Assistant Managing Editor
LONGMEADOW Do your children or grandchildren play? I don't mean the structured, scheduled, let's go to the make-a-craft or build-a-Lego event at the library or museum, or the lets-act-out-my-favorite-scene from a movie and I'm going to recite such-and-such character's lines verbatim kind of play.
I mean the old-fashioned, unstructured, use your imagination to make up a game or build a clubhouse out of an old cardboard box, then go outside to climb a tree or skip stones at the pond kind of play.
If they aren't participating in that latter kind of play, it may, according to parent, grandparent, former toy store owner and founding member of the American Specialty Toy Retailers Association Deb McCollister, be limiting their overall intellectual and emotional development.
McCollister will be speaking about the importance of play in the lives of children during a special, adults-only evening event at Kiddly Winks, located at 801Williams St., on Oct. 13.
The talk will begin at 7 p.m. Refreshments will be served and participants will leave with handouts and suggestions to help them engage their children in productive play. Reservations required; call 567-0688.
"I'm going to talk about the role of play in child development and the current culture, and that the respect for play has waned over the past few decades," McCollister told Reminder Publications from her Omaha, Neb., home.
The 60-year-old talked about the ways children's play has changed since she was a child, when "I only came in for meals" and since her three now-grown children were young.
"We don't give them a moment alone," she said of todays scheduled, structured, kids' lives.
"Parents are rightfully concerned about their children's ability to compete in a world with news of declining educational achievement," she said of the current push for structured childhood activities and educational games and programs.
She also pointed to the restrictions on unstructured play imposed by our culture's pervasive, overreactive fear for children's safety, citing an article by Lisa Belkin titled "Keeping Kids Safe From the Wrong Dangers" that ran in the Week in Review section of the Sept. 19 edition of the Sunday New York Times (for more see www.nytimes.com/2010/09/19/weekinreview/19/elkin.htmlm).
"I'm a grandmother so I understand [the fears]," she said, referring to the worry that a child playing outdoors unsupervised might be kidnapped or exposed to drugs or a pedophile. "But the data doesn't necessarily bear that out."
She said that by denying children the opportunity for unstructured free time and play without adult supervision, "we are discovering that we have taken away an important avenue for not only intellectual and academic development, but social and emotional development as well."
"Therapists can tell you that little girls can't play princess [today]," she continued. "But they can play 'Little Mermaid'" and. she said, recite the lines for the characters they have "watched endlessly" on DVDs.
"They are not writing the scripts [for their play] and there is so much value [in that]," McCollister said, adding that the ability to use complex language, conceptualize cause and effect and sequence ideas are all skills children practice and master through imaginative play.
"If I introduce a new imaginary obstacle in my story today, then the ending will be different than it was yesterday. That's higher level thinking brought to bear," she said. "If you want them to write a really good term paper in ninth grade, it helps to be able to see cause and effect and sequencing and think things through."
Video games, she said, may provide an outlet for what today's kids see as unstructured time and a way for them to practice some of these skills. But McCollister said the video game play experience is "just not rich enough."
And it isn't just children she wants to see rediscover play. Citing the work of Dr. Stuart Brown who has studied the importance of play in humans and also in animals with Dr. Jane Goodal and his nonprofit organization, The National Institute of Play, www.nifplay.org, she said adults, too, need to discover the benefits of unstructured time, of play.
"Few adults are in touch with play and how it renews us. Every inventor, every artist, every engineer those guys we think of as so left-brain have to have an attitude of play to generate new ideas," she said.
"It's never too late to teach that to kids and to remember it for ourselves." she added.
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