NPR Article: Children's Play Co-opted

NPR reports on the commercialization of children’s play which has shifted in the second half of the twentieth century from an emphasis on activities towards and emphasis on specific toys and rules.

“(in the first half of the century) [Children] improvised their own play; they regulated their play; they made up their own rules…but in the second half of the 20th century…play changed radically.  instead of spending their time in autonomous shifting make-believe, children were supplied with ever more specific toys for play and predetermined scripts…a trend whih begins to shrink the size of children’s imaginative space.”

The damage is that researches have seen a decrease in children’s self regulation, an ability to “control their emotions, and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline.”

“Today’s 5-year-olds [are] acting at the level of 3-year-olds 60 years ago, and today’s 7-year-olds were barely approaching the level of a 5-year-old 60 years ago.”

I’ve written previously about allowing children to play whenever possible, even integrating that into your Independent Work Time and existing curriculum.  For teachers of the Open Court Reading Program, I beg you to please implement independent work time and to allow that to be a time when students make some of their own choices and begin to self-regulate their own behavior.  It’s a little more chaotic at first but by investing time in training you reap dividends later.  By moving students from center to center based on a rotation, you further take away from students opportunities to make decisions about their own learning.

We all want students to be responsible but do we give them chances to learn responsibilty?  Do we give them changes to exhibit creativity and problem-solving in our classrooms?

8 Responses to NPR Article: Children's Play Co-opted

  1. Interesting post. I think back to when I was kid, nintendo was just coming out, teenage mutant ninja turtles, transformers, and the like. Yes, I didn’t know how to self-regulate, I played way too many video games, etc. That did play a role in my troubles in school, in that my toys were so interactive and engaging that they took away from my studies. As an adult I have been able to leave most of these things behind, but when I look around at others I am not so sure.

    Looking back at what my father’s childhood must have been like I would agree that he was probably more able to resist impulses, control behavior, etc. However, I would like to think that it had a lot to do with parenting. I do not know the studies that the researchers used, but I think parenting has also changed quite a bit over the past century. There are many children who have role-models for letting these interavtive toys (Xbox, PS3, and more) take a significant portion of their lives. And what should a child think if their parent is spending more time playing a video game than with them.

    I completely understand every situation is different and the homes I am referring to may not be the majority, but the number grows every year I am sure. As the father of a two and three year-olds and the husband of an early childhood educator, I know that some system toys are used to help develop social skills and experiences for children that may not get that any other way. I guess with all things, moderation and balance is key. However, I will note, that as a fifth grade teacher ten year olds are already beginning to lack in creativity when it comes to finding their own way to express their learning.

  2. I’ve been in several workshops this summer about inquiry learning, which can serve as a terrific exercise in unstructured social interaction. Small groups can develop a problem or question, develop tests to investigate, and produce conclusions based on the their data. It takes some foundation-laying to get it tight, but it might be a good way to counter-act the atrophy of responsibility and self-control.

  3. T?n? koe Mathew!

    It’s when a commenter responds to a post like yours that they’re likely to give their age away. When I was a child . . . oh forget it!

    The fact is you’re quite right. Indeed the toys now available leave positively nothing to the imagination of the child. 60 years ago in Scotland, where I grew up, it was not uncommon to play in the street. We used to play soccer and other games in the street – the so-called street games they tell about in tales of days of yore. We could do that for the cars were few and far between and also made so much racket that we could hear them coming half a kilometre away. Peevers was a pavement game that kept children fit and taught them simple counting skills. Hide-and-go-seek where decisions were often made for the child who was ‘it’ must count in 10s to 500 or in 5s to 200, or to recite the alphabet thrice, before go-seek. We played long and hard in the summer evenings till our parents came hunting for us down the street. These were social games. Children actually learnt things from playing the games.

    I recall visiting my grandmother as a young child. I was given The Toy-box – a wonderful opportunity as I remember. In it there were wooden cotton reels by the dozens. Some were linked on a single string with a knot at each end. The caravan of cotton reels on the string was my favourite toy. It could be whatever I wanted it to be: a puppy-dog that needed taking for a walk, a train with carriages, a snake in the grass. And there was one cotton reel with a rubber-band through it that also looped through a short candle stump with the wick removed. The band looped onto a short matchstick at one end and a used matchstick that kept the candle in place at the other. A few turns of the matchstick and the rubber-band powered engine would run for several minutes – not fast, but serendipitously that made it credibly alive.

