We are in the process of making a giant mistake on behalf of our children. With all the right intentions, American parents are depriving their kids of the time and space to develop their imaginations, and the ability to make something out of nothing—the very heart of innovation and competitiveness. A new study by Radio Flyer and ReD Associates shows the alarming consequences of over-parenting. With the holiday season upon us, parents face a familiar dilemma: which toys will capture our kids’ imaginations, stoke their interests, and keep them endlessly entertained? Think twice before you put that box of wooden blocks in your shopping cart.
Imagination is derived from what child psychologists call “unstructured play”: the kind of play that has no supporting technology, no defined script, and no end goal other than inventing worlds and coming up with ideas. The study of kids across the US reveals that most kids today are unprepared to play with open-ended toys, and are largely unable to play without assistance from either their parents or the toy itself. The most imaginative kids in the study were the ones whose parents gave them the space and time to figure things out for themselves. The conclusion of the study shows that modern kids need to be rewired in order to fully engage with unstructured play. In short: Our kids need play rehab.
Child development experts, like psychologist Peter Gray*, are sounding the alarm bells about our kids’ rapidly diminishing unstructured play time—the open play that moves forward without any outside rules, objectives or set expectations from parents, coaches or teachers. Current data reveals that children between the ages of eight and 18 spend an average of nearly 6.5 hours a day with electronic media—and recent studies show that many members of this youngest generation don’t even feel safe going outside without adult supervision.
Today’s parents are getting the message: we need to offer our kids more opportunities to play in an unstructured environment. Our study, involving in-depth ethnographic research with kids ranging from infancy age to 9 years of age in suburban and urban households, revealed two distinct responses: the wooden toy camp and the digital play camp. Surprisingly, neither of these responses successfully engaged the kids in a genuine free play experience. What were families getting wrong?
Let’s start with classic wooden toys like blocks. This generation of kids have been raised to see toys as entertainment: they passively press buttons while the toy does the work for them. When boredom kicks in, kids are conditioned to expect new toys. One parent in our study described the yearly tradition of throwing away the “old” toys before Christmas and birthdays to make way for the pile of “new” toys. Other parents shared their rituals of bringing home “one new toy a week” from shopping expeditions and creating closets filled with “reward” toys. In the midst of this constant excitement and novelty, wooden blocks sat neglected in a corner. “I just want them not to get bored,” one of our parents in San Francisco told us. But children have to experience boredom before they will experience the instinct to play with a toy like blocks. If we want our kids to relearn how to play, we have to begin by exposing them to boredom.
So what about digital play experiences like Minecraft, referred to by one parent as “wooden blocks on steroids?” In Minecraft, kids can build and explore new worlds and manipulate them with unprecedented control and precision. The underlying creativity is baked into the program—the combinations, tools and materials—so the players have only one task to complete: design ever more complex structures. Though this seems like the pinnacle of an imaginative play experience, the kids we studied said they felt “edgy” and “irritable” after Minecraft sessions. One parent described it as a “time sink”: once kids learned the underlying mechanisms of the game—once they achieved mastery at the skill—the experience became less about open-ended play and more about working to complete the never-ending stacks of buildings. As one parent in the Bay Area put it, “What starts out as a labor of love quickly becomes just labor…”
It’s clear that parents need to take away some of the outside stimulation, parental involvement and “out of the box” play experiences. But these efforts can lead to less-than-inspiring results. During their scheduled “free time,” the kids in our study were often picking fights with one another, or worse, with their parents. These unstructured play breaks made them feel “irritable,” “sleepy,” or “confused.” Clearly it’s not the toys that aren’t “working”; it’s us. As a culture, we give lip service to the idea of unstructured play, but we don’t know how to create a context to encourage it.
In the spirit of addressing these problems, here are three takeaways from our study that could help create more space for imaginative play in our children’s lives:
1. Children need frequent opportunities to engage in unstructured play
When parents try to schedule in unstructured play for an hour between activities, children often become irritable or confused. They need more frequent and routine opportunities—either at home or at school—to unlearn the expectations and habits of being passively entertained or enriched with skills.
2. Parents need to know what unstructured play looks like and be realistic about what it delivers
In this kind of play, children work out issues of boredom and frustration without a high degree of parental involvement and the play moves fluidly with no real end or beginning. All of this can be confusing to an enrichment-oriented parent who expects to “get something” out of the play. It can be equally confusing to a high-involvement parent who conceives of play as an opportunity for bonding and intimacy with children.
3. Children need to see models of unstructured engagement from adults
In our plugged-in work lives, this is a hard one to remember. Do we, as parents, show our children what it looks like to engage in an unstructured, imaginative activity? Or do we run to our nearest device or high-tech toy to take away our own boredom?
What would these three ideas look like in practice? We found a compelling example in one of the families in our study. The father was a stay-at-home dad in Brooklyn and he took his two-year old daughter out for long walks in the neighborhood. As a photographer, he spent much of this time setting up shots for still life photographs. While he was actively engaged in his work, his daughter found ways to occupy her time playing with found objects like acorns and leaves and exploring. This time became an opportunity to develop independence and creativity without the constant interference of an adult. At the same time, the girl had the model of her father to draw on. He was nearby, completely focused, giving her the inspiration and freedom to choose her own points of focus. While her environment was passive, she was highly engaged and active within it. This young toddler was a participant in her world while also clearly receiving the message that she was not the center of it.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this example—and these three ideas—is that we cannot simply put a box of wooden toys in a room filled with entertainment and high-stimulation experiences and expect our kids to “instinctually” dive into free play. We need to rewire our kids. We have to give them the experience of boredom and we have to ride out the initial irritability and confusion that accompanies it. More than anything, we have to model for them, showing them how parents and children can be together but apart—engaged in focused and meaningful activities in the world around us.
The alarming news is that our kids need to relearn how to play. The reassuring takeaway is that we, as parents, are the perfect people to teach them.
*Correction: An earlier version of this post referred a child psychologist as Paul Gray. The psychologist’s name is in fact Peter Gray.
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