Is Today’s Play Reducing Resourcefulness?

It started when my sister told me she had recently asked her son why none of his friends wanted to hang out at their house. My eleven year old nephew explained that since they were the only ones within their extensive network who didn’t own an Xbox or a Wii, their friends wouldn’t come over because they couldn’t play video games.

While my sister and her husband had always been clear about not wanting video games for their kids, they admitted to wavering at that point not wanting their kids to be the outsiders. It’s not that they thought video games were all bad, it’s just that they had a different set of values when it came to play. Keeping their kids physically active trumped plugged-in play.

After thinking about the merits of some of the games that would promote indoor physical activity, and at my urging, they agreed it would be okay for the aunts and uncles to buy a Wii for the two boys for Christmas.

Well, I have to tell you, their reaction upon opening the package was the best response a gift giver could ever want. They screamed, they danced, and when they stopped hyperventilating, they continued to grin like little monkeys while cradling the game as if it were a precious baby.

Since then however, I must admit to having second thoughts about whether or not it was a good decision. I’ve been reading more about play from authorities who are asking whether or not our kids are playing in the right way. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that as psychologist Jean Piaget once said, “Play is the answer to how anything new comes about.” 

It is true. Creativity will be crucial to the innovation and transformational change we will need to address complex health, environmental, education, and economic challenges. And, playful thinking is what we need to get us there.

So, the question that keeps niggling at me is, “Are our children getting the play they need to survive and thrive in the information age?”

Typically, children used to invent their own worlds rather than playing in those invented or prescribed by others. In fact, Howard Chudacoff, a professor of history at Brown University, wrote a book called Children at Play: An American History, suggesting that “The resourcefulness of children’s culture has eroded, as children have become less skilled at transforming everyday objects into playthings.” 

As designer Laura Seargeant Richardson wrote in a recent blog, “If necessity is the mother of invention, what do our children really need to invent for themselves in such a manufactured, overly structured world?...we have unknowingly created a society of more game players rather than game designers —and that’s an important distinction.”

So what can we do about it?

We need to begin by letting children be the inventors of their play.

My sister told me this week about a friend of hers who is using her phys-ed classes as an opportunity for kids to think and be creative. When she introduced a game that wasn’t all that successful, she encouraged the kids to modify and make up their own games. Not only were they better games, they participated full out because they “owned” them. What a great way to facilitate kids understanding they can become agents of change wherever they go.

Experts also suggest that an open environment is critical for play. Free play that encourages unstructured, child-directed play is the result. It’s the way my nephews play with their Lego. Yes they might occasionally replicate the structure illustrated on the box, but more often than not, it’s about creating something from the depth of their imagination. It’s also the way my two step-granddaughters play for hours with their Barbies, Disney figurines, Polly Pocket dolls, and dress-up clothes. 

While for sure we need kids to be disciplined and to follow the rules, it is just as important to encourage them to do things for themselves and to think freely while doing it. So not only do we need to reward colouring within the lines, we need to reward their original ideas, the creation of a new game or activity, and the solving of a problem. For instance, while we recently celebrated my nephew getting 98 percent on his grade three music theory exam, we were just as excited, and definitely more emotionally moved, when he played a twinkling lullaby he had composed for the newborn baby of a close family friend.   

If our schools and recreation settings only reinforce activities that are laid out and structured, our kids will never learn to think for themselves. Sure they will be able to follow the rules, but will they learn that sometimes the rules need to be broken?

I guess the bottom line, as it is with many challenges, is that we need to practice balance. While my nephews remain engaged and involved in hockey, swimming, and cubs, there is just as much emphasis placed on respecting, valuing, and making time for Lego and music. As for their video games, apparently they are a much anticipated weekend activity. Seems they’re much too busy to fit it in during the week. All is well.

Posted on 01-16-11


I am amazed at the new movements to structure unstructured play and the fact that most kids have busier schedules than me.  It will be interesting to see how this manifests itself in 10 or 20 yrs…

•Posted by Janet Naclia  on  01/17/11  at  10:27 AM

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