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Play time: Kids have less time, more imagination for make believe

New play time study shows kids are more imaginative and comfortable with make believe than they were 20 years ago, despite shrinkig play time during and after school.

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Moreover, the American Academy of Pediatrics has found that students from low socioeconomic-level backgrounds have disproportionately less time for unstructured free play, because they are more likely to face cuts to school recess time, and unsafe parks and playgrounds to use after school. Play, for the researchers’ purposes, can include play indoors or outside with toys, but does not include video game play or sports or other structured activities.

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But Ms. Russ believes that, as children’s playtime is restricted, they may be finding ways to “sneak in” pretend play, and that schools forced to do away with recess or art frequently try to incorporate more imaginative tasks into other parts of the curriculum.

“Children are resilient,” she said. “It’s possible they are playing more than we think they are, that they’re squeezing it in somewhere during the day, at night, when they’re not being taken to sports or dancing class.”

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a psychology professor and play researcher at Temple University in Philadelphia, agreed that students will find ways to play even in the most structured or limiting environments.

“The very fact that animals play and humans play tells you something; there must be some evolutionary benefit here,” Ms. Hirsh-Pasek said. “You can’t have something that prevalent in a species that doesn’t have a use. I think that use comes out in social skills, inhibiting bad responses, and promoting good responses, talking about that which can and cannot be seen.”

Play as Safety Valve

However, while imagination can be developed via other methods, children’s emotional development may be taking a bigger hit from limits on playtime, the Case Western researchers found.

Children in the study showed no change in positive emotions and enjoyment during the play sessions, but over the years they became much less likely to show negative emotion during play. That might seem like a benefit—children are becoming happier in their play—but Ms. Russ finds it troubling that children are less likely to use play as a safety valve for aggression, depression and other bad feelings.

“This may be where the lack of time to play may be starting to hurt,” Ms. Russ said. “Play is safe; it’s pretend, and if they express negative emotions, it’s OK. Children use play to process negative emotion, and if they don’t have as much time to play, they don’t have many other places where they can do it. So as a clinical psychologist, that finding concerns me.”

John J. Ratey, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Mass., called play “vital, not only for students’ happiness but their ability to take in new information and learn about failure.”

Bringing Back Play

After more than a decade of reductions in recess time, the pendulum is just beginning to swing back toward providing more time for students to play, both at home and at school.

“Play is active, engaged, and meaningful learning, and we know that’s absolutely not a waste of time,” Ms. Hirsh-Pasek said. “I think we have to begin to ask, if the goal is about learning, how do we create learning environments that allow kids to take the playful lead?”

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