Defending Pretending: The Need for Prominent Play (Part 2)

dandelion.jpgUpdate: 6-25: USA Today Interview with Susan Linn here.

When’s the last time you unplugged to take time, space, and silence to reconnect with yourself and just play? It’s no secret that renewal and fresh thinking often springs from quiet time, where body and brain can retreat, relax, restore…this goes for kids, too.

Dr. Susan Linn writes in her book The Case For Make Believe,
“In a culture where glitz is mistaken for substance and pundits tout the bells and whistles of technology as a panacea for most of life’s ills, children more than ever need time, space, tools, and silence essential for developing their capacities for curiosity, creativity, self-reflection and meaningful engagement in the world.”

I wrote in this article, “Media Savvy Kids & Nature Deficit Disorder” and this one on “Web 2.0, The Machine is Us” about the need for some mental floss and play time for both adults AND children. Susan Linn ratchets it up a notch with reverence to play as an intrinsic necessity, a survival skill, and an endangered lifeform with profound consequences to our health, ourselves, and society as a whole if not fundamentally integrated in open-ended context.

After reading her book twice now, I attribute my countless hours of ‘pretend play’ from my childhood (my mom called it ‘benign neglect’) as the direct link to my chosen profession as a Creative Director and Writer/Producer today. And ya know what else? I’m vanishing this weekend. Back to nature. Off the grid. Awol. No cell service. Yep, I NEED to play…

susan-linn.jpgIn this interview, (embellished by the Q&A session from her talk at Parents Place) Susan Linn answers core questions about why play is so vital, what actually constitutes ‘free play’ in a media dominated culture and how to encourage kids’ self-expression.

You’ll hear the whys and hows of child development, and tips and tales that will set you straight about what kids really need to evolve into healthy, whole, capable human beings.

First, think about your own childhood and the world you were raised in…What stands out as your richest play experience? Your most vivid memory of poignant play and engaged imagination? I feel fortunate to have several…from monkeypod tree ‘ammo’ to blanket forts and boxes.

My own daughter’s been lucky enough to live on a funky, urban island…preferring wildlife and aquatic experiences to acquisitions. (though that may change entering the teen years, as texting and e-gadgets take hold)

cardboard-boxes.jpgI’m thankful she’s still building forts with the new neighbors under their beach deck out of moving boxes, although word has it she’s just been booted for texting as the guys have a ‘no cellphone’ rule for entry. (awesome; love these new kids already!)

This floods me with reverie, as forts were key to my childhood…

I wasn’t big on toys and goods, since they were all part of freight costs every time we moved, and we bounced around a lot, so my brother Mark and I would craft entire cities out of moving boxes using imaginative play.

glass-elephants.jpgMy most priceless treasures were my glass menagerie of teeny breakable critters, lovingly hand-packed in triple-tissue, and always the source of angst-in a new destination to see “who survived.”

I had a family of elephants, fish, penguins, chickadees, you name it…123 of them, collected over time from the ol’ A-33 PX and the ginza in Japan.

“Rosie broke a paw, but she made it!” I’d cry out in glee. “And her pups all look fine.”

Initially a collection of cheap make-believe pets, I carried these fragile critters with me throughout time, and never thought they’d reveal so much about who I am, and what I became…but I see it so clearly now.

After reading Susan’s book…I ‘totally get it.’ (as my daughter would say)

Thinking back, I’d not only named every single one of those glass animals, but I collected them as touchpoints from each new place where we landed.

boxesmain.jpgIn one particularly ambitious “pretend play” adventure before our household goods came, Mark and I created an entire glass animal city, complete with three-story buildings and ‘working elevators’ from boxes and string.

We’d use markers and cardboard to craft an elaborate 3D community, resplendent with grocery and department stores…police stations, the works…yep…all out of moving boxes and felt pens.

goodnight-gecko.jpgLater, when we moved to Hawaii I remember making ‘ambulances and rehab hospitals’ out of tissue boxes for wounded geckos when my dachschund, Agnes, would chase down the scurrying lizards.

This became part of pretend play too…The geckos became ‘friends’ of mine, and I’d name them as well…

Then, on Ford Island, where we were stationed in ‘Quarters A’ which supposedly was used as a hospital during the Pearl Harbor attack, I’d find brown smears, imagining ‘blood stains’ on the floor…just an 11-year old trying to make sense of the sadness.

arizona-memorial.JPGWe’d wade out to ‘Turtle Island’ (see land at top right) our “kids only” fort which had a birds eye view of the USS Arizona Memorial still seeping oil from its watery grave. (incredible photo of the ship’s shadow underneath, via the Pearl Harbor Survivors site)

As 6th graders we’d meet out there at nightfall crafting adventures and telling macabre ghost stories of the bodies still entombed in the ship, bringing out flashlights and imagination simultaneously as we terrified each other with our Ford Island fantasies of a different era. Somehow, this all makes sense to me now…

…As Susan Linn’s book explains about the therapeutic healing powers of ‘pretend play.’

