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Last Updated: 03/18/2018


 Articles of Interest - Early Childhood/Parenting


Series on Child Development and Play

Part 1: Development Experts Say Children Suffer Due to Lack of Unstructured Fun

Part 2: Creative Play Makes Better Problem-solvers

Part 3: All These Groups Work to Enhance Children's Play


Development experts say children suffer due to lack of unstructured fun
Part One of Three
by Karen MacPherson, Post-Gazette, October 01, 2002
For more articles on disabilities and special ed visit

American children don't really play much anymore.

That's the somber assessment of a growing number of child development experts who are alarmed by the lack of time and interest devoted to unstructured child's play in modern American culture.

"It's such a tragedy," said Jane Healy, a Colorado-based psychologist, educator and author of "Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Don't Think and What We Can Do About It."

"Adults have really lost touch with the basic needs of the child. It's parenting as product development," she said. "Everything about children's lives these days seems to be so serious, and play looks like it's not valuable enough.

"But most of the very highly creative and successful people in the long run are adults who can still adopt a playful attitude toward ideas. I just don't think parents -- or even policy-makers -- understand that children's spontaneous, self-generated play has tremendous potential to actually enhance brain development and increase kids' intelligence and academic ability."

Healy and others cite numerous examples of unstructured play -- initiated by children and powered by their creativity -- being curtailed:

Instead of pumping their legs to send a swing soaring toward the sky, millions of children spend afternoons sitting passively in front of a screen watching TV or playing a video or computer game created by someone else.

Instead of using their imaginations to build something from a set of wooden blocks, children are pushing buttons to activate an electronic toy programmed by an adult.

Instead of working off stress by running around the playground with their friends midway through the school day, millions of children are confined to classrooms by policies that have cut or eliminated recess to expand prep time for standardized tests.

Instead of kicking around a ball just for fun, young children -- some only 2 years old -- are signed up for weekly lessons in soccer, tennis and other sports.

Studies by the University of Michigan's Survey Research Center highlight this trend. Since the late 1970s, children have lost 12 hours per week in free time, including a 25 percent drop in play and a 50 percent drop in unstructured outdoor activities.

Meanwhile, time in structured sports has doubled.

In addition, the amount of homework increased dramatically between 1981 and 1997. For example, the amount given to 6- to 8-year-olds tripled during that time, according to the center.

Most child development experts believe that some structured activities, such as dance lessons or sports, can enhance children's development and learning. And many also believe there can be a limited place for television, computers and even electronic toys.

But these same experts are concerned that growing numbers of parents believe unstructured play is just a waste of time, despite decades of research showing that it is a crucial foundation for developing creativity, intellect and emotional and social skills.

"Part of the response [to that research] has been, 'OK, let's devote all this time in the early years to learning,' " said Alan Simpson, spokesman for the National Association for the Education of Young Children. "But that's an oversimplification. For young children particularly, play is a crucial part of how they learn."

Joan Almon, an educator and the national coordinator for the Alliance for Childhood, said she was upset recently by the blank look a class of kindergartners gave her when she asked them to pretend they were someone else.

"So, I told them how I used to pretend I was Wonder Woman and imagined I was flying. And one child said, 'I don't know how to do that.' "

Unstructured play -- especially unstructured physical play -- is just as important for older children, Almon and others say. But it's disappearing from their lives, too.

For one thing, homework has been ramped up for many students as part of the effort to boost standardized test scores.

In addition, many children attend child care centers after school. While the best centers offer opportunities for spontaneous play, others force children into structured activities designed to keep them busy and quiet.

Even children who go home after school aren't necessarily using their time in creative play. One recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that a typical American student spends more than 30 hours a week sitting in front of a computer, television or video game, or listening to music.

Other children have fully booked schedules of organized activities, including sports, choir practice or dance lessons. These activities can be a wonderful way to learn a new skill and make new friends.

But they also can squeeze out time for unstructured play, experts note. In addition, they say, many parents see these activities as ammunition for college applications and push their children too hard to excel in them.

Playtime also is being diminished during school hours. The increased emphasis on standardized testing has meant the reduction or elimination of recess in an estimated 40 percent of U.S. elementary schools, according to the American Association for the Child's Right To Play, a 29-year-old group that helps parents lobby for school recess. In some school districts, such as Atlanta, schools are even being built without playgrounds.

Experts say that's the wrong thing to do, both in terms of child development and stemming the epidemic of childhood obesity.

"Children need to be able to take a break, just like adults," said Jon Hull, a policy analyst with the Council of State Governments, a nonprofit organization that has studied the school recess issue in Southern states. "Recess provides kids with an opportunity to talk with friends, play with a ball or just play on their own."

The increased emphasis on academics over play has reached even toddlers. One recent manifestation is the Bush administration's proposal to add more academics and structured learning to the federally funded Head Start program for low-income preschoolers.

The idea is to ensure that "young children enter school ready to learn to read ... thereby preventing many later reading difficulties," Susan Neuman, assistant U.S. Education Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education, told Congress earlier this year.

Many education experts adamantly argue that early structured learning can help these youngsters combat their economic and social disadvantages.

