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.

Photo: Tony Avelar/TCSM Illustration: John Kehe/Staff
Relearning how to play. For toddlers to tween, there should be more roughhousing and fantasy feeding development than screen time and hovering parents, say experts. This article is part of a cover story project in the Jan. 23, 2012 issue of The Christian Science Monitor magazine.

Havely Taylor knows that her two children do not play the way she did when she was growing up.

When Ms. Taylor was a girl, in a leafy suburb of Birmingham, Ala., she climbed trees, played imaginary games with her friends, and transformed a hammock into a storm-tossed sea vessel. She even whittled bows and arrows from downed branches around the yard and had "wars" with friends – something she admits she'd probably freak out about if her children did it today.

"I mean, you could put an eye out like that," she says with a laugh.

Her children – Ava, age 12, and Henry, 8 – have had a different experience. They live in Baltimore, where Taylor works as an art teacher. Between school, homework, violin lessons, ice-skating, theater, and play dates, there is little time for the sort of freestyle play Taylor remembers. Besides, Taylor says, they live in the city, with a postage stamp of a backyard and the ever-present threat of urban danger.

"I was kind of afraid to let them go out unsupervised in Baltimore...," she says, of how she started down this path with the kids. "I'm really a protective mom. There wasn't much playing outside."

This difference has always bothered her, she says, because she believes that play is critical for children's developing emotions, creativity, and intelligence. But when she learned that her daughter's middle school had done away with recess, and even free time after lunch, she decided to start fighting for play.

"It seemed almost cruel," she says. "Play is important for children – it's something so obvious it's almost hard to articulate. How can you talk about childhood without talking about play? It's almost as if they are trying to get rid of childhood."

Taylor joined a group of parents pressuring the principal to let their children have a recess, citing experts such as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends that all students have at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day. They issued petitions and held meetings. And although the school has not yet agreed to change its curriculum, Taylor says she feels their message is getting more recognition.

She is not alone in her concerns. In recent years, child development experts, parents, and scientists have been sounding an increasingly urgent alarm about the decreasing amount of time that children – and adults, for that matter – spend playing. A combination of social forces, from a No Child Left Behind focus on test scores to the push for children to get ahead with programmed extracurricular activities, leaves less time for the roughhousing, fantasizing, and pretend worlds advocates say are crucial for development.

Meanwhile, technology and a wide-scale change in toys have shifted what happens when children do engage in leisure activity, in a way many experts say undermines long-term emotional and intellectual abilities. An 8-year-old today, for instance, is more likely to be playing with a toy that has a computer chip, or attending a tightly supervised soccer practice, than making up an imaginary game with friends in the backyard or street.

But play is making a comeback. Bolstered by a growing body of scientific research detailing the cognitive benefits of different types of play, parents such as Taylor are pressuring school administrations to bring back recess and are fighting against a trend to move standardized testing and increased academic instruction to kindergarten.

Public officials are getting in on the effort. First lady Michelle Obama and US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, for instance, have made a push for playgrounds nationwide. Local politicians from Baltimore to New York have participated in events such as the Ultimate Block Party – a metropolitan-wide play gathering. Meanwhile, business and corporate groups, worried about a future workforce hampered by a lack of creativity and innovation, support the effort.

"It's at a tipping point," says Susan Mag­samen, the director of Interdisciplinary Part­nerships at the Johns Hopkins Uni­versity School of Medicine Brain Science Insti­tute, who has headed numerous child play efforts. "Parents are really anxious and really overextended. Teachers are feeling that way, too."

So when researchers say and can show that "it's OK to not be so scheduled [and] programmed – that time for a child to daydream is a good thing," Ms. Magsamen says, it confirms what families and educators "already knew, deep down, but didn't have the permission to act upon."

But play, it seems, isn't that simple.

Scientists disagree about what sort of play is most important, government is loath to regulate the type of toys and technology that increasingly shape the play experience, and parents still feel pressure to supervise children's play rather than let them go off on their own. (Nearly two-thirds of Americans in a December Monitor TIPP poll, for instance, said it is irresponsible to let children play without supervision; almost as many said studying is more important than play.) And there is still pressure on schools to sacrifice playtime – often categorized as frivolous – in favor of lessons that boost standardized test scores.

"Play is still terribly threatened," says Susan Linn, an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the nonprofit Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. But, she adds, "what is changing is that there's a growing recognition that the erosion of play may be a problem ... we need to do something about."

