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The Importance of Play: Making the Case for Creativity in a Media-Driven Society

by Ashley Ess

To Play or Not to Play? That Is the Question

Do you ever wonder what ever happened to free, unstructured play?

When I was growing up, my favorite thing to do was play. I explored our backyard, rode my bike, roller-skated and played with my dollhouse, dolls and toy cars. I loved all these activities, especially when I could include friends in my play. When I was tired of those things I would create something else to play, like digging motes and rivers in the dirt for leaf boats to float upon.

Sadly, these days, this scenario is becoming a rarity. What happened to carefree days in the sun climbing trees, chasing butterflies in a meadow, playing dress-up in the backyard, tea parties and tree houses?

It has never been easy to not surrender to the trends and accepted practices of society, but unfortunately, today’s society does not favor a child’s inherent need for creative play. Alluring television programming, Facebook, iPhones, video games and other technological gadgetry seem to have a power over our children that is actually not too difficult to explain. Our kids simply have too much to do, and the use of these gadgets is a powerful distraction. They are a way to zone-out and become unresponsive … a kind of auto-hypnosis that may be interpreted as relaxation. Ironically, there is little relaxation in the constant bombardment on our children’s brains that staring at screens produces. These sorts of activities mesmerize a child’s attention, in some cases, even leading to attentional and cognitive damage, among other undesirable outcomes such as behavioral challenges. Children’s brains aren’t equipped to deal with fast-paced editing and flashing images that are thrown at them from a screen. As children are drawn into TV’s creativity-deadening influence, their tactile senses are not being engaged. Hands-on manipulation of age-appropriate objects, creatively inspired toys and activities, along with a good dose of healthy play can provide this much-needed engagement.

jatawny m. chatmon

Though it may be fun, interesting and appealing for children and adolescents to interact socially online or to make it to the next level of the latest computer game, we need to ask ourselves if we can moderate and modify these enticing activities. It is up to us as parents to provide them play, a most important stimulus of their development.

Sports, dance or music classes, scouting and gymnastics can enhance our children’s weekly activities. School, homework, tutoring and chores fill many hours of each day. All of this leaves little room for much-needed down time or important time spent with family.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is now echoing what holistic parents and doctors, educators, and child psychologists have been saying for years: play is essential -- in fact, imperative -- to the healthy development of every child. Researchers agree that the importance of play is being threatened by fast-paced lifestyles and the allure of media and that imaginative play must be viewed as vital to healthy child development. (See “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds" at

In childhood, play is a fundamental need, along with parental love, food, sleep, healthy social interaction, and fulfillment of emotional needs. If we allow our children to play freely, their imaginations flourish. Sitting in front of a screen, whether it be watching television, surfing social networks online or playing video games, a child’s inner, creative, even brilliant world is diminished, eliminating the need for his developing brain to work and evolve. Play is essential to healthy development. Aside from unlocking a child’s imagination and thinking skills, it promotes a healthy sense of self and social interaction, and keeps him physically fit.

Whether your child plays indoors with a dollhouse, toys cars or blocks, or outdoors in nature making mud pies, building forts or chasing friends in a wild  game of tag, her/his tactile senses are employed and her/his hands figure out how things work. Her brain learns what it could never learn from a video game or TV show. Through these media  she is being told how to do something based on one particular writer’s vision or perception. This prevents a child from thinking for herself or learning first-hand about important concepts such as cause and effect. By watching television or playing on a computer for hours, her brain is essentially being manipulated in ways we cannot even imagine at the time.

A child who relies on television to entertain him will get bored often and expect others to entertain him when the television is off. When a child spends most of his free time playing, especially with open-ended toys (building toys, playsilks, objects from nature, modeling clay, etc), and including physical activity, he rarely, if ever, gets bored. We must encourage our kids to use their imaginations, create, run and laugh. We must provide open-ended toys for our children as opposed to the oftentimes toxic hunks of plastic that light up and make loud sounds, providing no real creative challenge, and doing exactly what the television does in robbing them of their imaginations.

The Screen Time Dilemma

Things to consider about television:

-- Remember that not all television is “bad,” nor is it something that needs to be cut out entirely, depending on age. (Although really, it wouldn’t be all that bad, don’t you think?) Experts from many different fields agree that the consumption and quality of programming for children should be watched very closely.

-- The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that no child under the age of two should watch television. Many experts contend that even three- and four-year-olds should not watch TV. The Academy also encourages that children should get no more than an hour of screen time per day, and that TVs, computers and all violent media be removed from a child’s bedroom. Hooray! This is good, common sense coming from the mainstream!

-- There has been no proof that “educational” television shows and videos geared toward infants and toddlers actually teach them anything. In fact, the effects have been shown to be quite contrary. In recent studies of baby DVDs, children were found to score lower in or even be delayed in language development. Verbal communication with parents was actually lessened. There is no reason to question the benefits of simply allowing a child to learn on his/her own without the crutches of electronic media. The developing brain needs to be fed by physical activity, problem solving and, of course, good old-fashioned parental love.

-- Remember that children are imitators. The violence prevalent in most media, including the internet, video games and television, has a profound affect on their current and future behaviors and attitudes about themselves and others, not to mention the dangerous desensitization that occurs after frequent exposure to this type of media.

Learn More:

The International Chiropractic Pediatric Association

American Psychological Association

Psychology Today article on play 

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