But others counter that the Bush proposals leave little room for the kind of unstructured, playful exploration from which children learn best.

"I think many families are much too focused on trying to teach children concrete memory-based things, like their letters or numbers," said Stanley Greenspan, child development expert and author of "Playground Politics" and "The Secure Child."

"Those things are important, but memorizing doesn't teach you to think. Play -- what we call 'floortime,' which is getting on the floor and being imaginative with your children -- that is what teaches your child to be creative. It teaches them to think."

Creative play makes better problem-solvers
Part Two of Three
by Karen MacPherson, Post-Gazette, October 2, 2002

For more articles on disabilities and special ed visit

Think back to the happiest moments of your childhood. Chances are they were times of carefree play and moments with little to do besides think your own thoughts.

Experts call unstructured play essential to children's growth

Remember sitting on the grass watching ants scurry about; rounding up friends for a pick-up game of kickball; curling up with a comic book; testing out a new paper airplane design?

To adults, it may seem that these activities weren't particularly important. But child development specialists say they were crucial in cultivating your creativity and imagination, as well as expanding your intellectual, emotional and social skills.

In other words, unstructured child's play -- the kind with no rules, few gizmos and little or no adult direction -- packs a powerful developmental wallop.

Jane Healy, a psychologist, educator and author of "Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds and What We Can Do About It," says too many parents and policy-makers just don't understand the importance of play in children's development.

"Learning the multiplication tables and the alphabet are very important. But those skills need to reside inside a mind that has been expanded by the imaginative and joyous exploration of our environment and the possibility that it offers for fun," Healy says.

Play can be hard to define because it takes many shapes, from physical play to mental play to imaginative play.

But most experts agree that it can be divided into two main categories: child-initiated unstructured play and adult-led play.

Most children do lots of adult-led play. This includes organized sports, physical education classes and extracurricular activities where rules must be followed. Even the most preferred playthings, such as computers, video games and other electronic toys, are generally scripted by adults.

"I feel as if we are creating a culture where we are giving children all the content that we think they need for their imagination, without realizing that in the process we are stifling their imagination," said Joan Almon, an educator who heads the U.S. Alliance for Childhood.

With such a lack of child-initiated play, "we are short-circuiting a lot of their development," Healy adds. "That's because play is the way that children work out their emotional issues, their fears, their anxieties. It's the way they develop a self, a way they develop a sense that they are important people who have ideas to share and who can get along with other people."

There is, obviously, a role for parents, teachers and other adults in most child-initiated play. Adults must ensure children's safety. And they can provide materials or introduce new play opportunities, such as taking a child to a playground or helping a child meet other children.

But many well-meaning parents believe they must be "program directors for their children's intellectual development," Healy says.

Children, of course, have been playing for centuries. It was the 20th-century work of Jean Piaget that underlined the importance of play in children's development. Seymour Papert, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who created the LOGO computer language, writes that Piaget showed us "children are not empty vessels to be filled with knowledge but active builders of knowledge -- little scientists who are constantly creating and testing their own theories of the world."

Diane Levin, the Wheelock College professor and author of "Remote Control Childhood? Combating the Hazards of Media Culture," gives an example of Piaget's theory. She describes watching a kindergartner named Tanaka carefully draw lines of various colors to create boxes of different sizes and shapes on pieces of scrap paper.

Inadvertently, Levin said, Tanaka dropped paint into the middle of one box. Dismayed, she stared at the drip for a minute. Then she smiled and began making dot patterns in her other boxes.

Levin notes that Tanaka began her playtime with something she found interesting -- painting. As she painted, Tanaka tried out new colors and different sizes of boxes. Suddenly, she was presented with an unexpected challenge: a paint drip in the middle of a carefully wrought painting. Tanaka had to figure out what to do and gained a sense of "mastery" by solving the problem.

"We might even conjecture," Levin said, "that she would probably not have become as skillful at the tasks and concept she is working on without this rich play process."

Such creative play vividly contrasts with what experts call the "imitative" play of so many children these days. Levin describes watching a 4-year-old boy grab a toy knife and stick it repeatedly into an action figure from a violent children's television show, shouting, "You're dead, you're dead."

"He was using his toys and props in limited and repetitive ways that seem to be determined by how the toys look," Levin said.

She and other child development specialists are disturbed by the dramatic increase in this kind of play in the past 20 years. A main culprit, they argue, is the type of toys children play with.

More and more toys are "licensed," meaning they are based on television shows, movies and sometimes books.

Unlike "open-ended" toys, such as clay and blocks that can be used in numerous ways, media-based toys are generally single-purpose playthings.

"They 'tell' children how to play and can channel them into playing particular themes in particular ways -- merely using the toys to try to imitate what they see on the TV and movie screen," Levin says. "As a result, their imagination, creativity and ability to find interesting problems to explore and solve -- the very foundation that contributes to children's success in school -- can all be undermined."

Since the deregulation of children's television in 1984, there has been an explosion of licensed toys. At least half of all new toys this year are licensed, and experts predict that the number will continue to increase.

