The Virtues of Old-fashioned Play

Maybe it’s just because I’m a father of young children, but when I read this story earlier this week I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It’s not new; it actually keys off of a book written in 2008 by Howard Chudacoff called “Children at Play: An American History .” Chudacoff, a cultural historian at Brown University, wrote about the evolution in thinking about how children should occupy their free time.

…During the second half of the 20th century, Chudacoff argues, play changed radically. Instead of spending their time in autonomous shifting make-believe, children were supplied with ever more specific toys for play and predetermined scripts. Essentially, 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…

Clearly the way that children spend their time has changed. Here’s the issue: 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.

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