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Toddlers to tweens: relearning how to play

Children's play is threatened, say experts who advise that kids – from toddlers to tweens – should be relearning how to play. Roughhousing and fantasy feed development.

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For a host of reasons, today's children do not engage in all sorts of developmentally important play that prior generations automatically did. In her class at Wheelock College, Levin has students interview people over the age of 50 about how they played. In the 1950s and '60s, students regularly find, children played outdoors no matter where they lived, and without parental supervision. They played sports but adjusted the rules to fit the space and material – a goal in soccer, for instance, might be kicking a tennis ball to the right of the trash can. They had few toys, and older children tended to act as "play mentors" to younger children, instructing them in the ways of make-believe games.

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That has changed dramatically, she says. In the early 1980s, the federal government deregulated children's advertising, allowing TV shows to essentially become half-hour-long advertisements for toys such as Power Rangers, My Little Ponies, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Levin says that's when children's play changed. They wanted specific toys, to use them in the specific way that the toys appeared on TV.

Today, she says, children are "second generation deregulation," and not only have more toys – mostly media-based – but also lots of screens. A Kaiser Family Foundation study recently found that 8-to-18-year-olds spend an average of 7.5 hours in front of a screen every day, with many of those hours involving multiscreen multitasking. Toys for younger children tend to have reaction-based operations, such as push-buttons and flashing lights.

Take away the gadgets and the media-based scripts, Levin and others say, and many children today simply don't know what to do.

"If they don't have the toys, they don't know how to play," she says.

The American educational system, increasingly teaching to standardized tests, has also diminished children's creativity, says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology and director of the Infant Language Laboratory at Temple University in Philadelphia. "Children learn from being actively engaged in meaningful activities," she says. "What we're doing seems to be the antithesis of this. We're building robots. And you know, computers are better robots than children."

Other countries, particularly in Asia, she notes, have already shifted their educational focus away from test scores, and Finland – which is at the top of international ranking – has a policy of recess after every class for Grades 1 through 9.

But as Dr. Hirsh-Pasek points out, children spend most of their time out of school. A playful life is possible if parents and communities know what to do.

The Ultimate Block Party, which Hirsh-Pasek developed with other researchers, is one way to involve local governments, educators, and institutions in restoring play and creativity, she says. The Ultimate Block Party is a series of play stations – from blocks to sandboxes to dress-up games to make-believe environments – where kids can play with their parents. Meanwhile, the event's staff helps explain to caregivers what sorts of developmental benefits the children achieve through different types of play.

The first Ultimate Block Party in New York's Central Park in October 2010 attracted 50,000 people; Toronto and Baltimore held parties last year. Organizers now say they get multiple requests from cities every month to hold their own block parties; Hirsh-Pasek says she hopes the movement will go grass roots, with towns and neighborhoods holding their own play festivities.

"It's an exciting time," she says. "We're starting to make some headway. It's time for all of us to find the way to become a more creative, thinking ­culture."

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