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Your Children And Play: Are We Missing Something?

Drastically reducing screen time at home nets some astonishing results. You may end up with a homemade cardboard pinball machine that covers your entire dining room table...(yep..saw it happen) or any number of things. What you won't get is boredom or cookie cutter learning games. Try it and watch what happens.

Real world play = Real world learning

So picture this: on day four of a seven day mission retreat with twelve middle school kids, I was exhausted, the kids were not. We had been sleeping (or not) in a large downtown church with no showers and no electronic entertainment of any kind.

In the late afternoon before dinner was served that day, the kids found a big playground on the church property. They were, I thought, a little old for it and therefore would be bored very quickly. I took my book and sat on the park bench nearby to supervise. I had no doubt that they'd be done in four minutes. I couldn't have been more wrong.

At first they used the equipment as it was designed to be used. But very soon I caught snippets of conversation that made me sit up and listen. The big piece of playground equipment had become a pirate ship, the mulch was the ocean, and the smaller play equipment were an assortment of islands and sea monsters. There was a captain, a first mate and other roles that I never quite followed but were fully understood by the players.

By the time an hour had gone by, at least six other kids from the camp had joined in the game which had become quite the ocean going adventure. I had to insist that they dock the ship and come in to eat. Middle school kids fully engaged in imaginary play was something I thought I would not see in the 21st century. Here is was on full display.

After just a few days of having zero access to screens of any kind these kids were having a blast working and playing independently, creatively, and cooperatively. It was fascinating. Not to mention that it was the best improvisational theater I had seen since college. The characters were fully developed, the story well defined...

I saw a similar response in my own children when I experimented with removing the television for six months. This was in the years just prior the internet, so TV was all I had to deal with. They didn't miss a beat or complain once. They played. They actually played with toys, with games, and with their imaginations. They simply did not need to be entertained by outside sources. Their entertainment came from within.

If you read my blog last week

about what kind of toys encourage high quality play, then you are all set to get your kids' screen time down to a bare minimum. If they are in school and have to do school work on a screen that is all the more reason to have their recreation time free from screens.

Even though screens are more pervasive than they were even ten years ago, I believe that imaginative play is still something that kids will engage in when they are not being lured by the ubiquitous devices. Devices are everywhere and are seemingly unavoidable. A two year old can manipulate mom's phone to play a game easily, and kids get more savvy with age.

I am not saying that devices are evil and must be destroyed because that is neither true nor realistic. I am simply making the case that when their main source of entertainment is passive, meaning that they sit and watch, children are missing some developmental advantages. Specifically those that come from being free to engage with open ended toys for an uninterrupted block of time on a daily basis. This should be the majority of their play.

This kind of social, imaginative play helps children practice real life social skills such as conversation, cooperation, collaboration and more. No matter how well produced the animated children's programs are (and I've watched them all!) they are still a passive activity. The story line can be full of morally uplifting values and puppies being kind to their friends, but unless your children actively practice these skills themselves they will miss out. I mean, I watched "The Flying Nun" faithfully when I was a child but that doesn't mean that I could fly or that I learned how to be a nun.

See what I'm saying? Watching something is not the same as living something. Imaginative play helps children practice living the skills they will need to thrive as each year passes. So equip your child with a few toys that can be played with in many ways, get rid of any toy that just sits there and yaps when you push a button, and then get on the floor and play with them alongside your children.

Engage in play that they lead. Let them be in charge of the game. Ask questions about the game as it continues. Ask things like, "What if I build a barn over here?" or "Can this road curve around this way?" After a while they will be so absorbed that you won't have to play along and they will initiate this kind of entertainment themselves. They will get better and more comfortable with playing this way the more they do it.

Give your children the best gift ever: the ability to use their imaginations and just play. And for your own benefit, sit nearby and listen as they do it. It may just be the best entertainment you have all week!

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