The Evolution of Play

NPR reporter Alix Spiegel reports on how play has shifted focus from "activity" to "things."

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MATT MARTINEZ: Great, great, great. I'm very excited. The number-one-most-e-mailed story at npr.org is headlined: Old-fashioned play builds serious skills, with an S not a Z, unfortunately. It's by NPR science reporter Alix Spiegel, and it basically traces how childhood has been changing, and she starts with an episode of "The Mickey Mouse Club." She says that's a turning-point of sorts.

In 1955, it basically changed the way that children would be spending their time, and some experts say the shift has altered children's imaginations, the way that the minds develop. So here she is explaining what happened that day.

ALIX SPIEGEL, reporting:

It was during the first episode of "The Mickey Mouse Club" that the Mattel Toy Company introduced a new product, a toy gun that the company claimed had almost magical properties.

(Soundbite of television advertisement)

(Soundbite of Thunder Burp toy gun)

Unidentified Announcer: It's broken the sound barrier. It's the Mattel Thunder Burp with a real, vibro-sonic sound chamber that's loaded forever and ever. No batteries, no caps. That Thunder Burp looks like real, sounds like real.

(Soundbite of Thunder Burp toy gun)

SPIEGEL: Historian Howard Chudacoff says that until that October afternoon, no toy company had ever tried to sell merchandise on television year-round. The only time toy manufacturers advertised on TV was during Christmas.

But then came Mattel and the burp gun, and according to Chudacoff, a professor at Brown University who recently wrote a history of child's play, almost overnight, children's play became focused as never before on the toy itself.

Professor HOWARD CHUDACOFF (Cultural Historian, Brown University): It's interesting to me that when we talk about play today, the first thing that comes to mind are toys, whereas when I would think of play in the 19th century, I would think of activity rather than an object.

SPIEGEL: You see for most of human history, what children did when children played was engage in free-wheeling, imaginative play, elaborate narratives of pirates and princesses. Basically, they spent most of their time doing what looked like nothing much at all.

Prof. CHUDACOFF: They improvised play, whether it was in the outdoors, the fields and the forests, or whether it was on a street-corner or somebody's backyard. They improvised their own play. They regulated their play. They made up their own rules.

SPIEGEL: But Chudacoff argues once TV and toys began to supply children with ever-more-specific scripts and special props for their stories, the size of children's imaginative space begins to shrink, and that's not the only way that imagination comes under siege, according to Chudacoff.

In the second half of the 20th century, he says, parents were increasingly concerned about safety, which again affected play.

Prof. CHUDACOFF: Because then adults wanted to structure it more, to create environments that are safe, that are secure, that cannot be penetrated from the threats from the outside world.

SPIEGEL: To protect their children, parents began to place their kids in adult-moderated activities, which says Chudacoff, has another benefit, especially to middle-class parents worried about achievement. They promise enrichment.

Prof. CHUDACOFF: You know, karate classes and gymnastics, summer camps not only create safe environments for children but also give them enriched lives and ways to create self-esteem.

SPIEGEL: So clearly, the way that most children spent their time has changed, and of course there have been other changes in the lives of kids, but a growing number of psychologists believe that these changes in how children play have led to changes in their cognitive and emotional development. Here's some of the evidence.

Back in the late 1940s, some psychological researchers did a series of tests on children. In one of the tests, they asked kids ages three, five and seven to stand perfectly still without moving. The three-year-olds couldn't do this exercise at all, the five-year-olds could do it for about three minutes, and the seven-year-olds could stand pretty much as long as the researchers asked.

In 2001, some researchers actually repeated this experiment. But as psychologist Elena Bodrova explains, the results were very different.

Ms. ELENA BODROVA (National Institute for Early Education Research): Today's five-year-olds were acting at the level of three-year-olds 60 years ago, and today's seven-year-olds were barely approaching the level of a five-year-olds 60 years ago, so the results were very sad.

SPIEGEL: Sad because the children were less able to do something called self-regulation. Self-regulation is the ability to control emotions and behavior. It's a key component of a broader set of skills called executive function. Kids with good self-regulation aren't impulsive, they have self-control, discipline, and this self-regulation is incredibly important. In fact, good self-regulation is a better predictor of success in school than a child's IQ.

Ms. LAURA BERK (Executive Function Researcher, Illinois State University): Self-regulation predicts effective development in virtually every domain.

SPIEGEL: This is executive function researcher Laura Berk of Illinois State University. She says make-believe is a powerful tool for building self-regulation. That's because during make-believe, children engage in what's called private speech: they talk to themselves about what they are going to do and how they are going to do it, laying out the rules of play for themselves.

Ms. BERK: We find that this self-regulating language is highest during make-believe play, and this type of self-regulating language, which we call private speech, has been shown in many studies to be predictive of executive functions.

