by Todd Fulginiti

“Dad, let’s play kitchen!”.  “Dad, let’s play Beanie Babies”.  “Let’s play Barbies!”.  “Dad, let’s play The Princess Game”.  “Dad, let’s play American Girls!”.  “Wanna play Peter Pan!”  “Let’s play trucks!”  

I was lucky.  When my daughters were growing up, they always wanted me to play with them.  Probably because I acted like a goofball and made them laugh.  I’m not embarrassed to admit that I loved playing Barbies, The Princess Game and everything else.  Aside from the quality time I spent with my kids, I loved playing those things because there were no rules and no instructions.  No structure and no time limit.  We, mostly the girls, made up everything.  It came naturally to them, as it does to most kids.  It was the same type of playing I did when I was a kid, except my brother and I used Star Wars people, The Six Million Dollar Man, and Matchbox cars.  The concept was the same.  Make it up as you go.  Create the scene, the situation and the solution.  Imagine.  Create.  Think.  These are some of the building blocks of well-adjusted people.

According to scientists, this kind of freeform, imaginative play builds up something called executive function.  Executive function is a set of skills that help us to manage our own behavior and to navigate everyday situations.  Executive function skills include things like organizing, controlling impulses and emotions, thinking flexibly, developing memory, and evaluating one’s own behavior.  

Today’s kids may still have the instincts to engage in the imaginative play my daughters and I loved, but they may not be actually doing enough of it.  Video games and screens are everywhere and kids seem to be spending more and more time in front of them.  Structured activities are are seemingly on the increase as well.  The “pick-up” baseball games of my youth seem completely replaced by today’s leagues and adult-directed experiences.  Some kids have so little exposure to unstructured time, that they don’t know how to handle it when they do encounter it.  They may not have developed the executive functioning skills they need to do so.

Not coincidentally, over my two-plus decades of teaching in a public elementary school, I have seen an increase in the number of kids who just can’t deal with life’s everyday situations, especially if they involve a change of routine.  When their history and lifestyle are revealed, it often turns out that these same kids did not, and do not, tend to engage in free, creative play.  They may come from a home environment where TV and video games are overused, or where they have no playmates.  The result is a failure to develop executive functioning skills.  As they grow older and get into school, they have issues.  They have difficulty making and keeping friends.  They have trouble controlling their behavior.  They overreact to things.

Adults sometimes wonder why kids are so serious and engaged when playing their imaginative games.  Perhaps, on some subconscious level, the kids realize that besides having fun, they are developing critical skills that will serve them their entire lives.  As parents, teachers, and supportive adults, we should do what we can to encourage kids to play imaginatively.  And just in case my teenage daughters need a refresher course, their Barbies and Beanie Babies are in the attic.  

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