The Value of Unstructured Play; Dr. Susan Linn On Tour

An Israeli play group of parents were yakking in Hebrew as their wee ones climbed, crawled and explored the soft mats, cubes and fellow toddlers at Parents Place on the Peninsula.

I watched out of the corner of my eye as I met with their staff about Dr. Susan Linn’s Bay Area Book Tour for The Case for Make Believe and was struck by the profound simplicity as the children themselves made a strong case for free play and discovery. (Dr. Linn is speaking at Parents Place June 2, next week; heads up readers!)

The childrens’ body language told imaginative stories as characters sprung to life conquering mountains of mats and probing shapes and colors within the exploration that sometimes included each other. Caregivers eager for adult conversation would break in mid-sentence to say, “gentle!” as they resumed their own intense ‘playdate’ building community through shared experiences.

The necessity of this type of ‘free play’ for both ends of the age spectrum was evidentiary without even cracking the cover or reading the comments about The Case for Make-Believe and it made me harken back longingly, as imagination was unfettered by media and technology’s intrusion. (support CCFC by 6/6 & receive a free signed copy)

Ah, those were the days when I didn’t need to create a media contract to mitigate cellphone use of my uber-texting tween; or media manage intake with Tivo timers.

kb-10-02-goat.jpgMy daughter was focused on naming every animal, duck and egret that ever lit her path, not to mention building forts, digging through the muck on our beach, and having ‘free play’ embedded deeply in her psyche…

I look back realizing I’m one of ‘the lucky ones’ who reared an outdoor junkie, (even now, at almost 13) BUT, (and this is a big but!) she suddenly has tethered herself to that freakin’ cellphone, given the opportunity and that alters the landscape significantly…

Yeah, yeah, I realize it’s just a ‘medium to stay connected to friends,’ and not an ‘opiate of the masses’ like the passivity of TV, but still…it’s ubiquitous among her peers.

doggies-001.jpgSure, she’ll leave it inside while playing basketball, or sitting out on the curb talking to her new BOY confidante pals who come over regularly with some of their own bball buds…But mark my words…

“Mom? Where’s my cellphone?”… is the first thing rolling out of her mouth when I’ve cleaned clutter from the living room. (that’s my media babe at left) Point?

The media and marketing landscape HAS changed, no matter how much we reinforce ‘pretend play’ or preclude that zeitgeist from taking hold…

Dr. Susan Linn’s well-researched, evidentiary tome is without a doubt a must-read for ALL of us dealing with media’s impact on kids, whether parent, child advocate, or industry pro. (in my case all three)

case-for-makebelieve.jpgAs Marshall McCluhan would say, the ‘medium is the message’ so of course, it begs the question…

How does this translate/impact free play and overall connectivity as a generation?

What changes? What doesn’t?

My colleague, Lisa at Parents for Ethical Marketing did a fabulous interview with Susan Linn and a recap of Susan Linn’s session at the CCFC summit which I couldn’t attend because I was speaking at my workshop in the exact same timeslot.

Susan Linn succinctly captured the essence of why free play for wee ones is SO important, by using puppets as an ‘aha’ moment in perhaps the most rapid real-time research demo created by a colleague I’ve ever been able to replicate for folks to ‘get it’ fast. (Susan is a ventriloquist to boot, shades of Sherri and Lambchop!)

As Lisa Ray describes:

“Susan Linn began the workshop with a simple exercise: she held up three puppets, one at a time, and asked us to write down:

a) what it was

b) what its name was

c) something it might say

The first puppet was really just a white sock over her hand with two eyes attached.

The second was similar but also had ears and a mouth.

The third was a blue, furry monster we all recognized as Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster.”

Go ahead. Try it on some kids.

College campuses. Play groups. Teen center. Schools.

You’ll be amazed at the snapshot and indicators from all ages…

Lisa said, “As you may have guessed, the first puppet elicited a variety of identifications, names, and statements from the participants. The second puppet drew a more limited response. Cookie Monster, of course, was a cookie monster and didn’t say too much beyond “Me want cookie.”

cookiemonster.jpgI’d love to film some of these outcomes and have Susan post them on YouTube for all to see…

Shaping Youth is all about using media as a conduit and distribution channel for creativity and social change, so this is prime pickins for getting the point across FAST.

