Is make-believe vital to
kids? You better believe it: An interview with CCFC's Susan Linn
Make-believe is more than child's play. It's crucial to the
development of creativity, empathy, learning and problem-solving, but
it's being squeezed out of the lives of many children, says
psychologist Susan Linn. In her new book, The Case for Make Believe:
Saving Play in a Commercialized World (The New Press, $24.95), Linn
says parents must limit their children's screen time and give them
simple tools that encourage creative play. USA TODAY talks to her
about the building blocks of make-believe.
Q: Why is play essential to children's mental health and
A: Children use make-believe to conquer their fears and explore their
hopes and dreams. It's in play that they get to initiate action
instead of just constantly reacting. It's a safe haven for honest
Q: How have you seen children use play to express themselves?
A: There was a little girl whose parents told her she was going to
have a new sibling, so she slid off the couch, picked up a baby doll,
whomped it on the floor a few times and hurled it across the room.
Then she turned to her parents with a big grin and said cheerfully,
"No more baby." She couldn't say, "I'm afraid I'm going to be replaced
and you won't love me anymore.' She didn't have the words to express
the powerful feelings she was having, but she could play about it. She
continued to play about babies through her mother's entire pregnancy.
She diapered her doll babies. She literally walked in her mom's shoes
and stuffed babies under her shirt to pretend to be pregnant. Children
often play about what they are working on. For some children, that
might be new babies, or sharing, or scary monsters. Others, with more
challenging lives, may play about illness, death, loss or abuse.
Q: You write that studies show the time children spend in creative
play has diminished over the years. Why?
A: Kids are spending about 40 hours a week engaged with electronic
media after school. That's time taken away from creative play. The
combination of this screen time and all the toys based on TV shows and
movies narrows children's options for make-believe. So do these
best-selling electronic toys where all you have to do is push a
button, and the toy talks, walks and does back flips by itself. It's
like the toy is having most of the fun, but it's not giving children a
chance to be creative. When it comes to toys that encourage creative
play, less is more. A good toy is 90% child and only 10% toy.
Q: How will the toys associated with some summer movies —Indiana
Jones, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Dark Knight — help or hinder
A: These very violent movies are spawning thousands of new toys and
other licensed media-linked products. Kids play less creatively with
media-linked toys. These toys come with a built-in script. There is a
particular character with a particular history, and it does particular
things. That's not conducive to creative play. I see this with little
girls and the Disney princess movies. There are 40,000 Disney princess
items on the market today. Girls see the movies again and again. And
so when they play, they often just reiterate the movie instead of
inventing something new or bringing something of themselves into it.
Q: What can parents do this summer to make sure their kids have an
opportunity for creative play?
A: Make sure that children have unstructured time away from screen
media and electronic toys. Take advantage of nice weather and get kids
playing outside. Children actually play more creatively in nature.
Play together as a family. Set up regular times when cellphones,
computers, televisions, MP3 players are off and do something fun
together — bake, play board games, do art projects or build with
blocks. Fill the house with music — sing, dance, be silly. If your
kids are going to camp or day care this summer, pick one that doesn't
rely on showing movies or watching television and that encourages a
variety of activities, including unstructured playtime.
Q: What kind of things should parents have available for children
ages 3 to 7 that will encourage creative play?
A: Invest in art supplies, including paint, crayons, markers, glue,
glitter. Give them dress-up clothes, puzzles, blocks, old sheets for
pretend tents and caves, dolls that aren't sexualized, puppets and
stuffed animals that don't have computer chips.
Q: Do adults remember the creative play from their childhoods?
A: People often tell me that their happiest memories are the times
they spent in unstructured creative play by themselves or with
friends. Don't today's children deserve a chance to play like that as
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