I see now that it was my child-like way of struggling to make sense of big picture thinking…from war and danger, to trauma, survival, and the geopolitical landscape of my own life as a ‘global citizen.’

What if I hadn’t had that processing time, and instead numbed myself with a screen solution? Actually, um…I remember doing that, too…

tv-clip-art.jpgThe year I left Japan, I purposely turned to the TV as a 24/7 solution to ‘disengage’ from a “ten-month only” predetermined stint in one location because I didn’t want the hassle of banging my head against the wall to make new friends I’d only have to leave in ten months.

Plus, we didn’t watch TV in Japan with the language barriers, so it was a novelty to me, coming back to the states. I’d call it an opiate, even…I remember my parents trying to cajole me out of my zombie screen state of being, finally limiting access altogether.

bewitched_s5.jpgI’d ‘self-medicated’ with TV watching vapid re-runs of I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched…Probably had some subliminal ‘magical’ wishing that I could just ‘nose twitch or head-boing’ my way back overseas.

After all, I didn’t want to leave Japan at all. (though that became true for every move) Japan was a haven for make-believe, independent thinking, wonder, curiosity, and clearly…self-stimulation. Never a dull moment.

I’d buy that toxic bubbly plastic stuff where you stick a glob on a straw and pinch the holes when the plastic bubble expands too big…Find rice paper candy that melts in your mouth…Mini-erasers that smell like gum.

And my favorite self-amusement?

Hilarious language translations, typos and gaffes on rock & roll album covers from Steppenwolf and the Doors to the Beatles and the Monkees…

(e.g. ‘I’m a Believer’ translated to “I’m a Beaver” )

snoopy3.jpgNow that I think about it, the only ‘commercial icons’ I was really exposed to over there were Japanese animé, (a wacky mouse named Topo Gigio, who was actually a puppet from Argentina) and Snoopy, from the “Peanuts” gang.

Overall, pop culture infiltration was pretty much off my radar, and I spent my ‘formative years’ in ‘pretend play,’ returning stateside as a bowing blonde who’d still leave her shoes outside at the door.

Yah, I know, weird kid. But it “made me who I am.”

The preservation of ‘middle childhood’ as Susan Linn calls it, between the ages of about six and ten…were firmly secured. Not so with kids now…

babytreopic.jpg“When children are encouraged to act like teenagers just a few years after shedding their diapers, they miss out on the pleasures of middle childhood, and they are losing years of creative play.

According to one study, American 9-12 year olds spend only one minute a day in pretend play,” Susan’s book said.

In ’97 play was evidently 15 minutes, and the amount of time 6-8 year olds spend in creative play decreased from 25 minutes to 16 minutes during the same time period…egad.

So why is this happening? Over-scheduling? Organized play? Media influence? Safety issues? Recess & playtime cutbacks?

How will this all shake out?

Developmental psychologists maintain there’s no real ‘shortcut’ through developmental stages…


The age acceleration of childhood is gonna squish out sideways or bite us in the backside…

The marketing industry even has terms for it, KGOY, “Kids getting older younger” and KSYL “Kids staying younger longer” (meaning those twentysomethings still sacked on your couch or returning to the roost)

unicorn.jpgSusan Linn’s book delves deep into the immersion of commercial culture and the threat from corporate motivations pushing screen time and gizmos even though scientific evidence of early screen time for babies and toddlers suggests it may even be harmful…And she unearths amazing stories through her puppet play therapy and ventriloquism, but I’m going to leave those to her faithful duck, Audrey to tell…

Instead, I’m mostly going to focus on preserving fantasy, pretend play, and nature; balancing joyful, tactile, learning with experiential fun.

Shaping Youth: At what age do virtual worlds and open-ended online play factor into the media mix as a healthy form of make-believe?

Is there ever a time you feel screen media is okay, and if so, when?

Susan Linn: No matter how creative virtual worlds are, screen media is not really open-ended play due to the safety issues and moderation…It might have aspects of open-ended storylines, but it’s still “pre-programmed” and scripted by comparison.

It’s not just the age of the child, it’s the context…kids need to get grounded in hands-on reality in order to learn to distinguish between authenticity and hype of 21st century play. They need to have real world skills in order to even bounce off of creative play in virtual worlds…Teenagers may have the capacity for creative interaction online, but preschoolers negate the premise of hands-on play…

Wiring dependence on screen media before kids have the chance to grow and discover their own sense of self pushes them further away from the very experiences essential for healthy development.

