The phrase “that’s child’s play” is typically used to describe something simple. Research by Howard P. Chudacoff, history professor at Brown University in Rhode Island, suggests that child’s play is much more.
Chudacoff has been studying changes over the past half century in how children play, and how those changes have not been helping society groom well-rounded adults.
The research suggests that children’s mental development was enhanced during the days of make-believe, when — for example — a broomstick was used as a horse or a tree branch made do as an airplane cockpit.
During these sessions of make-believe, children would develop plots and characters, working with other children who became part of surprisingly inventive scenarios.
This type of “child’s play” teaches youngsters how to be innovative, assume roles of responsibility, work with others and exercise self-control. But by the mid- to late-1950s, as television’s popularity grew and specialty toys became common, the need for children to use their imagination and to create playtime activities became less common.
The dawn of a new century has only tended to accelerate those trends. With the online culture, children don’t even need to leave their computer desk chair to engage in a host of games and activities. Many are academically beneficial, to be sure, but few provide opportunities to interact with other children and responsible adults. Their playtime scripts are developed by program writers, and even their toys and playground activities are intensely structured.
It’s evidence to support the notion that not all progress is beneficial. There can be no turning back. But parents and grandparents should remember the value that can be gained from a little unstructured play with friends.