SPIEGEL: Basically, it's through this private speech that children control and regulate themselves. In fact, private speech is how adults control and regulate themselves, too.

Ms. BERK: If we look our own use of private speech, what we find is that we're often using it to surmount obstacles, to master cognitive and social skills, and to manage our emotions.

SPIEGEL: Unfortunately, the more structured the play, the more children's private speech declines. Essentially what's happening is that because children's play is so focused on lessons and leagues, and because kids' toys increasingly inhibit imaginative play, kids aren't getting a chance to practice policing themselves. When they have that opportunity, the results are clear: Self-regulation improves.

Ms. BERK: One index that researchers, including myself, have used to look at that is the extent to which a child, for example, cleans up independently after a free-choice period in preschool. We find that children who are most effective at complex make-believe play take on that responsibility with greater willingness and even will assist others in doing so without teacher prompting.

SPIEGEL: Despite the evidence of the benefits of imaginative play, a number of child-development experts say free-choice play is in decline even in preschool. Here's psychological researcher Dorothy Singer of Yale.

Dr. DOROTHY SINGER (Psychological Researcher, Yale University): Because of the testing and the emphasis now that you have to really pass these tests, teachers are starting earlier and earlier to drill the kids in their basic fundamentals, so that play is viewed as unnecessary, a waste of time. I mean, I have so many articles that have documented the shortening of free play for children, where the teachers in these schools are using the time for cognitive skills.

SPIEGEL: Singer and others argue that it's not actually helpful to leave imaginative play behind. They say that all that wasted time is really not such waste after all.

STEWART: That's NPR's Alix Spiegel with the most e-mailed story right now on npr.org. You can see a list of all of the most e-mailed stories you heard on today's show npr.org/bryantpark.

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Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills

Boy playing with animal figurines

Researchers say imaginative play allows children to make their own rules and practice self-control. Tim Pannell/Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Tim Pannell/Corbis

Your Questions on Kids & Play

Organizing play for kids has never seemed like more work. But researchers Adele Diamond and Deborah Leong have good news: The best kind of play costs nothing and really only has one main requirement — imagination.

  

Here, they answer your questions about play.

Better Ways to Play

Self-regulation is a critical skill for kids. Unfortunately, most kids today spend a lot of time doing three things: watching television, playing video games and taking lessons. None of these activities promote self-regulation.

  

We asked for alternatives from three researchers: Deborah Leong, professor of psychology at Metropolitan State College of Denver, Elena Bodrova, senior researcher with Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning, and Laura Berk, professor of psychology at Illinois State University.

  

Here are their suggestions:

  

Simon Says: Simon Says is a game that requires children to inhibit themselves. You have to think and not do something, which helps to build self-regulation.

  

Complex Imaginative Play: This is play where your child plans scenarios and enacts those scenarios for a fair amount of time, a half-hour at a minimum, though longer is better. Sustained play that last for hours is best. Realistic props are good for very young children, but otherwise encourage kids to use symbolic props that they create and make through their imaginations. For example, a stick becomes a sword.

  

Activities That Require Planning: Games with directions, patterns for construction, recipes for cooking, for instance.

  

Joint Storybook Reading: "Reading storybooks with preschoolers promotes self-regulation, not just because it fosters language development, but because children's stories are filled with characters who model effective self-regulatory strategies," says researcher Laura Berk.

  

She cites the classic example of Watty Piper's The Little Engine That Could, in which a little blue engine pulling a train of toys and food over a mountain breaks down and must find a way to complete its journey. The engine chants, "I think I can. I think I can. I think I can," and with persistence and effort, surmounts the challenge.

  

Encourage Children to Talk to Themselves: "Like adults, children spontaneously speak to themselves to guide and manage their own behavior," Berk says. "In fact, children often use self-guiding comments recently picked up from their interactions with adults, signaling that they are beginning to apply those strategies to themselves.

  

"Permitting and encouraging children to be verbally active — to speak to themselves while engaged in challenging tasks — fosters concentration, effort, problem-solving, and task success." — Alix Spiegel

On October 3, 1955, the Mickey Mouse Club debuted on television. As we all now know, the show quickly became a cultural icon, one of those phenomena that helped define an era.

What is less remembered but equally, if not more, important, is that another transformative cultural event happened that day: The Mattel toy company began advertising a gun called the "Thunder Burp."

I know — who's ever heard of the Thunder Burp?

Well, no one.

The reason the advertisement is significant is because it marked the first time that any toy company had attempted to peddle merchandise on television outside of the Christmas season. Until 1955, ad budgets at toy companies were minuscule, so the only time they could afford to hawk their wares on TV was during Christmas. But then came Mattel and the Thunder Burp, which, according to Howard Chudacoff, a cultural historian at Brown University, was a kind of historical watershed. Almost overnight, children's play became focused, as never before, on things — the toys themselves.