I say…blast this to parents in a Facebook Group. Partner with BlogHer and digital dads to get the word out. Align with the social media gurus to ‘twitter and tweet’ the reality of the situation…For this is indeed,

“The Case for Make Believe.” And it’s a strong one…

“In an age when toys come from TV shows, dress-up means wearing Disney costumes, and parents believe Baby Einstein is educational, Dr. Linn lays out the inextricable links between play, creativity, and health, showing us why we need to protect our children from corporations that aim to limit their imaginations.”

verb.jpgYep. I remember my experience with the Verb Yellowball campaign, watching kids at a Disney Radio event be handed a yellow ball and literally ask ‘what do we do with it?’

Followed quickly by the query…“Can we keep it?”

These freeze frames of stalled creativity and consumption-driven cues alarmed me to no end, because it was literally conveying a tween generation of kids essentially saying:

“I have no idea what you want me to do with this unless I’m guided and directed, but I do know I want to own it and possess it regardless.”

Talk about ‘behavioral prompts.’ Eek. Scary message…

I’ll be interviewing Susan Linn later this week on her book tour to glean further insights into research in “Changing the way we raise our children – from what commercial culture expects us to do to what is truly best” as Lisa eloquently stated.

For now, I simply want to post an updated schedule of Susan’s personal appearances throughout the Bay Area for all of our local readers.

I’ll be at many of these events to research, observe, and learn about the mindset of the parents themselves, as this is one of our core conundrums at Shaping Youth in terms of getting a handle on their influences, and behavioral purchasing power.

If you’d like to meet up, come introduce yourself; we’re starting to collect our database of volunteers for Shaping Youth’s fall film fest of important indie media and we’d love for you to be a part of it and help spread the word!

Meanwhile, here are some of the questions I’ll be asking Dr. Linn about media, technology, and ‘open-ended play’…

Send me some of your own, and I’ll lob them her way…

Shaping Youth to Susan Linn: Interview Queries in Advance

Add Your Own?

With the BBC’s latest article about virtual worlds being ‘useful’ for kids learning through open-ended play, do you see a place where technology and media can converge in alternate forms of open-ended play? (assuming commercial interests/corporate profit motives were not involved)

If so, what sites look promising to you in this realm?

In the pbs documentary Where Do the Children Play? which Shaping Youth will screen this summer in partnership with outdoor enthusiasts, farmer’s markets and healthy/eco messaging, do you see the irony in media being used for outdoor advocacy and imaginative, free play?

How can those of us in the digital media arena best reinforce the work you’re doing and use the power of media for positive change?

More to come…Don’t miss the opportunity to hear this renowned childhood expert as Dr. Susan Linn rocks the Bay Area with her words of wisdom…

See you at Parents Place on the Peninsula and any other venue I can scurry to in time! :-)

susan-linn-pic.jpgCCFC’s Director, Dr. Susan Linn will be making a number of appearances in the Bay Area from May 29 – June 5, 2008 including discussions with parent groups, book talks, and a CCFC house party.

Don’t miss these great opportunities to hear about Susan’s new book The Case for Make Believe and to learn more about CCFC’s important work. Please, help CCFC grow the movement to reclaim childhood from corporate marketers by letting friends and family know about these great events:

Thursday, May 29, 7pm – 9pm
First Congregational Church, Social Hall
1985 Louis Rd, Palo Alto

Saturday, May 31, 7pm
CCFC house party at private home in Oakland. (woohoo, I’ll be there! —AJ)
A rare opportunity to spend an evening with the nation’s top expert on how corporations target kids with harmful marketing messages, and learn how we can fight (Hosted by CCFC member Michele Simon, author of Appetite for Profit) RSVP to for address and directions by Wednesday, May 28

Sunday June 1, 9am-10am, Call In Radio Show: 877-372-KIDS

Shaping Youth advisory board member Rona Renner interviews Susan Linn on Childhood Matters on 98.1 KISS-FM, 105.1 KOCN-FM…Call in from ANYWHERE…FREE!

877-372-KIDS…Get your questions ready to go on the air!

