Earlier this week, NPR broadcast a story by Alix Spiegel on the relationship between imaginative play and self-regulation in children. The theory, based on work by Howard Chudacoff, a cultural historian at Brown University, holds that the nature of play has changed dramatically in the last century, from imaginative, fluid and active to more narrow, rule-based and focused on toys. "It's interesting to me that when we talk about play today, the first thing that comes to mind are toys," says Chudacoff. "Whereas when I would think of play in the 19th century, I would think of activity rather than an object."
Chudacoff points out a number of other factors that have dramatically altered the nature of play in the last century: the growing concern for safety, and an increasing thirst for achievement among the middle class. He argues that this decrease in imaginative, unstructured play correlates to a reduction in children's ability to self-regulate, which is critical to emotional development and, yes, success.
Those of us who have children with special needs or learning differences have often been sensitized to the importance of play. In fact, "Delays or abnormal functioning in...symbolic and imaginative play" is one of the diagnostic criteria for autism, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), a tome with which I am all too familiar.
And it makes sense. In play, we rehearse life: relationships, conflicts, dreams, beliefs; we learn impulse control and to be resourceful with a stick, a cardboard box and a few pebbles. And we all know that the time available to our children for pure, unstructured play continues to decrease, filled instead with lacrosse, and piano, and language lessons, and school, and enrichment of all sorts.
I can't possibly do justice to the entire article here; for that you really need to read the article or, better, listen to the story. But it makes me wonder what else, in our high-achieving and hyper-scheduled world, we may be unconsciously giving up for our children--and if it's possible to get it back.
Finally, I would be remiss by omitting the story behind the Thunder Burp, a toy gun which, according to Spiegel, was the first toy ever to be advertised on TV outside of the Christmas season. The Thunder Burp may be long forgotten, but its, um, echo remains even today.
The above is cross-posted on Silicon Valley Moms Blog.