Parents and grandparents, if you worry that overscheduled children have lost the ability to play and use their imaginations, rest easy. A new study shows that despite increased time in front of screens, structured sports activities, and planned play dates, children’s imaginative powers haven’t suffered—in fact, they have increased.
School will be out in a couple of weeks, but the days are long gone when children spent summers playing in the neighborhood from morning until dusk, passing the days with each other in largely unstructured activities. Although your kids and grandkids would probably give you a blank stare if you tried to explain how to play a rousing game of “Cops and Robbers,” researchers at Case Western Reserve University found that children’s use of imagination in play and their engagement with play activities increased over time.
In response to a 2007 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics showing that children played less, the Case Western Reserve researchers set out to determine if less unstructured playtime affected the aspects of playing that influence cognition and emotional development. When children play, they aren’t just, well, playing around. Playing helps children develop coping skills, creativity, and the ability to problem solve.
In what sounds like a fun day job, the researchers worked with children ages 6 to 10, giving them five minutes to play freely with three wooden blocks and two human hand puppets. They videotaped the children while they played, and assessed their imagination, expression of emotions, actions, and storytelling, using a standardized scale.
The standardized scale was used to track children’s play over a 23-year period, allowing the researchers to measure the degree of change. They found that overall, children use more imagination in play, and are more comfortable and engaged in play. On the other hand, the study findings suggest that children today express less negative feelings in play. The data showed that children’s ability to express a wide range of positive emotions, tell stories, and organize their thoughts was consistent over the 23-year period.
Children may be more hesitant to express negative emotions or actions in play now because they are coached by their parents not to say or do anything that could be perceived as overly aggressive or even violent, says Vicki Coccaro, a Los Alamitos therapist who works with children and adolescents.
“Kids have to be very careful today because everything is scrutinized,” she said. An offhand remark made in play can have “huge negative consequences,” Coccaro notes.
Children can process and heal negative emotions through play therapy, Coccaro says, using toys and figures to act out experiences that they may not have the language to describe. She cites the example of a child whose parent or grandparent is taken to the hospital in an ambulance.
“A young child may not be able to speak about it or ask questions but can work it out with a toy ambulance and figurine,” she says. “It’s very important for children to be able to express both positive and negative emotions in play, as long as they’re not hurting anyone or breaking things.”