Series on Child Development
Development Experts Say Children Suffer Due to Lack of
Groups Work to Enhance Children's Play
Development experts say children suffer due to lack of
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
"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
Healy and others cite numerous examples of unstructured play
-- initiated by children and powered by their creativity --
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
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
Experts say that's the wrong thing to do, both in terms of
child development and stemming the epidemic of childhood
"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
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
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
Creative play makes
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
"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,"
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
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,"
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
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
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
"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
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
"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.
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 www.ipausa.org.
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
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
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, www.familylife1st.org, 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
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
Several groups offer resources for limiting family television
viewing and teaching family media "literacy" skills:
The Television Project
www.tvp.org 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
www.cme.org is a national
nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that
disseminates research on the effects of various media on
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,
www.medialit.org, 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."