Blink—And They're Grown

Parents, Families and Child Care

When Did Play Become About Toys?


“I’m bored!”

“There’s nothing to do!”

I hear this all of the time from my kids, and yet when I suggest that they go outside and play, they never seem to want to. When I think back to my own childhood, playing outside is basically all I remember. We were outside all day until dark or until our parents got home from work, and with no cell phones! I know times were easier, neighbors watched out for each other, and it didn’t seem so scary to let your kids go outside. Although we may think there is a child abductor standing on every corner to grab our children, the number one cause of death for children seems to be automobile accidents, and the facts on child abduction may surprise you.

I recently read an article by Alix Spiegel, “Old Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills,” where he speaks of cultural historian, Chudacoff , who said the word “play” conjures up the idea of “ toys” nowadays, whereas the word used to symbolize “activity.” I was interested, because for me, when I was told to go play I always thought that  meant “go do something.” My kids are content with a DS or an Xbox and call it playing.

When I was a kid, the neighborhood kids would flock to one particular yard to play kick ball or baseball. We would get on our banana-seat bicycles and ride all day long, making our own bike trails, creating obstacle courses. We traipsed through the neighborhood, flying down the hills with no hands, and might have even have had a friend on the handlebars. Sometimes we fell and got scraped up. No biggie. We worked it out. If we wanted a drink we got it from the garden hose, and once in awhile a neighbor would treat us to popsicles.

If we were playing inside, we were using our imagination. My sister and I loved to throw couch cushions on the floor, stepping only on them to avoid the “alligators” in the water (carpet) or quicksand. Barbies allowed us to hold fashion shows, remodel cardboard houses, plan a wedding, or prepare gourmet cinnamon rolls from Brach’s candy toffee! If we were listening to music, we became the singer and actually performed with the hairbrush microphone in hand. And wow, what a great fishing pole you could make from a stick, string, and a paperclip.

Playing and make-believe enabled us to come up with our own rules, create our own boundaries, and according to the experts in the Spiegel article, our private “self speech” led to self-discipline and self-regulation. What happens to kids when they don’t play?  Could that be why we have so many impulsive kids these days?

Play builds not only physical health but mental health, as well. Activity keeps our bodies strong and imagination keeps our brains going. When given the freedom to explore and figure things out for ourselves we are learning how to control ourselves and our responses. Self-regulation helps us develop healthy emotions, language, and social skills. Maybe these studies help confirm the old adage about the child that’s been given a new toy, but shows more interest in playing with the box?

Photo courtesy of docentjoyce.

2 thoughts on “When Did Play Become About Toys?

  1. Reading this conjured up images of backyard forts made of branches and making mudpies to bake in the “oven” (sidewalk). Thanks for the stroll down memory lane.

  2. Ours were outdoors a lot until they got older ( 11-12) which was just when our parents let us run off with friends through the neighborhood. It was awesome to go to the park and play til dusk or just hang out shooting hoops etc.

    I see the kids across the street outside all the time. We have 3 older wodden swingsets that we have combined to make an amazing playground in the backyard for our grandbaby and the cousins, etc. In the summer there is the pool. But 9x out of 10, they would all be just as happy kicking a ball, running around checking out the new flowers that opened or seeing which veggies have grown.

    The baby loves to be outside, she would play out in the cold all day if we would allow it. We make telescopes from cardboard tubes, we throw leaves in the air and try to catch them. We play capture (with a small tubular but light dome that she can climb on. we have a portion of our driveway we will be fencing in so that she can ride her trike, etc and not have to worry about getting to close to the road.

    Come on Spring .. were are ready to get back to the way is should be ….endless hours of laughter OUTSIDE