Shaping Youth: So what age would that be? Tweens? Teens?

Susan Linn: It’s not a set age, I’d say until you feel comfortable with giving kids unfettered access to the internet, creativity is still being filtered, and time could be spent better in other ways. I’m not a technophobe at all, but strongly feel early childhood is parents best shot for delaying or purposely postponing branded play in favor of creative alternatives.

Shaping Youth: We’ve talked a lot about media-linked toys and the ‘brandingwashing’ of early childhood, using the puppet examples in your talk…When and how does cognition shift from “a clown” to “Ronald” for example, or bridge from generic to a brand?

Susan Linn: It’s less about cognition and more about context…If the child has never been to McDonalds, for example, the clown remains a clown until he associates it with french fries or whatever.

But familiarity is not neutral. Not by any means. Babies and toddlers delight in it…

So when you introduce a media character early on that they associate with sleeping, cuddling, comfort, it’s pretty obvious they’re going to have positive feelings about it when they see it somewhere else, whether it’s Elmo in a toy store, Dora in the food aisle, or Ronald coming into schools for ‘fitness’ programs.

Shaping Youth: So you’re saying not to buy any toys with specific media characters?

What about the grandma on our blog that wrote in about role-playing with a bendable Incredibles doll as they changed roles back and forth eight times freely. Doesn’t that constitute open-ended creative play?

Susan Linn: Sure it does. But as you told me earlier, he hadn’t seen the movie (yet) so the toy was just a toy in free form.

If it talked, moved, or made noise in any scripted form, that immediately would narrow their creative play. As it was, he could exercise his imagination. If it had a computer chip inside, like many of the commercial toys that ‘do something’ he’d be in the role of ‘reacting’ not interacting…

The more the toy ‘does’ the more the child is robbed of the chance to make up a voice, personality, gender, even species, which is why I use a lot of stuffed fantasy creatures in my puppet therapy with kids. As Joan Almon of the Alliance for Childhood says, “A good toy is 90% child and 10% toy.”

Shaping Youth: But what about children that don’t like “plain ol’ toys” UNLESS they interact?

Susan Linn: Again, the toys are active, the child is ‘reactive’…they’re not genuinely ‘interacting’ at all…though an electronic toy here and there isn’t going to thwart imaginative play, it’s all about balance.

Today, many kids prod and poke and squeeze teddy bears and dolls trying to make it ‘do’ something…that threatens pretend play by becoming dominant and normative. The more toys steer children toward internalized ‘scripts’ the more they narrow opportunities for genuine play…

Shaping Youth: How does branded entertainment differ between books, movies and online media?

Susan Linn: I definitely recommend reading a book BEFORE seeing a movie, so children can feel the sense of power from visualizing their own creations. It’s like the third-grader I wrote about who’d read all the Harry Potter books, but hadn’t seen the films, so when a girl in his class told him his drawing of Mad-Eye Moody was ‘wrong’ he accepted it with full authority…after all, ‘she’d seen the movie.’

(Ed. note: This is where movies and media carry a strong weight of responsibility… turning imaginations over to corporate interests and preventing intellectual freedom in its most raw form of play)

Screen media tends to generate less creativity because it does more of the work for us, whereas reading requires both aural and visual imagination. Radio and music provide sound, but we still have to imagine the visual…so the main concept is ‘less is more’ when it comes to creative play and developmental discovery.

Shaping Youth: What are the best types of toys to initiate open-ended play?

Susan Linn: Playdough, Legos, things like that, although even they’ve become sold in kits for prompted play. Try to find tools for self-expression rather than licensed characters that remind kids of more media.

It’s increasingly difficult to find any products for children without media-linked toys, goods, food products and logos designed to remind kids of media programs. Kids form attachments, just like the Linus and the blanket Peanuts character, so with every branded purchase you’re turning over your child’s imagination to corporate interests…which is self-perpetuating the more the child bonds.

Building unstructured time into children’s lives free of lessons, organized teams and screens will give them a chance to generate their own creative play.

Shaping Youth: Aside from the sheer quantity in volume and dollars of media saturation, what’s the main difference in ‘screen time’ then vs. now?

We had superheroes and princesses in our day too…how has play changed?

Susan Linn: The biggest shift is the ability to repeat media again and again, using VCRs, TiVos, DVDs and video games. With unlimited access, children can enter the world of their favorite characters any time they want, reciting the whole song, movie, or moment practically verbatim.

In my day, my favorites like Flash Gordon and Peter Pan weren’t ‘with me’ at all times, they’d only be shown on occasion. I’d have to rely on my memory to recreate the story out of the media exposure I’d experienced, rather than have it indelibly imprinted and scripted in my brain.

