Why a child's play is a serious matter

The creator of ''Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood'' has a talent for putting things simply. So when television host Fred Rogers turns to the question of why children play, his answers are uncomplicated - and worth remembering.

''For young children, their play ism their work,'' he writes in his new book, ''Mr. Rogers Talks With Parents,'' ''and the more we can encourage children to play, the more we will be giving them a really important lifelong resource to draw on.'' Why? Because playing is ''an expression of our creativity; and creativity . . . is at the very root of our ability to learn, to cope, to become whatever we may be.''

If he is right - his playing has an impact on a child's future beyond what many of us suspect - then another question presents itself. What, these days, is the state of ''play''? How are children playing - and what does that tell us about the present state of our society and prospects for its future?

Several recent reports in this newspaper raise warning flags. A front-page story from London last month noted a growing problem of teen-age addiction to video games. An article in today's issue comments on the trend back toward ''war toys.'' Isolated instances, perhaps. But when placed alongside statistics from the Toy Manufacturers of America (TMA, a 240-member industry association), they take on added significance.

TMA, charting major categories of toy sales since 1978, finds such things as preschool toys in decline, along with unpowered toy cars and trucks. Games and puzzles are barely holding steady. Yet total toy sales have nearly doubled in value. The reason: astounding growth in video hardware (up from $325 million in 1980 to $980 million last year) and video software ($130 million to $1.1 billion in the same period).

''Youngsters are always intrigued with the latest thing,'' says TMA president Douglas Thomson, who attributes video-game growth largely to novelty. Its growth also mirrors the high-tech vogue now sweeping the adult world, bringing with it everything from digital watches to personal computers. Few dispute the time-saving advantages of these devices. Their beeping and brightly lit video-game counterparts can also be seen as beneficial - teaching quick reflex, rapid calculation, and alert reasoning.

Behind the fad, however, lurks a challenge. Mr. Thomson puts his finger on it when he notes that, in the world of toy sales, one category's gain is another's loss. Buried in the TMA specifics are those losses: in plastic model kits, craft material, science sets (microscopes, telescopes, and the like), scale-model railroads, and construction sets. A chunk of the market worth $353 million in 1981, it plummeted to $271 million last year.

So what? Well, look at what these toys have in common. All of them teach mechanical dexterity, careful direction-following, and the satisfaction of making a lasting object. They also teach something else that should be highly prized in our fast-moving, contemporary culture: patience, the capacity to sustain an interest in long-term projects without immediate results. They teach us to wait for the paint to dry - to build with deliberate care, to return repeatedly to the same project.

Video games, in contrast, seem generally to feature violent conflicts terminated suddenly by explosive annihilation. Their popularity, in fact, may be related to the growth of ''war toy'' sales. Offering a sense of immediate power instead of slowly developing mastery, they provide the child, in Mr. Thomson's words, with ''something he can control in his world.'' As now designed, however, they are hardly a breeding ground for patience.

The key phrase here, one hopes, is ''as now designed.'' Video hardware grows more sophisticated each week - and no one is seriously calling on us to turn back the clock and impose yesterday's toys on today's youngsters. But the games themselves - the software - seem almost Neanderthal in their poverty of imagination. The physical advances in circuits need parallel mental and moral advances in the uses to which they are put. Video games, in other words, need to grow up. When they can teach dexterity, direction-following, and patience, perhaps they will have done so.

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