One could say that the state of play, then, is at a crossroads. What happens to it – how it ends up fitting into American culture, who defines it, what it looks like – will have long-term implications for childhood, say those who study it.

Some go even further: The future of play will define society overall and even determine the future of our species.

"Play is the fundamental equation that makes us human," says Stuart Brown, the founder of the California-based National Institute for Play. "Its absence, in my opinion, is pathology."

Can you define 'play'?

But before advocates can launch a defense of play, they need to grapple with a surprisingly difficult question. What, exactly, is play?

It might seem obvious. Parents know when their children are playing, whether it's a toddler scribbling on a piece of paper, an infant shaking a rattle, or a pair of 10-year-olds dressing up and pretending to be superheroes.

But even Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary definition, "recreational activity; especially the spontaneous action of children," is often inaccurate, according to scientists and child development re-searchers. Play for children is neither simply recreational nor necessarily spontaneous, they say.

"Play is when children are using something they've learned, to try it out and see how it works, to use it in new ways – it's problem solving and enjoying the satisfaction of problems solv[ed]," says Diane Levin, a professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston. But Ms. Levin says that, in her class on the meaning and development of play, she never introduces one set definition.

"This is something that people argue about," she says.

Scientists and child advocates agree that there are many forms of play. There is "attunement play," the sort of interaction where a mother and infant might gaze at each other and babble back and forth. There is "object play," where a person might manipulate a toy such as a set of marbles; "rough and tumble play"; and "imaginative play." "Free play" is often described as kids playing on their own, without any adult supervision; "guided play" is when a child or other player takes the lead, but a mentor is around to, say, help facilitate the LEGO castle construction.

But often, says Dr. Brown at the National Institute for Play, a lot is happening all at once. He cites the time he tried to do a brain scan of his then-4-year-old grandson at play with his stuffed tiger.

"He was clearly playing," Brown recalls.

"And then he says to me, 'Grandpa, what does the tiger say?' I say, 'Roar!' And then he says, 'No, it says, "Moo!" ' and then laughs like crazy. How are you going to track that? He's pretending, he's making a joke, he's interacting."

This is one reason Brown says play has been discounted – both culturally and, until relatively recently, within the academic community, where detractors argue that play is so complex it cannot be considered one specific behavior, that it is an amalgamation of many different acts. These scientists – known as "play skeptics" – don't believe play can be responsible for all sorts of positive effects, in part because play itself is suspect.

"It is so difficult to define and objectify," Brown notes.

But most researchers agree that play clearly exists, even if it can't always be coded in the standard scientific way of other human behaviors. And the importance of play, Brown and others say, is huge.

Brown became interested in play as a young clinical psychiatrist when he was researching, somewhat incongruously, mass murderers. Although he concluded that many factors contributed to the psychosis of his subjects, Brown noticed that a common denominator was that none had participated in standard play behavior as children, such as interacting positively with parents or engaging in games with other children. As he continued his career, he took "play histories" of patients, eventually recording 6,000. He saw a direct correlation between play behavior and happiness, from childhood into adulthood.

It has a lot to do with joy, he says: "In the play studies I'd find many adults who had a pretty playful childhood but then confined themselves to grinding, to always being responsible, always seeing just the next task. [They] are less flexible and have a chronic, smoldering depression. That lack of joyfulness gets to you."

Brown later worked with ethologists – scientists who study animal behavior – to observe how other species, from honeybees to Labrador retrievers, play. This behavior in a variety of species is sophisticated – from "self-handicapping," so a big dog plays fairly with a small dog, to cross-species play, such as a polar bear romping with a sled dog. He also studied research on play depravation, noting how rat brains change negatively when they are deprived of some sorts of play.

Brown became convinced that human play – for adults as well as children – is not only joyful but neces­sary, a behavior that has survived despite connections in some studies to injury and danger (for example, animals continue to play even though they're likely to be hunted while doing so) and is connected to the most ancient part of human biology.

'Executive' play

Other scientists are focusing on the specific impacts of play. In a small, brick testing room next to the "construction zone" at the Boston Children's Museum, for instance, Daniel Friel sits with a collection of brightly colored tubing glued to a board. The manager of the Early Childhood Cognition Lab in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he observes children at play with puppets and squeaky toys, rubber balls and fabulously created pipe sculptures. Depending on the experiment, Mr. Friel and other researchers record such data as the time a child plays with a particular object or what color ball is picked out of a container. These observations lead to insights on how children form their understanding of the world.

