How did children play?, part 4

With this journey down toy memory lane, it seems like toys do reflect the play signs of the time. How do you see the next generation playing? How can the current focus on that latest “toy” thing be moderated with the kind of activity and imagination needed for our 21st century children? As I close out this month’s lifeskill, Childcare, I hopefully can give us hope for our children’s “play” future. Yet, there are a few concerns parents and educators have voiced for several years now.

It seems obvious parents and kids are focused on “toy” things. Where does the “activity” fit? Are today’s toys bringing it together? According to Howard Chudacoff, Children at Play, An American History (2008), from the 1950s into the 21st century children’s play almost immediately was focused on things, toys, rather than activity (which was the focus in the 19th century). Technology went big-time with radio, TV, then the Internet and were brought into children’s homes and expanded exponentially just about any game and toy you could imagine. Your kids become a select target market.

Other things also changed. With the widespread commercialization of toys, a child’s imagination was shrinking. Kids didn’t make up their own rules of the game or toy as much. Parents were concerned for their children’s safety and focused their activities via so-called safe environments, such as karate classes, gymnastics, and summer camps. In addition, middle income parents increasingly worried about achievement and enriching their children’s minds. These changes also changed children’s cognitive and emotional development. As the years moved on, safety and the education costs for providing play space, the type of play, and time to play became top issues for parents and educators alike.

Many psychologists believe the time spent playing make-believe actually help children develop critical cognitive skills related to what is called “executive function.” Executive function gives the child the ability to self-regulate so they are able to control their emotions, behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline. Therapists and educators are trying to unravel this often controversial dilemma.
Yet, there is hope for “play” that help children thrive and develop into healthy, well-balanced adult. According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), Play and Children’s Learning (, and others as well, the importance of physical play, and play generally, in early childhood development is becoming center stage in the dialogue. Not only does research suggest play supports academic-related skills, but also physical skills and development.

No matter where the dialogue may take us, as parents we all have an opportunity to encourage healthy and imaginative play for our children and grandchildren. Whether it’s with the latest 21st century game and toy or our legacy of simple playtime still available today, let’s all provide the next generation with opportunities to experience at home and school the joy of imaginative play with other children, both indoors and outdoors. And for us adults, be sure to join in on the fun too!