by Jennifer Shakeel
When you were little didn't you have an imaginary friend, or maybe your bedroom was a huge fortress where your bed was the castle surrounded by a moat and you battled the evil king from another castle… or maybe saved a princess… or maybe you were the princess. The point is that you played and you would use your imagination. Today, not as many children play as much or use their imagination as much as when we were kids… and that may cripple them in the long run.
I know that I am not the only parent that has said to their kids that "When I was little we didn't have cable… or the internet or Play Stations. We were thrown outside when we woke up and weren't allowed back in until dinner." I have said that very thing… more than once… and it is 100% true. We were expected to play, and play meant outside. When you played you were suppose to use your imagination because toys 30 and 40 years ago were nowhere near as animated as they are today. You had to make Barbie talk, and if Barbie had a baby chances are pretty good that you used a tiny little doll or a Play School toy to be the baby. GI Joe's didn't talk, they were tiny little figures, which again is different than when my dad was little and the GI Joe doll was as big (size wise) as Barbie. But to play you had to make it up.
I am sure that what you didn't realize then, just as I didn't, by playing and using your imagination you were actually improving your learning and socialization skills. You were actually using play to cope with the situations that life presented you as you grew up. I would even venture to say that we as adults use make believe to cope with the same things, but many of us won't admit it.
There is a lot of research that has been done that backs up the importance of make believe and play. These are the tools that children use to conquer fears as well as explore their dreams and hopes. When kids play they actually get to use action, they get to initiate action instead of always having to respond to what is happening to them. Many experts term play and make believe the "safe haven" of self expression for children.
The big issue today is the fact that children today don't know how to play… they don't know how to use their imagination. The reason, technology, take a look at this quote taken from an interview with Dr. Susan Linn,
"Q: You write that studies show the time children spend in creative play has diminished over the years. Why?
A: Kids are spending about 40 hours a week engaged with electronic media after school. That's time taken away from creative play. The combination of this screen time and all the toys based on TV shows and movies narrows children's options for make-believe. So do these best-selling electronic toys where all you have to do is push a button, and the toy talks, walks and does back flips by itself. It's like the toy is having most of the fun, but it's not giving children a chance to be creative. When it comes to toys that encourage creative play, less is more. A good toy is 90% child and only 10% toy."
Think about this, most kids today will mope around the house and complain they are bored unless they have a PSP in their hands or an iPod in their ears. If you tell them to go and play they want to get out the Wii which mimics actual outside sports. Though many parents think that the Wii is a better option over other video games because it gets the kids up and moving.
Yes, it does. But think about this. They don't have to go outside to play baseball. They don't have to interact with other people to win a basketball game or tennis match. All the need is a remote control and the television. So not only are we taking away coping mechanisms, but also the ability to socialize.
Think for a moment about your childhood… and the resilience you had to overcome different obstacles that happened in life. Getting cut from the basketball team, the bully that wouldn't leave you alone in 2nd grade… wanting to audition for the play but not being able to overcome your stage fright… but at home… when you played, you were the best basketball player on the team, you went home shot hoops played with the pretend crowd cheering your name… you were the prince the conquered the dragon to save the princess or the small town from being consumed by fire… you were the star of the next Broadway play, where people were moved to tears over your performance.
You worked through your fears and were able to take a stronger stand on your own, and bounce back from defeat because you had a way to work it out. Today kids go home and plug into a violent video game and feel better by blowing people up. And then the next obstacle comes along… and they can't get through it because they haven't learned how to work through their fears or frustrations.
Encourage your kids to play. Let them run around outside, free as birds playing. Don't you remember the sheet tents over the dining room table when you were little… build one with your kids. Get them away from the television. Box up the video games for awhile and encourage your children to have unstructured play time. Play with them. Some of my favorite memories as a child are when my dad would play GI Joes with my sister, brother and I. We would turn the whole house into GI Joe world. We would build our own houses, create a terrain, and come up with a mission. I remember taking the old brown grocery bags, cutting them open and coloring scenery on them for us to use against a wall.
I have tried to do the same with my kids. If you talk to them they have stories to tell already at 15, 11 and 10 months (if she could talk.) They can tell you about the campouts in the living room in a sheet tent. The journeys we would take looking for fairies in the woods… or the stories that we would make up at bedtime so that they could go to sleep. While I now know that I was helping them become stronger more well rounded people, I can also selfishly tell you it was because I wanted them to stay little as long as possible and enjoy what they could do with the world around them.
Encouraging your children to play is important. You wouldn't not send them to school… don't forget to encourage them to play. I am hoping to gain an interview with Dr. Susan Linn so that she can shed more light on how important it is for us as parents to create an environment where imagination and make believe are essential as food, water and love.
Jennifer Shakeel is a writer and former nurse with over 12 years medical experience. As a mother of two incredible children with one on the way, I am here to share with you what I have learned about parenting and the joys and changes that take place during pregnancy. Together we can laugh and cry and rejoice in the fact that we are moms!
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