"We are interested in exploratory play, how kids develop cause and effect, how they use evidence," he says.

The collection of tubing, for instance, is part of a study designed by researcher Elizabeth Bonawitz and tests whether the way an object is presented can limit a child's exploration. If a teacher introduces the toy, which has a number of hidden points of interest – a mirror, a button that lights up, etc. – but tells a child about only one feature, the child is less likely to discover everything the toy can do than a child who receives the toy from a teacher who feigns ignorance. Without limiting instruction from an adult, it seems, a child is far more creative. In other words, adult hovering and instruction, from how to play soccer to how to build the best LEGO city, can be limiting.

Taken together, the MIT experiments show children calculating probabilities during play, developing assumptions about their physical environment, and adjusting perceptions according to the direction of authority figures. Other researchers are also discovering a breathtaking depth to play: how it develops chronological awareness and its link to language development and self-control.

The latter point has been a hot topic recently. Self-regulation – the buzzword here is "executive function," referring to abilities such as planning, multitasking, and reasoning – may be more indicative of future academic success than IQ, standardized tests, or other assessments, according to a host of recent studies from institutions such as Pennsylvania State University and the University of British Columbia.

Curriculums that boost executive function have become increasingly popular. Two years ago, Elizabeth Billings-Fouhy, director of the public Children's Place preschool in Lexington, Mass., decided to adopt one such program, called Tools of the Mind. It was created by a pair of child development experts – Deborah Leong and Elena Bodrova – in the early 1990s after a study evaluating federal early literacy efforts found no positive outcomes.

"People started saying there must be something else," Dr. Leong says. "And we believed what was missing was self-regulation and executive function."

She became interested in a body of research from Russia that showed children who played more had better self-regulation. This made sense to her, she says. For example, studies have shown that children can stand still far longer if they are playing soldier; games such as Simon says depend on concentration and rule-following.

"Play is when kids regulate their behavior voluntarily," Leong says. Eventually, she and Dr. Bodrova developed the curriculum used in the Children's Place today, where students spend the day in different sorts of play. They act out long-form make-believe scenes, they build their own props, and they participate in buddy reading, where one child has a picture of a pair of lips and the other has a picture of ears. The child with the lips reads; the other listens. Together, these various play exercises increase self-control, educators say.

This was on clear display recently at the Children's Place. Nearly half the children there have been labeled as special needs students with everything from autism to physical limitations. The others are mainstream preschoolers – an "easier" group, perhaps, but still not one typically renowned for its self-control.

But in a brightly colored classroom, a group of 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds are notably calm; polite and quiet, sitting in pairs, taking turns "reading" a picture book.

"Here are scissors, a brush...," a boy named Aiden points out to his partner, Kyle, who is leaning in attentively.

"Oh, don't forget the paint," Kyle says, although he's mostly quiet, as it's his turn to listen.

Aiden nods and smiles: "Yes, the paint."

When Aiden is finished, the boys switch roles. Around them, another dozen toddlers do the same – all without teacher direction. The Tools classrooms have the reputation of being far better-behaved than mainstream classes.

"We have been blown away," says Ms. Billings-Fouhy, the director, comparing how students are doing now versus before the Tools curriculum. "We can't believe the difference."

Educators and scientists have published overwhelmingly positive analyses since the early 2000s of the sort of curriculum Tools of the Mind employs. But recently the popularity of the play-based curriculum has skyrocketed, with more preschools adopting the Tools method and parenting chat rooms buzzing about the curriculum. Two years ago, for instance, Billings-Fouhy had to convince people about changing the Children's Place program. Now out-of-district parents call to get their children in.

"I think we're at this place where everyone is coming to the conclusion that play is important," Leong says. "Not just because of self-regulation, but because people are worried about the development of the whole child – their social and emotional development as well."

Today's kids don't know how to play

But not all play is created equal, experts warn.

The Tools of the Mind curriculum, for instance, uses what Leong calls "intentional mature play" – play that is facilitated and guided by trained educators. If children in the class were told to simply go and play, she says, the result probably would be a combination of confusion, mayhem, and paralysis.

"People say, 'Let's bring back play,' " Leong says. "But they don't realize play won't just appear spontaneously, especially not in preschool.... The culture of childhood itself has changed."

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.

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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