    As an older child of 5 or 6 years I made all sorts of toys from twice the square root of nothing at all. Jumping beans from a marble and and a strip of silver paper (now called aluminium foil – same thing). Paper aeroplanes were popular outdoor toys- not your run-of-the-mill paper darts – ones with proper ailerons that could stay in the air for the best part of a minute. I used to make lots of paper toys – origami was popular and instructions were often shown in comics and annuals, books popular of the time.

    Now these may seem like a jumble of spartan toys and activities but they were great for developing the imagination. There is a great paucity of this sort of thing today.

    I fear for my grandchildren!

    Ka kite

  4. I found this article very on target. Our children are being “grown” up too quickly – and miss out on the joys of discovery that children must have to be able to take smart risks and make good judgments. I notice that many parents allow technology to raise their children – and many of these games are violent and rude – so what happens?? You have children acting violent and rude in social interactions. When I have to counsel my 1st graders, often they look perplexed as if NO ONE has ever told them that slapping or kicking someone they disagree with is wrong. Sad to say, but I think the best teachers give up a lot of their personal time and money to develop classrooms that allow children to play and be children to allow their cognition to develop and their souls to be nurtured. Our society needs to work to develop patience for children to be children, or all we will have in 20 years is 25 year old children who have no direction.

  5. It makes me sad when I hear a child tell me they are bored and that there is nothing to do. The sad truth is, our children are given toys that do everything for them. At school, they have very little time to play and to develop the skills needed for imaginative thinking. Creativity through play is not promoted the way it used to be. When my 5yr comes to me and asks to play on the computer because there is nothing else to do, I pull out the paints and crayons and colored paper.

  6. I have to agree and disagree with the notion that kids today have lost the ability to improvise and creatively think during play. I believe that this is true for some kids. I do believe that it is not true for all. In fact, I think that the majority of kids still have that active creativity that we remember as kids. It may take a different form and be technology based, but it is still alive and well. Some of the video games and computer based toys actually stimulate a child’s creativity by forcing them to make good decisions quickly and to multi-task. These are valuable skills. In addition, I think that kids can band together and revert to the “way we used to do it.” Every school year I have groups of kids who, at independent work time, come up with the most creative projects with the simplest resources. This continues to happen year after year. This year, it is a friendly competition to see who can make the most creative and lengthy domino train. The whole class takes such glee in watching them fall and beginning to build again. Last year it was making ramps and spinning tops, attempting to get the tops to climb ramps and jump over things. The year before it was making play money out of paper and creating items to buy at a store. Isn’t this what we did?

  7. Mary Katherine Moreland

    I am currently in college studying Early Childhood Education. Last week I was given the opportunity to observe a preschool classroom for a couple of hours. There were about 15-20 children running around the room playing in different centers. I noticed that each group turned what they were doing into a creative imaginative thought. One group was pretending to be eskimos and building igloos out of sugar cubes. Although they were obviously too big for the igloos, they were still in the character of an eskimo being in the cold snow. I also observed a second grade classroom for a week, and noticed how many imaginative games were going on during recess. However, I do think that some kids’ way they play are affected by all of the new technology that they are surrounded with. Some kids do not find running around outside with other kids using their imaginations as exciting as playing a video game, computer game, cell phone game, etc. Although technology, today, plays a major role in education, I think that children need to experiences of interacting with other kids and expanding their imaginations.

  8. I have such mixed feelings about children and technology. My first is to agree with the article and worry about all the influence technology is having on future generations. Then I watch the abilities of the students I work with to navigate the tools that I still struggle with-they are confident and quick to learn a new game or go to a new website. I listen to the choices they have their characters make in their games (which can be rude and violent) and who they choose as the heros-I listen in awe as they tell me facts they have learned about mythology and history and I begin to wonder if I wasted a lot of time playing Sardines and Kick the Can.

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