals free of computer chips and links to media–can be used repeatedly and in a variety of ways. When it comes to make-believe, less really is more. In the United States, this means that nurturing creative play is inherently counter-cultural. It’s a threat to corporate profits.

These new toys aren’t designed for the purpose of being treasured for a lifetime. As Linn explains, “they are designed to sell. If interest wanes, so much the better–another version of the toy will soon be on the market.”

Linn explains that “play is in danger of extinction.” This is not sheer hyperbole. According to Linn, “play is linked to creativity and to mental health.” Creative play allows children to learn how to transport themselves to pretend worlds. Creative play “serves as an essential early experience of self reflection and expression.” In Linn’s experience, she can no longer assume that children even know how to play creatively. In her experience as a therapist, she repeatedly sees children trying to reenact scenes from TV shows and movies, “bringing nothing of their unique experience to their play.” All of this lack of creative play is exacerbated by the way in which parents so often over-schedule their children, leaving little or no time for creative play.

What are the specific benefits of creative play? Susan Lynn explains that creative play:

is inextricably linked to learning and creativity. The ability to play is central to our capacity to take risks, to experiment, to think critically, to act rather than react, to differentiate ourselves from our environment, and to make life meaningful. Children often use pretend play to reflect on their lives the way many adults use journal writing.

Near the end of her book, Lynn suggests that there’s no reason to buy electronic toys are toys based on media characters. She also stresses the importance of giving children lots of opportunities to play on their own. She suggests toys such as giant cardboard boxes or tents made out of sheets strung between two chairs. By strictly limiting a child’s access to television, one can use this newly found time to play games, read aloud, be silly, cook, do crafts, explore nature or dozens of other activities she recommends. She warns that some craft sets promote themselves as enhancing creativity, but some of them do nothing of the sort. Above all, she suggests investing in toys that promote open ended play. She recommends the website of Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment (TRUCE) as a place where parents can learn to find age-appropriate toys that to promote open ended play.

Linn has special tips regarding traveling. Many people put DVD players in their cars or they hand children portable video games. Susan Linn warns that these screens seem to make traveling or waiting easier, but they do so at a price. They foster dependence on the screens to get children through the day–the children get a habit of needing to be amused through these gadgets all the time.

Based upon my experience as a parent, I think Susan Lynn really knows her stuff. In my experience, children will push hard to get you to buy them things or to amuse them as their personal entertainer. It’s happened over and over, in my experience, that when children are bored, they will get whiny until they realize that the adults around them are not going to tend to them–It is at that moment, just then their protests are loudest they get to work to amuse themselves. It’s a magic moment when children decide to start creating their own wonderful imaginary worlds devoid of adult input. It is in their own imaginary worlds that children learn how to communicate and engage in creative problem solving. For parents, the trick is to have the discipline to not jump so often to become the official entertainer of your children or to become the constant provider of new toys. The more parents do this, the less children will learn how to create their own play.

Also in my experience, it’s not good, in the long run, for parents to sit around applauding everything their child does. That can result in attention-addicted children who follow adults around to seek applause every minute of the day instead of being self-sufficient and emotionally centered. In my own experience, it is a parent’s job to appreciate rather than applaud. It’s difficult, though, to stay back and watch your child sometimes fail to figure things out. I’m not suggesting that parents should ignore their children. Far from it, parents should often spend extended quality time with their kids. But kids also need that time on their own to figure things out for themselves, without a parent-cheerleader and without a constant stream of expensive new toys to make them experience a false sense of success.  I’m concerned about this issue because it seems that many children are failing to become self-sufficient.  Here’s what Susan Linn has to say on this issue:

About 40 percent of college graduates are now moving back home after graduation.  They aren’t moving home, as would be the case in some cultures, to support their families.  They seem to be moving home to save money and to postpone having to take care of themselves.

The Case For Make Believe is a well written book with lots of common sense and market research buttressed by a good dose of science. I highly recommend it.  Linn’s book includes thoughtful discussions of other pressing issues regarding childhood education, including the ubiquitous violence found in toys and the Disney model of femininity.  What is the Disney model?  The “ultra-thin body types, their clothing and the stories they tell embody a commercialized, stereotypic image of beauty and womanhood.” (p. 175).

I’ll end this post with a presentation by a second thinker who has a somewhat different delivery, but a similar idea. This second thinker is George Carlin, who speaks about various problems concerning childhood. Listen closely to this video from “It’s Bad For Ya!,” his final performance before his sudden death in June. More specifically, in Part III of this seven part performance, go to the one minute mark and listen to his description of the ideal play toy for a child: the stick.

[If the video doesn’t work, click here.]


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Category: Education, Psychology Cognition, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (4)

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  1. I'm glad to see this topic raised more and more frequently in public discourse. The lack of imagination, curiosity, and wonder among many of my students (in a design school, of all places), seems to be directly connected to their dependence on structured, pre-digested play concepts (including product tie-ins to television shows and films). Few kids seem to go out and just play any longer. Should I ever be blessed with grandchildren, the gifts I give will be hours in my backyard "forest," build-your-own fairy houses, and, yes, sticks.

  2. grumpypilgrim says:

    Creativity isn't dead yet. I know more than a few children who have more fun playing with big, empty cardboard boxes than with any of the toys they have in the house.

    Speaking of boxes…refrigerator boxes make awesome "toys." I saw one neighborhood group that created a huge fort (probably 20'x30') for their kids by connecting a bunch of frig boxes together, then cutting interior doors, windows, turrets, etc.

    What frustrates me more than kids not having time to play anymore (because their parents have structured every waking moment of their lives), it's that kids don't get enough physical activity. We are growing a nation of little blimps, and the (non-)exercise habits they have as children will all-too-likely likely become the habits they have as adults.

  3. Thanks for a great post. Imagination is indeed critical for our children. I remember a story about a kid who was handed Playdoh and he turned to the person who gave it to him and said, "What does it do?"

    In addition to getting kids to play with sticks and refrigerator boxes, I think we also need to develop toys and games that are open-ended. At the risk of self-promotion, I would like to say that there is one game that does this called Think-ets. It uses miniature objects from around the world for imaginative play. Kids love to use them for storytelling. We even have a place in the instruction manual for kids to write down their own games they have created.

    Creativity from the inside out is vital to the health and wealth of our culture. The Alliance for Play is also a great resource for this subject.

  4. Tim says:

    I think creative play has some incredible benefits. It sets a child's brain up for learning in the future.

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