Child's Play: Efforts Building to Bring Back the Fun

Filed under: In The News, Activities: Big Kids, Expert Advice: Big Kids

The sandbox is so, so lonely. Credit: Getty

Remember the good ol' days when Mom opened up the cabinets and let you play rock band with the pots and pans? Or all those afternoons you spent creating castles in the backyard sandbox?

That sort of play seems downright quaint compared to the treadmill of orchestrated play groups kids face today. From watching Baby Einstein videos to participating in ultra-competitive youth athletic training that puts the pros to shame, it's hard not to wonder what ever happened to the playground.

That's the question on the minds of a growing movement among parents and educators who are trying to restore the fundamental concept of imaginative play, The New York Times reports.

"There's no imaginative play anymore, no pretend," Sarah Wilson, a Stroudsburg, Pa., mom tells the newspaper.

Many days, she says, her home is strewn with dress-up clothes, art supplies and other artifacts from playtime with her two small children, Benjamin, 6, and Laura, 3.

"I let them get it messy because that's what it's here for," she says.

But this is a rarity in the majority of American homes, experts tell The Times, as the culture of play has been vanishing during the last several years.

Children spend far too much time in front of a screen, educators and parents lament -- seven hours and 38 minutes a day on average, according to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation released last year.

And only one in five children live within walking distance (half a mile) of a park or playground, according to a 2010 report by the federal Centers for Disease Control, making kids even less inclined to frolic outdoors.

"Play is just a natural thing that animals do and humans do, but somehow we've driven it out of kids," Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a developmental psychologist at Temple University in Philadelphia, tells The Times.

Hirsh-Pasek tells the newspaper parents stressed out by work demands and tethered to their phones, whose weekends are consumed by soccer, gymnastics and slate of lesson leagues, are driving this trend.

"People are scared to let their kids outside, even where I live," she tells The Times. "If I want my kids to go outside, I have to be with them."

Experts want parents who pooh-pooh playtime to know childhood play is where kids learn most of the social and intellectual skills needed to succeed in life, according to The Times.

Games, such as "Simon Says," teach kids to control their impulses, play advocates believe, and they teach kids to solve problems, negotiate, think creatively and work as a team when they dig together in a sandbox or build a fort with sofa cushions, the newspaper reports.

Experts are trying to spread this message to parents, recognizing that for the movement to succeed, parental attitudes must evolve as well -- starting with a willingness to tolerate a little more unpredictability in children's schedules and a little less structure at home, according to The Times.

Hirsh-Pasek helped organize one effort to reach out to parents: a giant play date. "The Ultimate Block Party," held in Central Park in October 2010, drew a crowd of more than 50,000, according to a news release.

"I am one of eight children. I grew up in a home filled with chaos," actress and mother of three Sarah Jessica Parker, who served as the special spokesperson for the event, says in the release. "How could it be otherwise? And I think early on we were both encouraged and taught to use our imaginations. And our legs. Being creative, collaborative, resourceful, responsible, accountable and excited. I realize those are adjectives that describe how I learned to play, during the most important and influential years of my life."

Organizers, a coalition called Play for Tomorrow, featured games such as I Spy and playing with mounds of Play-Doh, sidewalk chalk, building blocks, puzzles and more.

"The goal, in some ways, is to return to the old days," Hirsh-Pasek tells The Times.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.