Why play's the thing

While discipline and practice are crucial in life, we need play time to let creativity bloom, to imagine the impossible, to ask the 'what if' questions.

Tony Avelar/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Alexandra Ventura, age 13, and her sister Susie, 8 (r.), play on a backyard trampoline in Santa Clara, Calif.

Only a Scrooge would frown on child’s play. Or to be more modern: only a Severus Snape. Sure, children can goof off for a while. But the age at which they are required to put away childish things, straighten up and fly right, and master the Hogwarts curriculum keeps getting younger and younger.

Standardized testing, helicopter parenting, a society obsessed with good colleges and successful careers – there are plenty of reasons why time for make-believe and play-acting has been shrinking. In a new Monitor special report, Stephanie Hanes looks at overprogrammed childhood and the educators, parents, psychologists, and others who are trying to reverse the tide.

Stephanie is a veteran correspondent who has had demanding assignments for the Monitor in sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the world. Her interest in child’s play – like her interest in the “Disney princess effect” (see our Sept. 26, 2011, cover) – was sharpened by her introduction less than a year ago to an important new journalistic source: Madeline Thuli Hanes Wilson.

Through the eyes of her daughter, Maddy, Stephanie says she has been seeing how modern childhood is too often torqued by commercialism and parental anxiety. “I was looking at the books that I’m reading to her and realized that, wow, so many of them are selling products,” she says. That’s not unlike the rampant merchandise tie-ins to girlhood that Stephanie reported on earlier. 

At 11 months, Maddy already has an extraordinary number of organized activities she can take part in. Her favorites? “When people are on the ground interacting with her,” her mom says.

Now, plenty of parents in developing countries would like the opportunity to expose their children to organized activities. And toys and games aren’t evil. They can make a kid feel enriched, boost skills, and familiarize youngsters with the technological world they are entering. But relentless scripting of child’s play has its drawbacks.

Free time and make-believe boost physical development, socialization, and – most important – the imagination. A huge amount of what we value as a civilization comes from the what-if side of us. While we must follow rules and recipes, train ourselves and test our skills, our artistic side needs time to wonder, improvise, and dream. Productive writers from Shakespeare to Charles Dickens, Dr. Seuss to J.K. Rowling, have coupled imagination with discipline. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart talked of musical ideas emerging when he was alone, sometimes when he was sleepless or taking a walk after a good meal. To muse and mull and eventually hear a symphony in his head, he said, “is perhaps the best gift I have my Divine Maker to thank for.”

Mozart might have been the most overprogrammed child of the 18th century. Under his father’s tutelage, he was by the age of 5 adept at violin and keyboard, and composing and performing for European royalty.

 By today’s standards, he would have been locked and loaded for the Juilliard School since he was in diapers. 

It takes both imagination and discipline to produce works as original as “The Magic Flute.” That winning combination is true not just of literature, music, and painting but of science as well. The scientific method is meant to prove or disprove a hypothesis. But the hypothesis – the hunch, the what-if – has to come from somewhere. Angels must be entertained. 

The great thing is that play needs little in the way of investment or accessories. It just needs freedom to happen. Even at 11 months, Maddy has all sorts of play options, says Stephanie. One of them is going out and looking at trees: “We hold the leaves. This one is green. This one is brown. It doesn’t cost anything.”

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor. 

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