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Susan Linn Interview: the "Philosophical Baby" author decodes your child's brain. Babble.com's Five Minute Time Out.

“The Case for Make Believe” author says today’s kids don’t know how to play

by Emily Frost

October 16, 2009

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Susan Linn is serious about play, which makes sense – she’s an award-winning ventriloquist and internationally known puppeteer and one of the late Fred Rogers’ collaborators. But Linn also fears for the very survival of play, a concern that stems from her work as Associate Director of the Media Center at Judge Baker Children’s Center, and Instructor in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. She’s found that unfortunately, we can no longer take it for granted that children know how to play pretend.

Kids’ ability and opportunities to make believe are threatened from all fronts, says Linn, and that includes by their parents. And, lest you underestimated its importance, Linn reminds us that the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child lists play as a guaranteed right, next to access to nutritious food and clean drinking water.

Babble spoke with Linn about The Case for Make Believe (recently released in paperback), how to best nurture our children’s instinctual yearning for creative play, and what she learned in Mister Rogers’ neighborhood. (Check out an excerpt here.) – Emily Frost

Why is make believe so fundamental to our children’s development, and to their development as good citizens?

It is the foundation of creativity and constructive problem solving. It’s how children learn to wrestle with life, to make it meaningful. It is through creative play that children learn cooperation, social coping skills, and negotiation. But also, it’s how they learn divergent and critical thinking, and how they feel empowered to take action – those are all especially important in a democratic citizenry.

How are today’s parents stifling play without realizing it?

It’s not that I’m placing the blame solely on parents – this is a societal issue. And yet, as we need to work to change society, there are also things parents can do within their family.

Kids aren’t playing freely outdoors as much anymore, and one of the reasons that parents give for that is stranger danger. Yet the statistics on stranger kidnappings haven’t changed in the past twenty-five years. But parents perceive that the world as a dangerous place. And certainly there are neighborhoods where it is dangerous for kids to be out alone. But, there are lots of neighborhoods where that’s not the case.

Another way is the push to structure children’s time so that there always have to be organized things for children to do, instead of just letting children create their own amusement.

But one of the biggest problems is the commercialization of children’s lives and this push by the media, and toy and marketing industries, to convince parents and children that children need the things that corporations sell in order to play, in order to be creative, and that whatever children can make up by themselves isn’t good enough.

“The Case for Make Believe” author says today’s kids don’t know how to play

by Emily Frost

October 16, 2009

400x236.jpg

You’re not a fan of certain very popular computerized toys. Why is that?

A good toy, a toy that nurtures creative play is ninety percent child and only ten percent toy. Play is useful for children, and engaging and exciting for children, when they drive the play, when they’re in charge of what’s going to happen in the play. What’s happening with toys like Tickle Me Elmo is that they interfere with that process. Elmo is a media character, linked to a media program that children are very familiar with. Children play less creatively with media-linked toys because who the character is, and what the character says and does are already embedded in the toy. If they see the media program a lot, the script gets embedded in the child’s brain and then kids are just imitating with media linked toys, they’re not engaged in creativity.

But the other concern about toys like Tickle Me Elmo is that they’re embedded with computer chips, so the toys sing and dance and talk and do back flips, but all the child is doing is pressing a button to make that happen, and that’s not a creative experience for children, and really, the toys are having more fun than the kids. And parents are convinced that children need this kind of toy because it is modern and technological. But really, those toys are pretty useless in terms of promoting the kind of creative play that is fundamental to children’s well-being.

Would you say there’s a class difference in access to non-branded, low-tech toys? And if so, what can we do to address the disparity?

Well, one of the problems is that it is hard to find unbranded toys for young children. It’s possible, but you find them at high-end, specialty toy stores. If you go to Wal-Mart or Toys ‘R’ Us or Target or the place where working-class people shop, then what you find are endless rows of media branded products and plastic, commercial, chip-embedded toys.

One thing we could do about that is make sure that child care centers, preschools, and schools provide an alternative to commercial culture, so that children have the experience of time spent away from the kinds of products whose advertising they’re constantly bombarded with. But some schools and childcare centers use TV or computers to calm children down. There’s also pressure from parents who feel that kids need to gain technological skills, practically from birth. But that doesn’t really make any sense. Postponing that a few years is not going to hurt a child’s ability to engage with technology.

I’m not one of these “pull the plug and move to the woods” people. As much as you fault the media and our obsession with screen time, you’re not anti-TV at all. In fact, you worked closely with the late Fred Rogers and television was very important to your childhood.