"It's interesting to me that when we talk about play today, the first thing that comes to mind are toys," says Chudacoff. "Whereas when I would think of play in the 19th century, I would think of activity rather than an object."

Chudacoff's recently published history of child's play argues that for most of human history what children did when they played was roam in packs large or small, more or less unsupervised, and engage in freewheeling imaginative play. They were pirates and princesses, aristocrats and action heroes. Basically, says Chudacoff, they spent most of their time doing what looked like nothing much at all.

"They improvised play, whether it was in the outdoors... or whether it was on a street corner or somebody's back yard," Chudacoff says. "They improvised their own play; they regulated their play; they made up their own rules."

But during the second half of the 20th century, Chudacoff argues, play changed radically. Instead of spending their time in autonomous shifting make-believe, children were supplied with ever more specific toys for play and predetermined scripts. Essentially, instead of playing pirate with a tree branch they played Star Wars with a toy light saber. Chudacoff calls this the commercialization and co-optation of child's play — a trend which begins to shrink the size of children's imaginative space.

But commercialization isn't the only reason imagination comes under siege. In the second half of the 20th century, Chudacoff says, parents became increasingly concerned about safety, and were driven to create play environments that were secure and could not be penetrated by threats of the outside world. Karate classes, gymnastics, summer camps — these create safe environments for children, Chudacoff says. And they also do something more: for middle-class parents increasingly worried about achievement, they offer to enrich a child's mind.

Change in Play, Change in Kids

Clearly the way that children spend their time has changed. Here's the issue: A growing number of psychologists believe that these changes in what children do has also changed kids' cognitive and emotional development.

It turns out that all that time spent playing make-believe actually helped children develop a critical cognitive skill called executive function. Executive function has a number of different elements, but a central one is the ability to self-regulate. Kids with good self-regulation are able to control their emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline.

We know that children's capacity for self-regulation has diminished. A recent study replicated a study of self-regulation first done in the late 1940s, in which psychological researchers asked kids ages 3, 5 and 7 to do a number of exercises. One of those exercises included standing perfectly still without moving. The 3-year-olds couldn't stand still at all, the 5-year-olds could do it for about three minutes, and the 7-year-olds could stand pretty much as long as the researchers asked. In 2001, researchers repeated this experiment. But, psychologist Elena Bodrova at Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning says, the results were very different.

"Today's 5-year-olds were acting at the level of 3-year-olds 60 years ago, and today's 7-year-olds were barely approaching the level of a 5-year-old 60 years ago," Bodrova explains. "So the results were very sad."

Sad because self-regulation is incredibly important. Poor executive function is associated with high dropout rates, drug use and crime. In fact, good executive function is a better predictor of success in school than a child's IQ. Children who are able to manage their feelings and pay attention are better able to learn. As executive function researcher Laura Berk explains, "Self-regulation predicts effective development in virtually every domain."

The Importance of Self-Regulation

According to Berk, one reason make-believe is such a powerful tool for building self-discipline is because during make-believe, children engage in what's called private speech: They talk to themselves about what they are going to do and how they are going to do it.

"In fact, if we compare preschoolers' activities and the amount of private speech that occurs across them, we find that this self-regulating language is highest during make-believe play," Berk says. "And this type of self-regulating language... has been shown in many studies to be predictive of executive functions."

And it's not just children who use private speech to control themselves. If we look at adult use of private speech, Berk says, "we're often using it to surmount obstacles, to master cognitive and social skills, and to manage our emotions."

Unfortunately, the more structured the play, the more children's private speech declines. Essentially, because children's play is so focused on lessons and leagues, and because kids' toys increasingly inhibit imaginative play, kids aren't getting a chance to practice policing themselves. When they have that opportunity, says Berk, the results are clear: Self-regulation improves.

"One index that researchers, including myself, have used... is the extent to which a child, for example, cleans up independently after a free-choice period in preschool," Berk says. "We find that children who are most effective at complex make-believe play take on that responsibility with... greater willingness, and even will assist others in doing so without teacher prompting."

Despite the evidence of the benefits of imaginative play, however, even in the context of preschool young children's play is in decline. According to Yale psychological researcher Dorothy Singer, teachers and school administrators just don't see the value.

"Because of the testing, and the emphasis now that you have to really pass these tests, teachers are starting earlier and earlier to drill the kids in their basic fundamentals. Play is viewed as unnecessary, a waste of time," Singer says. "I have so many articles that have documented the shortening of free play for children, where the teachers in these schools are using the time for cognitive skills."

It seems that in the rush to give children every advantage — to protect them, to stimulate them, to enrich them — our culture has unwittingly compromised one of the activities that helped children most. All that wasted time was not such a waste after all.

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