Why Children Need Imaginative Play

A reader writes:

Children lose the inner drive responsible for playing, and become bored if left alone to themselves after there is TV watching. Continuous daily TV watching completely erases the inner drive leaving the child in a bored, aimless, and immobile state.

Take a child who is playing well, then introduce the TV; then, after an hour or two, turn off the TV.  The child will be bored and aimless afterwards and it takes an hour or more for them to start playing again.

Take another child who watches only TV daily and take the TV away, they will be nearly immobile.

This is based on observing my 3-year-old and 13-year-old.  The 13-year-old simply cannot be without some form of entertainment – be it TV, You Tube, or the entertainment from a friend.  

The 3-year-old (who just turned 4) could play alone all day without boredom, but when he is given a TV show for a couple hours and that show is turned off he appears immobile and bored and after about an hour he starts to play again.  It’s as if their inner drives are destroyed.

My reply:

Children have a capacity, and need for, abstract play. When they are exposed exclusively (or excessively) to external entertainment, where the requirements of cognition are provided by others, it dulls or weakens their capacity for initiating abstract cognition.

For adults, abstract cognition is exercised in productive work, career, advanced schooling, or even the responsibilities of daily living, such as planning one’s budget or striving for a long-range goal or purpose.

Children are not yet capable of such endeavors. But they are still human beings, and the distinguishing characteristic of human beings—as opposed to animals or plants—is abstract, conceptual thought.

Although technology such as television or the Internet can stimulate abstract thought just like any other medium, most of what your children are seeing on You Tube and TV involves entertainment. Entertainment is, by and large, passive and reactive rather than intellectual and proactive.

Entertainment is fine, but it’s merely a form of refueling. It doesn’t require work or effort. Imaginative or “pretend play” does. Pretend play involves acting out of stories, dilemmas or themes of life, a form of active thought in which children can, in varying degrees, engage. Research actually demonstrates that such play stimulates cognitive development.

For example, make-believe games are forerunners of the important capacity for forms of self-regulation including reduced aggression, delay of gratification, civility, and empathy. When children use toys to  introduce possible scenarios or friends, the representation of multiple perspectives occurs naturally. Taking on different roles allows children the unique opportunity to learn social skills such as communication, problem solving, and empathy. [Source for this research: See psychologytoday.com, 3/6/12 by Scott B. Kaufman, Ph.D., “The Need for Pretend Play in Childhood Development.”]

An intellectual diet limited to TV or Internet entertainment for a child is the equivalent of a culinary diet limited exclusively to candy and snacks.

Parents assume children are getting what they need intellectually at school, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Increasingly, public schools in particular are playing to the test scores, rather than the process of learning, so as to ensure continued and increased funding for the next year. “Outcome” based education is all about the test scores, not necessarily about kids understanding and learning. I have been told this repeatedly by teachers, parents, and even students themselves, especially over the last ten years.

It’s really up to parents to ensure that their young children gain the intellectual stimulation they need. This means turning off entertainment and turning on their brains; fostering imaginative play; stimulating them to spend time using their minds without the effort of animated or imaginative stimulation provided by others; talking with them and encouraging them to think about what they view in entertainment, as well as in real life.

The most important two outcomes of childhood are (1) to feel loved and (2) to know how to think.

Don’t use TV and computers as a perpetual babysitter for your child’s mind. Your child wants and needs to learn how to think.

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