Skip to main content

Best Preparation for Learning is Play

By June 30, 2011April 14th, 2022No Comments

Published by Psychologist Susan Linn, author of “The Case for Make-Believe,” argues that the children of are constantly entertained — but that they aren’t playing.

Summer! Sun, fun, play!

Play? In America?

In my childhood world, only days after school let out, we’d start whining about being bored. But with a neighborhood to explore, books, games, clay, paint and a refreshing garden hose, my mother considered boredom to be our problem, not hers. So us neighborhood girls would settle into figuring out what to do. We made marvels from scraps in the wood pile or from the bag of fabric. We produced plays and built forts and fantasy landscapes. We talked. Summer flew by.

My own three boys were growing up just as electronic entertainment dawned. They too complained of boredom, and were remanded to their neighborhood pals to stage wars with sandbox figures, get soaked somehow, and join the huge, mixed-gender game of street dodge ball. But as they got older, against my wishes, they huddled indoors at someone else’s house, barking orders at the poor guy who had the joystick in hand. When possible, I’d take the neighborhood pack to the beach so they could dig holes, create fortresses, pretend to be seals, and do what I thought of as play.

Fast forward to now. Do kids still play? Psychologist Susan Linn would say no. In her readable if somewhat scary book The Case for Make-Believe, she argues that children today are entertained, and constantly. But they do not play.

Instead, most kids’ lives are “dominated by screens.” Not just at home, but in the pediatrician’s office, the backseat of the car, or in restaurants with hand-helds at the table. Everywhere screens provide a huge wall between the child and the world around her, leaving less and less opportunity just to interact with whatever’s there.

Linn says that real play gives children “the opportunity to learn invaluable skills – to immerse themselves in experience, solve problems, create possibilities where none exist, learn what it’s like to be someone else, and make something new from that which already exists.”

That sounds like it could be the driving principle behind education, in a country that prides itself on innovation, invention and creativity.

“Yet,” Linn says, “in the United States today, society on all levels conspires to keep children from playing.”

Linn uses puppets – especially a duck named Audrey – to help children process their feelings about whatever adversity life has handed them. Her book includes dialogues between Audrey, herself and children who have lost parents, face major surgery, or have HIV.

From this deep experience, Linn asserts, “When children are given the time and opportunity, they turn spontaneously to pretend play to make sense of the world, to cope with adversity, to try out and rehearse new roles. They also develop the capacity to turn to pretend play as a tool for healing, for self-knowledge and for growth.”

But media, delivered via screens, invites only imitation. Children repeat the scenes they know from movies and games, compulsively. The Disney heroines are not generic figures on whom girls project their own issues and values. Ariel, Belle and Cinderella are sealed into Disney’s plots, with specific actions and conclusions. With their Star Wars light sabers, boys fight off enemy after enemy, locked in a media loop. But the play violence that has always been part of childhood never resolves itself to create imaginative solutions.

Linn says, “It often takes a lot of time and patience to help children break through the scripts they’re imitating to what’s really on their minds or what they’re actually struggling with.”

Linn tells of a friend who gave her two-year-old a teddy bear. The little girl poked, punched, and squeezed the bear until the mother realized that she was looking for a button that would make the bear do whatever it was supposed to do. But teddy bears don’t do. The child decides who the bear is and what it does. It’s a baby, a monster, a tea party guest, depending on what’s on her mind.

Computer games are called “interactive” because they invite lots of choices. But really, the choices are entirely on the game’s terms. Kids bring nothing of themselves to the game. No matter how different each Sim city might look, they all still look like a Sim city.

Linn notes, “Most child development experts agree that play is the foundation of intellectual exploration. It’s how children learn to learn. Abilities essential for academic success and productivity in the workforce, such as problem solving, reasoning, and literacy, all develop through various kinds of play, as do social skills such as cooperation and sharing.”

And yet some daycare facilities have signs on the walls for the parents, to explain what skills the kids are learning at the dress-up station, the water table or the block area. Parents don’t want their kids wasting time playing.

I love Linn’s passion: “I feel an increasing sense of urgency – the kind of urgency that environmentalists feel about saving the rain forest – about preserving time and space for children to play. Next to love and friendship, the traits that play nurtures – creativity and the capacity for making meaning – constitute much of what I value most about being human, yet they have been devalued to the point of endangerment by the prevailing societal norms characterized by a commercially driven culture and bombardment of electronic sounds and images.”

Ironically, the way to boost summer learning is to turn off the electronics and drive the kids into the real world. Linn has tons of suggestions for healthy materials and activities to offer to your kids. After a bit, they will become bored with whining about being bored.

Julia Steiny wrote the education column for the Providence Journal for 16 years. She is a freelance writer and consultant on data projects such as , RI’s school-accountability site and , an innovative data-analysis tool. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative. She blogs and can be reached for questions or comments at .