Playing Ye Olde Way

It is 7 p.m. in Cleveland, and the Knotts family is living it up in the warm summer air. Dad's grilling, Mom's weeding the flower beds and the kids are zipping around on their wheels. "I'm Spider-Man, yay!" yells Erik, 4, as he speeds by on his scooter. Brother B.J., 7, is vainly trying to lift his bike's front tire in the air. "I love to pretend this is a dirt bike," he says. The boys also attend after-school activities and play computer games, but mom Kris Knotts makes sure they have unstructured, old-fashioned downtime, too--no high-tech gizmos, no pressure, no deadlines. "Kids need the time to play, just play," she says. Daughter Elyssa, 11, gets right to the point: "How much fun could you possibly have if you didn't use your imagination?"

Plenty of adults are asking the same question. Children in the United States devote some 40 hours a week to television, videogames and the Internet. In this new era of supercharged technology, could their imaginations be at risk? Are invisible friends losing out to Game Boys? Is make-believe a relic of the 20th century? There are no simple answers. While high-tech toys and video action games have their defenders, there is also growing concern that the digital revolution could have a negative impact on children's intellectual development and even adversely affect their creative thinking as adults. "If we give them all this programmed stuff, are they going to come out of the box and think like great inventors?" asks Dorothy Singer, a leading authority in the study of children and play at Yale University. "We're depriving them of the 'what ifs'."

Imagination, which appears to take shape at around the same time children learn to talk, enhances verbal development. As children tell stories and act out make-believe situations, they rely on language to articulate their actions. If a child doesn't know a word, she'll ask a parent or teacher, building vocabulary as she goes along. Using a combination of tests and measurements (how creative a child is when he plays with blocks, what he sees in a series of inkblots), Singer and her husband, Jerome, have found that children who play more imaginatively generally develop better and more sophisticated vocabularies than kids who engage in less imaginative play.

The benefits extend well beyond words. Playful interaction gives kids the chance to socialize, express emotions and practice motor skills. It nurtures their senses--the symphony of sound, taste and touch that is inherent to playing house or tumbling in the grass. The Singers have found that kids who engage in pretend play laugh and smile more and show less aggression than kids who play less imaginatively. Old-fashioned amusements, like blocks or dollhouses, may seem dull compared with blinking videogame lights, but their open-endedness allows children's minds to gallop off in new directions. "If you take the box that the washing machine came in, it's a spaceship, a submarine, a train," says Michael Mendizza, cofounder of Touch the Future, a nonprofit group focused on children and play. He worries that kids too passively absorb ready-made characters and dialogue served up by TV and high-tech games.

It's not just the proliferation of technology that concerns researchers--it's the eradication of playtime. Many schools have cut back on or eliminated recess. And an increasing emphasis on testing leaves little time for art and music. School administrators say they want to boost intellectual development and ready kids for a more competitive and technologically driven world. But the approach may backfire, say critics, denying kids the intellectual, social and physical development that comes from simple play.

The effects of a poorly developed imagination may carry over into adulthood. University of Massachusetts psychologist Daniel Anderson followed kids from preschool to high school, documenting the TV shows they watched and their academic performance and creativity. The results: watching "general-entertainment TV" led to less participation in creative activities, like art classes or creative writing. Sandra Russ, a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University, says that children who play imaginatively are more likely to think creatively and are better problem solvers as they grow older. In a study of 121 first and second graders, Russ found that those who used more fantasy and expressed more emotions as they played with blocks and puppets scored higher on a "Uses for an Object Test," a measurement of creativity that asks children to brainstorm other uses for things like bricks or newspapers. When 31 of the same students were tested four years later, those who were most sophisticated at play early on did better on the objects test and were more successful at getting out of stressful situations, like dealing with a class bully.

There's no evidence, however, that technology is killing off fantasy. In a survey of children's invisible friends, psychologist Marjorie Taylor, of the University of Oregon, found that only 3 percent were named after superheroes like Batman or Superman. "Children are coming up with their own characters who are quite unique and idiosyncratic," she says. Some entertainment may even help nourish imagination. Anderson found that kids who watched "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" scored higher on the Uses for an Object Test as teenagers, perhaps because Mr. Rogers often took common objects and came up with novel uses for them. Newer technology may turn out to promote fantasy, says Anderson. "It can cut both ways."

There's no formula to ensure children become happy and accomplished adults. But it seems clear that even as technology proliferates, simple unstructured play should also be a priority, enriching children--and their imaginations--for the rest of their lives.