Putting the `play' back in playtime

Family: With so much emphasis on computers and electronics, kids may be missing out on old-fashioned creative activities.

January 09, 2000|By Ovetta Sampson | Ovetta Sampson,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Today's busy kids are loaded up with dance classes, karate lessons, soccer games, scouts. They play computer games and Nintendo, plug in their CD players, and operate the VCR like a pro.

Sounds like a charmed existence, but some experts worry. They fear these children don't get enough time or encouragement to play. Really play.

Gameboy and Pokemon don't count. These experts are talking about good old-fashioned, doll house, make-believe clubhouse play. By not engaging in such "creative play," experts say children are missing out on getting much-needed survival skills. "That kind of creative play that children are in charge of is one of the most important ways that children build academic skills, violence-prevention skills and a sense of emotional well-being," says Diane Levine, professor at Wheelock College in Somerville, Mass., and founder of Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children's Entertainment. She says new studies show that creative play is critical to a child's development. It helps reading, writing and math skills.

The American Toy Institute, the nonprofit, educational and charitable arm of the Toy Manufacturers of America, has jumped into the fray, promising a nationwide campaign to publicize the importance of play.

Its effort is not completely altruistic. The ATI commissioned a study and found that academic activities, organized sports and electronic imagery has squeezed out creative playtime for children. For their stakeholders -- Mattel, Fisher-Price and Hasbro, among others -- the trend could mean a loss in revenue. But the ATI also says there's concern in the industry for burnout among children. "We're seeing children under immense pressure and they're not equipped to handle the pressure," says Terri Bartlett of ATI. By shuffling off children to classes and the like, parents are trying to equip children for future success, Bartlett says. "But what children are being robbed of is a certain amount of free time that allows them to access who they are in terms of play," she says.

To encourage creative play among children, Levine's group, the ATI and other organizations are trying to help parents understand the concept and find out what they can to do.

What is creative play?

Levine, author of the book "Remote Control Childhood: Combating the Hazards of Media Culture," said creative play happens when children are in control of the play.

If your child is running around acting out Stone Cold Steve Austin's latest wrestling move, that's not creative play. The child is acting out someone else's agenda instead of making up his own.

Creative play is "where children are the script writers, the actors, the prop people," she says.

While Levine suggests parents try to avoid toys linked to television programs, movies and video games rated for teens or adults, she also realizes that many children received these gifts over the holidays -- and will have lots of interest in playing with them in the next few months.

What to do? Parents should expand their children's play. If a child is interested in Pokemon, she suggests adding props. Put clothes on the yellow doll and have them create mini-plays with the character.

Mix toys that encourage creative play, such as building blocks and train sets, with commercial counterparts.

Parents shouldn't say no to everything, she says; that can undermine one's relationship with children. Instead, negotiate. Discuss what they can watch, when they can watch it and for how long.

For video games, set time limits. Have their friends come over to play, but suggest outdoor or role-playing activities.

She also says parents can provide themed materials that sets the stage for creative play. For example, a "restaurant" kit might include takeout menus, a desk bell, plastic utensils, dishes, napkins and pretend food.

Getting creative

For more information about creative play, try these resources:

www.lionlamb.org: From the grass-roots parents' group Lion & Lamb, this Web site focuses on getting rid of violent toys.

www.mediaandthefamily.org: This site rates video and computer games for violence, sex, nudity and offensive language. It also rates television and movies.

www.toy-tma.org: Check out The Toy Manufacturers of America and its "Power of Play" campaign. The site includes a parents' page that provides links to the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association, the National Safe Kids Campaign, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and similar organizations.

Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children's Entertainment: Based at Wheelock College in Boston, this organization encourages creative play and offers suggestions on how to accomplish it. Contact TRUCE at P.O. Box 441261, Somerville, Mass., 02144, or send e-mail to dlevin@wheelock.edu.

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