The End of Make Believe

It is 7 p.m. in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Knotts family is living it up in the warm summer air. Dad's grilling, Mom's weeding the flowerbeds and the kids are zipping around on their wheels. "I'm Spiderman, yay!" yells Erik, 4, as he speeds by on his scooter. Brother B.J., 7, is riding his "big-boy bike," vainly trying to lift the front tire in the air. "I love to pretend this is a dirt bike," he says. The Knotts boys have plenty of organized after-school activities like soccer and baseball. But mom Kris Knotts doesn't allow videogames ("entertainment is not play," she says) and she makes sure that her children have unstructured downtime--no high-tech gizmos, no pressure, no deadlines--during which they can amuse themselves the old-fashioned way. "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 some countries devote 40 hours a week to television, videogames, CDs and the Internet. In this new era of supercharged technology, could our children's imaginations be at risk? Are pretend characters and imaginary friends losing out to the literalness of Game Boys and PlayStations? Is make-believe a relic of the 20th century? There are no simple answers and not a lot of data. While high-tech toys and video action games have their defenders--recent research shows they benefit kids by honing their reflexes and visual skills--there is also growing concern that the great advances of 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 psychologist at Yale University. "We're depriving them of the 'what ifs'."

The first challenge scientists confront is coming up with a precise definition of imagination. Singer, a leading authority, with her husband, Jerome, in the study of children and play, explains it simply as "the ability to think symbolically," to create an image of something that is not directly in view--picturing yourself at the beach, for example, as you sit chained to your desk in the office. Our imaginations are central to the development of complex thought processes, from practical problem solving (how do I get out of this traffic jam?) to sophisticated thinking (how big is the universe?), because they allow us to conceptualize the unknown. Our imaginations develop early in life, connecting brain cell to brain cell and laying the groundwork for a lifetime of fantasy. "Imagination is fundamental to the human mind," says Marjorie Taylor, a psychologist at the University of Oregon and author of "Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them."

When children play make-believe, they're exercising their imaginations. Simple blocks or dollhouses may seem old-fashioned and dull, but their very nature--unstructured and open-ended--allows children to gallop off in any direction their minds take them. "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 resource and learning center focused on children and play.

Imagination appears to take shape in the young brain at about the same time that children learn to talk, a crucial time in a child's intellectual development. 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), the Singers have found that children who play more imaginatively generally develop better vocabularies than kids who engage in less imaginative play. And they found that more imaginative kids also use more sophisticated language, like adverbs, and are better at using difficult grammatical tenses like the subjunctive. That's because as children tell stories and act out make-believe situations, they call upon their language skills to articulate their actions. If a child doesn't know a word, he or she will ask a parent or teacher, building vocabulary with each new foray into fun.

Play also helps increase concentration and attention, and gives kids the chance to socialize, express emotions and practice motor skills. The Singers have consistently found that kids who engage in pretend play also laugh and smile more and show less aggression than kids who play less imaginatively.

Several researchers and educators cite evidence that electronic entertainment is leading to a disturbing decline in imaginative play among children. Francis Closon, an elementary-school teacher for 20 years at the Ecole de Trixhes in Seraing, Belgium, observed a dramatic decline in students' vocabulary and in their ability to write. "About 10 years ago, their imagination and creativity dropped off," says Closon. Vida Talajic, a teacher at the Osnovna Waldorfska Skola in Zagreb, Croatia, has noticed students relying on prefabricated language. "During lessons, they repeat sounds and phrases from videogames," says Talajic, and they're less capable of spontaneous play. Without videogames, "it would be easier for them to innovate, to imagine being in a ship or a house or baking cakes." And Sophie-Caroline Potier, a psychologist in Paris, has noticed that when she asks children to draw a picture, they often stare blankly at the paper instead. "There's nothing to create," she says. "Nothing comes out."

One worry is that television, video and computer games tend to serve up ready-made characters, plots and dialogue, which children passively absorb. Daniel Anderson, a psychologist at the University of Masachusetts, followed kids from preschool to high school, documenting the kind of television they watched and their academic performance and creativity. The results: watching "general-entertainment TV" led to less participation in creative activities in high school, like art classes or creative writing. Kids who spend inordinate amounts of time in front of TV, video and computer screens are also missing out on the nurturing of their own senses, the symphony of sound, taste and touch that are inherent to even the simplest play. "Time is taken away from human relationships, playing, wrestling, hugging, kissing, pulling each other's hair," says Paolo Crepet, a psychiatrist at the University of Siena in Italy and author of "Are We Listening to Our Children?" "I call this technological autism."

Some researchers aren't so sure that there's been a loss of imagination. Taylor found in a recent survey that out of 273 descriptions of imaginary friends solicited from children, only 3 percent were named after superheroes, like Batman and Superman. "Children are coming up with their own characters who are quite unique and idiosyncratic," she says. But others worry that the next generation may be growing up with an intellectual handicap.

The effects of a poorly developed imagination can carry over well into adulthood. Sandra Russ, a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University, says that children who play imaginatively in their early years 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 standard measurement of creativity that requires children to brainstorm alternative uses for objects like bricks or newspapers. In a second study, using 31 of the same students when they were in fifth and sixth grades, Russ found that those who were most sophisticated at play when they were younger did better four years later--not just on the objects test, but on their ability to sort their way out of stressful situations, like dealing with a class bully. "Good early play skills predicted the ability to be creative and generate alternative solutions to everyday problems," says Russ.

It may be unfair to blame the decline in imagination solely on videogames and other forms of electronic entertainment. In the United States, many schools have cut back on or eliminated recess. And an increasing emphasis on standardized testing leaves less time for painting and music. The motivation is to ready kids for a more competitive and technologically driven world. Parents have been caught up in the push to boost children's intellectual learning at an earlier age. But that could backfire by leaving little room for old-fashioned play.

The videogame industry argues that games are, in fact, doing children a service by preparing them for the 21st century. And besides, cinema and television set off similar alarm bells when they were introduced decades ago. In any case, lumping all forms of videogames and television programs in one category may be a mistake. The Singers studied the public-television show "Barney & Friends" and found that when adults and children act out make-believe games from the show, the children play more imaginatively. And Anderson found that kids who watched the public-television show "Mr. 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 like the Internet may turn out to promote fantasy, says Anderson. "It can cut both ways."

To some extent the argument is moot: electronic entertainment isn't going away any time soon. At the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, researchers are merging technology with fantasy in a way that they hope will nurture children's imaginations. They are testing a virtual playmate named Sam, a character projected onto a plasma screen, who engages in storytelling with kids. Sam begins a tale, hesitates, then asks his human playmate to continue. The goal is to enhance literacy through imaginative learning. "I do think Sam helps prompt creativity," says Ramona Allen, director of human resources at the MIT lab, as she watches her daughter, Alexis, 6, interact with the virtual pal. "Want to tell a story with me?" Sam asks, as Alexis shyly engages. "Kids who have exposure to this type of technology are going to be better prepared than those who don't," says Allen.

By the time Sam makes it into homes or classrooms--at least another decade away, assuming all the glitches are worked out--Alexis and the Knotts boys of Cleveland will be well on their way to adulthood. There's no formula to ensure them happy, imaginative and accomplished lives. But even as high-tech entertainment stacks up on toy-shop shelves, it seems clear that simple unstructured play should be a priority, enriching children--and their imaginations--for the rest of their lives.