Rethinking Children's Play
Brought to you by the National PTA
Learning Through Play
Play is one of the most powerful vehicles children have for trying out and mastering new skills, concepts, and experiences. Play can help children develop the knowledge they need to connect in meaningful ways to the challenges they encounter in school. Play also contributes to how children view themselves as learners. As they play, they resolve confusing social, emotional, and intellectual issues by coming up with new solutions and ideas. They experience the sense of power that comes from being in control and figuring things out on their own (something children often do not get to do in real life). This helps them develop a positive attitude toward learning.
Playtime in the 21st Century
Many of the changes in childhood that have occurred in recent years are undermining the quality of children's play. "Playtime" is being shortchanged in school as more emphasis is placed on teaching "the basics" at younger and younger ages. Today's children and parents have busy lives so there is less free time outside of school. For safety and economic reasons, the culture of neighborhood kids playing after school is becoming a thing of the past. When children do have playtime, they often choose to watch TV instead -- an average of four hours a day -- not to mention the additional time they spend watching videos or playing videogames. But of all the factors affecting play today, few have a more worrisome impact than the recent changes in toys.
Changes in Toys
The kinds of toys that are multi-purpose and unstructured, like clay, blocks, generic toy figures, and baby dolls, encourage play that children can control and shape to meet their individual needs over time. Unfortunately, most of today's best-selling toys promote highly-structured play. They're usually action figures or video games linked to TV programs or movies. They "tell" children how to play and can channel them into merely using the toys to try to imitate what they see on TV or in the movies.
The phenomenon of media-linked toys arose in 1984 when children's television was deregulated by the Federal Communications Commission. Deregulation made it legal to market toys to children through TV for the first time. Almost immediately, whole toy lines featuring replicas of what children see on the screen appeared. TV shows -- and now movies too -- are made to sell products to children. Often, what is frustrating to parents and children alike is that while the age recommendation on the toy box is for children as young as four or five, the show connected to the toy has a rating for much older children. And because many of the most popular shows linked to toys have violent themes, like the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, World Wrestling Federation, and Star Wars, what children are often channeled into imitating is violence.
How to Promote Creative Play
You can do a lot to help your child develop play that supports her social, emotional, and intellectual development. Here are some suggestions:
National PTA's Our Children magazine.