Testing the Let's-Pretend Waters
Some parents and educators are very concerned about the trend away from imaginative play. Diane Levin, Associate Professor of Education at Wheelock College and co-author of Who's Calling the Shots (New Society Publishers) explains, "play in the middle years is disappearing."
Professor Levin traces the problem back to a child's earlier development when she was introduced to media and its related toys: "the link up of toys with TV shows has led to a real undermining of play. Rather than playing, children using these toys imitate. In imitation, imagination and creativity are not used."
Video games have a particularly adverse affect on our children's play says Professor Levin: "The object of a video game is to figure out what the programmer had in mind. Rather than opening up a child's mind to create new strategies, it narrows his thinking. He is not in charge. The game is out of his control."
Further, "Play should develop problem solving skills as well as cognitive and emotional challenges. These (skills) help a child to socialize and become a part of his community. As (imaginative) play disappears, kids do not develop these skills. They become more dependent on external forces to show them what to do," laments Professor Levin.
I wanted to test this theory myself. Armed with a copy of the picture book, "The Mysteries of Harris Burdick", by Chris Van Allsburg (Houghton Mifflin), I visited my children's school.
My objective was to challenge the students to create stories to accompany the illustrations in this book. First, I went to my eldest son's fifth grade. As we looked at page after page of artwork, both boys and girls described scenes of great violence and destruction which showed little relationship to the pictures in the book. They often replayed what they had watched in popular movies and TV shows.
Even after several attempts at steering them away from the horrific, demons and evil beings continued to reappear. Gallons of blood were spilled from dismembered body parts.
I was not as disturbed about the class's obsession with guts and gore, which is fairly typical for this age group, as I was with their lack of originality and the repetitiveness of their ideas.
The next day I took the book to my second son's second grade class. While their stories were sprinkled with good fairies, princesses, and an occasional giant or witch, they, too, included many TV characters. Their stories were also lacking. The more pictures they looked at the fewer new concepts they produced.
Whether this very unscientific undertaking proved Professor Levin's theory or not, it clearly showed me that children's imaginations are atrophying. What can we do to strengthen this essential dimension of their personalities?