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Current Editorial
We’re hearing more and more concerns about the quality of children’s play. It’s being structured into nonexistence. This information is from Time magazine some time ago. It seems that play has transformed from an activity before the 1950’s into an object since then, specifically toys. According to cultural historian Howard Chudacoff at Brown University, for most of human history, children improvised play, whether it was in the outdoors, on a street corner, or in somebody’s back yard. They improvised their own play, they regulated their play, and they made up their own rules.

But during the second half of the 20th century, Chudacoff argues that play changed radically. Instead of spending their time in make-believe, children were supplied with ever more specific toys for play and predetermined scripts. 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. 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. One study replicated a study of self-regulation first done in the late 1940’s 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 researcher 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-yar-olds 60 years ago, and today’s 7-year-olds were barely approaching the level of a 5-year-old 60 years ago,” explains Brodrova. “So the results are 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.” It seems that in the rush to give children every advantage, our culture has unwittingly compromised one of the activities that helped children most. Our children need to explore the world of play (especially the natural world) in a way that allows them to take appropriate risks and develop self-confidence and problem-solving abilities. Unstructured time and simpler equipment seems to be a huge advantage to our children. All that playtime in times past was not a waste at all.