Rethinking Children's Play

How are today's toys changing the way your kids play and what they learn?

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:

  • Encourage and value play that is appropriate to the age and individual interests and needs of your child.

  • Help your child bring his own experiences into his play. Children's play is usually more creative and less imitative when it grows out of their daily lives. For instance, providing empty food cartons and a simple toy cash register after a trip to the supermarket can help your child start recreating his experience through play.

  • Watch your child as she plays to see what she is working on and what interests her. This can help provide ideas about what play materials and other input might further develop her play.

  • Choose new toys carefully. Toys that can be used in many ways usually promote the most valuable play. They give children many opportunities to invent new uses for them over time. Too many toys, or a constant barrage of new ones, can prevent children from doing this.

  • Find ways to interact regularly (but not always) with your child as she plays. Getting involved with kids as they play -- as long as you're not interrupting or taking over -- shows them that adults value play.

  • Try to have regular, uninterrupted playtime in your child's life. This tells him that play is important. It also helps him develop the skills he needs over time to become involved in meaningful and satisfying play. For children who are heavily dependent on television, develop this routine gradually and help children figure out how to begin their play.

  • Work to counteract the gender, racial, and cultural stereotypes and violence that characterize many toys. Stereotypes limit children from developing their full potential. Children sort out who they and other people are through their play. Keep this in mind when choosing new toys and try openly talking with your child about these issues when they come up.

  • When your child does engage in violent, imitative play based on TV shows, movies or toys, help her bring in her own creativity and imagination. However you view this kind of play, the more you can help your child's play become creative, the less violent it will be.

  • Make thoughtful choices about the role of media in your child's life. What and how much children see in the media can have an enormous impact on their play. TV takes time away from play activities and media content greatly influences play. So, try to develop rules - for example, about screen time and screen content.

    National PTA's Our Children magazine.