Monday, June 2, 7pm – 9pm Parent’s Place

Join Amy Jussel, Susan Linn, Stephanie Agnew from Parent’s Place et al at: 2001 Winward Way, San Mateo

Tuesday, June 3, 9:15am-10:30am Peninsula School
920 Peninsula Way, Menlo Park

Tuesday, June 3, 4pm – 6pm GeoKids, US Geological Survey
345 Middlefield Rd, Menlo Park

Wednesday, June 4, 1pm Book Passage
51 Tamal Vista Blvd, Corte Madera

Thursday, June 5, 7pm Cody’s Books
2201 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley;jsessionid=FE47A2D8AD63080B69470B505

See you there; don’t forget to ping me with your questions prior!

Visual Credit: lead photo; Corporate Babysitter

Related Resources

The Case for Make Believe, Dr. Susan Linn (Amazon)

Consuming Kids: Protecting Our Children from the Onslaught of Marketing & Advertising, Dr. Susan Linn (Amazon)

Taking Back Childhood, Nancy Carlsson-Paige

The Power of Play, David Elkind

The Hidden Power of Play, International Herald Tribune, D.Elkind

The Hurried Child, D. Elkind

Psychology Today: The Power of Play

A Place of our Own: The Power of Play (experts weigh in on parent perceptions of ‘play’!)

June 1st, Childhood Matters Radio Show, 98.1, KISS-FM Focus:

Nurturing Creative Play

With Shaping Youth Advisory Board member and radio host Rona Renner interviewing CCFC’s Susan Linn, author of “The Case for Make-Believe” and “Consuming Kids”–

childhood-matters.jpgChildhood is often thought of as synonymous with a time for imagination and play. Make-believe in early childhood has been linked to the development of creativity, critical thinking and even emotional regulation.

Play is used in children’s therapy for dealing with childhood issues as far reaching as stress, changing schools, and even death of a loved one. Yet, in an increasingly technological and commercialized era of toys, TV and pre-packaged dress-up, are we squelching imagination?

Join Rona and guest Susan Linn, author of The Case for Make-Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World and Consuming Kids as they offer ideas for nurturing creative play.

Learn more about guests and Upcoming Shows: 877-372-KIDS, or visit Childhood



  1. Hi Amy, last weekend I had the privilege of entering into unstrutured play with my three-year-old grandson. His mother gave him 50 cents to purchase whatever he wanted at a garage sale. He had selected Incredibles toys, the mother, who has enlarged arms and bendable features and a baby. Interestingly he wanted me to be the baby in his game, and he the mother. Then he switched to the baby role and I was the mother. I used my greatest imagination to tell stories and think of “incredible” things for us to do. He absolutely was caught up in this and wanted to play it with me once it “took off.” What fun and what a joy to grow closer to my grandson in a game that is generally reserved for children only. 🙂

  2. Robyn, I’m even more thrilled that he didn’t stay in the ‘role’ of the Incredibles franchise much like some of the branded toys do…of course at 3 he probably hasn’t seen it yet… 😉 It’s great that he was so open and free with the role changing, engaging with the bendables as simply a ‘toy’ rather than a brand…you’ve just given me a great question for Dr. Linn tonight about this very thing…At what age does free play shift from generic to brain identification with a pop culture icon? I know they’ve done studies of Ronald McDonald recognition w/2 year olds and such, but is this always the case? In other words, would some kids simply free associate as ‘a clown’ rather than a brand?

    As always, you’ve opened my thinking to yet another pathway!

    p.s. To readers: This Robyn (above) is not our body image/’Dr. Robyn’ but instead another erudite/Robyn McMaster who has a fabulous blog here called Brain Based Biz: Check out her posts on some of the science behind brain behavior and children, too!

  3. Amy, just another thing that is of interest… my grandson switched roles with me about 8 times throughout the course of this play. And, it will be interesting to see if the next time I see him if he decides to resume this. He lives quite a distance away from me so I only see him a few times a year. He does not get to watch a lot of TV, but rather enjoys his Thomas trains and all that goes with them.

    He is an only child and my daughter had to wait over 12 years for him so the nurturance he has received is pretty incredible and it really shows. 🙂

  4. Robyn, my question for YOU will be, by the time you see him again, will he have seen the Incredibles MOVIE and therefore, will it alter his free form role play with you?

    I just interviewed Susan Linn all about this, and will post it tmrw. most likely…(I’m a bit backlogged) Stay tuned 🙂 Amy

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