"To the extent children's toy shelves become dominated by these highly structured toys, their play and learning can suffer," Levin argues. "Still worse, because many of the most popular shows linked to toys have violent themes, what children often are channeled into imitating is violence."

Levin and others worry about the long-term consequences of such play. But they also remain optimistic that the situation can be changed.

"While it is unfortunate that in today's world of increased time constraints, parents and teachers need to take a more active and deliberate role in ensuring that children's play meets their needs, in the long run their efforts will pay off," Levin says.

"Children will demonstrate increased levels of independence, resourcefulness and competence as a result of creative play."

Rhonda Clements, a Hofstra University professor and head of the American Association for the Child's Right to Play, adds that no one knows exactly what academic or life skills are going to be necessary 20 years down the road.

"But one thing we can bet on is that we will still need people who can solve problems, which is one benefit of play. The people who brought us the technology of today were obviously wonderful players," Clements says.

All these groups work to enhance children's play
Part Three of Three
Post-Gazette, October 03, 2002
For more articles on disabilities and special ed visit

Below is a list of organizations focused on issues related to children and play:

U.S. Alliance for Childhood is a part of an international partnership of individuals and organizations "committed to fostering and respecting each child's inherent right to a healthy, developmentally appropriate childhood." Based in College Park, Md., the alliance has focused its work on several areas, including questioning the need for computers for young children, stressing the importance of creative play and spotlighting problems with "high-stakes" standardized testing. Its Web site is:

American Association for the Child's Right to Play, founded in 1973, is the U.S. branch of the International Association for the Child's Right to Play (IPA). Founded in Denmark in 1961, the IPA bases its goals on Article 31 of the United Nation's Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that the child has a right to leisure, play and participation in cultural and artistic activities. Web site for the American branch is  

Connect for Kids, a Washington, D.C.-based group, describes itself as an "online action and information center for adults who care about kids." There are articles about all kinds of topics affecting children, as well as state-by-state links. Connect for Kids also offers two free e-newsletters on its Web site,

Institute for Play, a California-based group, was founded by a medical doctor, Stuart Brown, who believes strongly in the positive impact of play on people of all ages. On the Institute's Web site,, parents and children can read research on the importance of play, as well as determine their "play personality."

The Lion and Lamb Project was founded in Bethesda, Md., several years ago by a mother, Daphne White, who was horrified by the increasingly violent toys available for her son. The group publishes on its Web site an annual "Dirty Dozen" list of toys it considers highly objectionable, along with a companion list of more appropriate toys. Parents also can purchase a $12 Parent Action Kit on the Web site,

Playing for Keeps is a Chicago-based nonprofit group dedicated to promoting "healthy, constructive, nonviolent play for all children." The group, which sponsors a yearly conference on the importance of play for children, has a Web site offering a look at the research on the benefits of play. The Web site also offers ideas on play activities for parents. It can be found at:

Putting Family First is a nonprofit group founded two years ago by parents in a Minneapolis suburb who were concerned about their families' over-scheduled lives. The group created its own "Seal of Approval" for sports leagues and other extracurricular activities that allow participants to put their family obligations first. The seal has sparked national interest in the Putting Family First organization, which now has a Web site,, with suggestions for others who want to start such a movement in their communities, as well as recommendations for family activities.

A related Web site can be found at  This site, connected to the book "HyperParenting" by Alvin Rosenfeld and Nicole Wise, offers parents a dozen practical tips for countering efforts to overschedule their children. In addition, Rosenfeld is pushing a new effort to create an annual National Family Night -- and maybe even monthly Family Nights -- to highlight the importance of families spending time together.

TRUCE (Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children's Entertainment), a nonprofit organization, was founded by early childhood professionals to "promote a positive play environment for children [and who] share a concern about how children's entertainment and toys affect behavior and learning." The group produces a "Toy Guide" that advises parents against buying specific toys that are linked to commercial products or promote violent or sexist behavior or make electronic technology the focus of play, among other reasons. This guide, along with other resources, can be found on the group's Web site:

Two groups target the increasingly intense effort to market goods and services to children:

The Center for the New American Dream, a Takoma Park, Md., nonprofit that publishes two booklets, "Tips for Parenting in a Commercial Culture" and "Good Times: The Lost Art of Fun."

The other group, Stop Commercial Exploitation of Children, is a coalition of 20-plus national and regional organizations dedicated to spotlighting the harmful effects of marketing to children.

Several groups offer resources for limiting family television viewing and teaching family media "literacy" skills:

The Television Project is a Web site devoted to helping parents understand the effect of TV viewing on their families. The site also offers suggested alternative activities to TV viewing.

Families Interested in Responsible Media (FIRM) is a new national nonprofit organization designed to "provide a community where parents can share their lessons and concerns and receive practical tools and information." Its Web site is:

The Center for Media Education is a national nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that disseminates research on the effects of various media on children.

The Center for Media Literacy, based in Santa Monica, Calif., is a national nonprofit group that develops and sells media literacy materials, most of them aimed at teachers. The center's Web site,, also offers a "reading room" of articles about children and the media.

The Media Education Foundation,, creates and sells educational videos designed to "foster critical thinking about the mass media."

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