Old fashioned play

My sister sent me an article on play last week. The information in the article isn’t anything I haven't read before, but it is always interesting to see the growing evidence for the importance of imaginitive play.

Here is a brief summary of the article:

About 50 years ago, with the advent of toy advertising, children’s play suddenly began to change. Fueled in part by the mass production of increasingly specific toys (or, what I call “one trick pony toys”), play began to focus on things rather than activity, and imaginative play began to diminish. My personal favorite example that illustrates this point is the shiny red toy fire engine with sirens and flashing lights that can only be a fire engine. A shoebox with a stick jammed into, however, can be a fire engine with a ladder one minute, a sled for dolls the next, or whatever other prop the children need depending on where their imagination takes them. As the author so eloquently summarizes, the specific toys and predetermined scripts for play “shrink the size of children’s imaginative space.”

In addition to the influence of the toy industry, early education now focuses on academic achievement tests rather than allowing time and space for social and imaginative play; and at home, parents are creating increasingly structured schedules filled with adult-directed activities, leaving children with little or no time for independent, imaginative play.

Without imaginative play, children do not develop executive function skills, a component of which is the ability to self-regulate. Self-regulation is responsible for controlling one’s behavior and emotions, resisting impulses, paying attention, implementing self-discipline, etc. Imaginative play provides children with the opportunity to practice (primarily through private speech and self-policing), and thus develop, self-regulation. Not surprisingly, research shows that children’s executive function ability was better seventy years ago than it is today. 

I understand why the toy industry continues to produce billions of crappy toys (that’s capitalism, after all), but why is there such a disconnect between the information in this article (and hundreds of other articles and books that all say the same thing) and current educational and social trends? What will it take to convince society that the best way to promote cognitive development in young children is to just let them play?