Shaping Youth: But don’t kids need repetitive play to ‘work through’ things, like the guy in the audience said about his daughter wanting to slay the dragon again and again?

Susan Linn: It’s different with repeating a movie, because they’re not ‘working through’ things the way a child would when playing peek-a-boo endlessly to get a handle on a concept, they’re experiencing instant gratification from a neurological pathway that’s been formed. It’s a different process…

Ed. Note: In Susan’s book she differentiates between her play therapy when kids enact the same scene repeatedly with no variation as a signal of overwhelm, discussing the processing of screen violence (or lack thereof) vs. the printed page which has a built-in level of cognitive maturity by reading level. This line about screen media particularly stuck with me:

“Young children don’t understand why people are getting blown up or what motivates one person to throttle another, but they do tend to REMEMBER those moments, the most immediately exciting or dramatic action they see on a screen. The power of screen violence combined with its inhibiting effect on creative play places children in a worrisome double bind.”

In other words, think twice before dialing down the screen ratings, folks; there’s a reason CCFC is targeting the age-inappropriate practice of hawking PG-13 movie action figures to preschoolers! (Take action here)

Shaping Youth: How can we redirect media-centric pretend play?

Susan Linn: Shift the play out of the predictable script. Change the names, storylines, roles. If they cling to media icons, see if you can springboard into creative play by expanding the stories…make food for Ariel out of Playdough, build a fort for Spiderman…that kind of thing.

Shaping Youth: Besides delaying wee ones’ exposure to screens and commercial characters, and being conscious of limiting media-linked toys in those prime preschool years, what tips do you have for nurturing imagination and creativity?

Susan Linn: Recognize the difference between prefabricated art projects and art supplies…likewise, computer games and sites that entertain but don’t necessarily promote creative play.

Commit to choosing toys that can be used in more than one main way…(see sites like TRUCE for suggestions) Avoid portable DVDs, cellphones, and car TVs so that preschoolers purposely learn the skills of amusing, soothing, and generating their own stimulation to prevent the habit and dependence on screen media.

Bring back recess and free play time…Have a ‘no screens’ day…Get kids outside in green spaces…that kind of thing.

Shaping Youth: There are so many layers of richness in this book, especially the play therapy as proof positive kids can work through grief, range, and meaning, even when they’re too young to articulate the emotions in words. That story about the baby doll being whomped on the floor, hurled across the room, and the sibling-to-be sweetly saying, “No more baby,” was a real zinger. The ability to take one thing and transfer emotion to something else in pretend play really makes sense…

p.s. Oh! And thanks, Susan, for the ‘Mattel make believe’ update that Barbie’s back with Ken, after splitting up and running off with the Australian snowboarder…gosh…I woulda missed that. 😉 –AJ

“The moment one gives close attention to any thing, even a blade of grass; it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.”

-Henry Miller

Related Shaping Youth Articles

Heads Up Screen Fiends! The Case for Make Believe, Part One

The Value of Unstructured Play: Dr. Susan Linn on Tour

If Kids Could Be Dolphins: The Power of Creative Play

Media Savvy Kids and Nature Deficit Disorder

The Nature of Tweens: Wired Worlds & Outdoor Ed

Shaping Youth Through Nature, Media Unplugged

Can Somethin’ Be Done About All This Consumption?

Related Interview

Corporate Babysitter: Interview with Susan Linn, by Lisa Ray

Visual Credits:

Lead dandelion photo from A Wrunge Sponge, a beautifully created blog authored by “CloudsCome” which nourished my soul today. She’s a poet, and librarian posting about “multiculti kid’s books, poetry, knitting, my garden and gluten free cooking.” Fabulous find!

Orange boxes: PingMag, Tokyo based magazine “about design and making things” (Those Japanese ‘mikans’ were a mainstay of my youth; we’d buy them in rows on the Bullet train in net bags as ‘snacks’, yum!)

Goodnight Gecko Book: Hawaiian Children’s Books, My personal favorite to impart my tropical history to my daughter years later, through the colorful beauty of Gill McBarnet’s illustrations.

Baby w/cell phone from, of All-Media’s Designing for Next Nature Proposal, which is a ‘read’ in itself…

Here’s an intro snippet,

“Nowadays, children know more corporate logo’s and brands than bird or tree species. The average Western person has more worries about the instability of financial markets and mortgage interest deductions than about hurricanes or floods. We are living in a time in which the “made” and the “born” are fusing. Hypoallergenic cats are already on the market. Plants are used as sensors, information displays and chemical factories. Animals are being augmented and branded. Plastic surgeons sculpt flesh to match retouched photographs in glossy magazines…etc.”

Check it out, thought leaders. This is ponderable ‘futurist’ stuff, akin to Ted Talks and BigThink…


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