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The Power of Creative Play

When I was a kid (and…um…even not a kid!), I thought that everyone made up stories and alternative realities like I did.  As a little kid, I had imaginary friends, of course; as I grew older, imaginary play grew more complex.  Sometimes it was play acting (for some reason I had a real thing for playing ship wreck and refugee?); other times it was all in my head – literally.  I read like crazy which no doubt added fuel to my imaginary fires.

Callum playing in his pool

As an adult, I learned that imaginary play (or just imagining) is not something that all kids do – or rather it’s not something that has been fostered and encouraged in all children.  One of my biggest shocks when I was teaching high school English was the fact that many of my students could not imagine – they couldn’t (or were highly uncomfortable) making inferences about stories, visualizing characters or settings, or writing descriptively about settings and characters of their own creation.  I have a hard time believing that some kids aren’t born with an “imagining gene.”  What I think is really happening is the same thing that happens with any skill we don’t use – imagination is atrophying.

The authors of a recent Newsweek piece – “The Creativity Crisis” – would agree.  The piece argues that for the first time ever, creativity in America is declining; the decline is most acute for elementary aged children – the very people who should be enjoying an active and healthy imaginary play life.  The authors suggest (and I would agree) that schools are partly to blame; standardized testing has taken the play out of even kindergarten.  Programs that encourage creativity such as art and music are among the first to get the ax when budget crises strike.

Raking in the sand box at our local children's mueseum

I’d also argue that imaginations atrophy when our kids aren’t forced to use them.  There is a dizzying array of toys on the market that flash, beep, talk, and move – the toys do the playing for you.  Now you could make an argument that electronic or complex toys do encourage learning skills – like cause and effect.  But the truth is that those skills can also be learned through simple toys that allow for a more open ended use.  I don’t intend to bash all electronic toys – I’m pretty sure that at some point Callum will have something requiring batteries – but I would argue that most of a child’s toys should be things that encourage creative and imaginary play.  I think it’s very telling that most toddlers gravitate towards simple “toys” like pots and big wooden spoons – there’s so much you can do with them!

A friend recently passed on a link to a NPR piece from a few years ago that discusses the value of “old fashioned play.”  The experts cited in the piece make the case for the importance of “free” play for the development of our emotional and cognitive skills.  They argue that our ability to self-regulate comes out of our experiences playing; play allows us to experiment with different situations and to practice “private speech” – a critical ability for children and adults alike.  Children today are increasingly showing lower levels of self-regulation; a combination of specialized toys and schools focused on testing has seriously limited opportunities for free play.  Those children will grow into adults who can’t self regulate well, adults who may suffer emotional and social problems.

As parents of young children we have the opportunity to provide a space for free play and to nourish young imaginations.  Instead of buying every fancy toy and cool new gadget, we can opt for simple “classics:”  building sets, dolls, puzzles, stackers, and sorters – even pots and pans and buckets of water.  We can encourage them to play outside – dig in the dirt, run the grass, and explore under rocks.  And we can play with our children, encouraging their fantasy play… and reinvigorating our own.

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Published in Parenting Play time