I’m not one of these “pull the plug and move to the woods” people. In fact, television had a very positive and profound impact on my creative life as a child. And, I really struggled with that when I wrote The Case for Make Believe. I kept saying to myself, “Why am I so critical about today’s media culture when in fact, I benefited from television and movies, from screen media? What’s the difference?” And the difference is access. I saw Peter Pan at the movies once when I was six. I didn’t see it again until I was nineteen. I was so delighted by it, but if I wanted to enter that world, the only way I could do it was to play about it. But today, children can see movies or television programs over and over and over again – and so they don’t have to play creatively in order to enter that world. They can just press a button and there it is. They don’t get a chance to exercise their creative muscle.

What’s your favorite memory of Fred Rogers and his neighborhood?

I did a bit for his show where I did a whole spontaneous interaction with my puppets and when I finished he said, “That was wonderful Susan. And do you know why? Because you let you come out.” He was who he was. It wasn’t an act.

Another one – a memory that means so much to me, was actually the last time I ever saw him. He was speaking at Wheelock College and I went to hear him and went back to say “hi.” It was at a time when my daughter was quite ill and he took my hand and said “Susan, how are you? How’s your daughter?” and I stood in the middle of that room, filled with people who wanted to talk with him, and told him about my daughter. And he stood there listening intently as though there was nobody else in the room. Then a few days later I got a little book in the mail from him, his book, You are Special and he had written “I just thought you might need this.” That means a lot to me and the opportunity to be mentored by him is something I will just carry with me forever.

“The Case for Make Believe” author says today’s kids don’t know how to play

by Emily Frost

October 16, 2009

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When children are playing in a way that involves enacting violent scenes, often our first instinct is to immediately stop them or redirect them. But you’d disagree with that course of action – why is that?

Yes. I think that playing about violence and playing about scary things is a way for children to cope with their fears, their anger, and things that they may experience in their lives. And children have always played about violence; they’ve played wars or they’ve played about scary monsters or cops and robbers, for instance. That kind of play can be exciting and fun and it is a way for children to gain mastery over what can be a very scary world, even in the most protected child’s life.

But there’s a difference between play that is merely a capitulation of what kids see on the screen and play that is really working something through. Preschool teachers report that the play of children immersed in Spider Man, for instance, and all things Spider Man, is merely repetitive violence. And if kids are immersed in the film and immersed in the toys, we need to let them play about it, because that’s how they work things out.

The challenge is: is there a way to move the play beyond the script so that it can have some more meaning and creativity for the children? Can you use clay to build a cave for Spider Man? Can you make Spider Man lunch? Can you build Spider Man’s house with blocks? Anything adults can do to shift the play a little bit is helpful. I have spent time finding myself arguing (I’m using the word argument lightly here) with kids because I want to deviate from a television program or set script and the kids don’t want to. The scripts are very, very powerful. And with boys it is violence and with girls it is this kind of sexualized, gender stereotyped play. And I have seen that a lot.

What can parents do, and what can we do as a society, to protect play?

This is the first generation of parents that really have to consciously and actively carve out commercial free time, space and silence for their children to play creatively. If they just let things go along, it’s not going to happen, because for the first time in history, when children have leisure time, we can’t assume that they’re engaged in creative play; they’re either engaged with screens or they’re engaged in this rote sort of scripted play. Parents really have to make active decisions to nurture creative play and they can do that in a variety of ways.

Nature is a great antidote to commercialism and children play more creatively in green spaces. One way is to limit screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under the age of two, and only an hour or two a day for older children. So, that’s one thing that parents really do have to do.

Another thing is to be thoughtful about the kinds of toys and equipment that you give your children. Think about purchasing toys that can do more than one thing, toys that lay there until a child invests them with life, toys that are tools for creating things, from simple musical instruments to art supplies; those are the toys that will really nurture creative play and give your children hours of pleasure.

And get your children outside. Nature is a great antidote to commercialism and children play more creatively in green spaces.

And what some families are doing is having screen-free nights where there are no cell phones, computers, television, or mp3 players and families do things together. The first one might be hard but what families are reporting is that it is really fun. It’s nice for families to be able to interact together. Family meals are important for all sorts of reasons but family meals are where you sit around and talk, where family history gets passed on.

So all of these things that a couple generations ago, or even a generation ago, we used to just take all of this for granted, but we can’t anymore. It’s bizarre, but we’ve reached a point where nurturing creative play is actually counter-cultural. Creative play is actually a threat to corporate profits. Children who play creatively don’t need as many of the things corporations sell to us, they’re not as dependent on them.

Susan Linn also works with The Campaign for A Commercial Free Childhood, where you can find more resources on nurturing creative play.

Article Posted 6 years Ago
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