June 5, 2008
Play, the sacred
pastime of childhood, is under attack.
"Play is the optimal condition for learning - it's a
creative, thinking, feeling space where children are
artists at work," said doctoral candidate Kimberly
Bezaire from the Ontario Institute for Studies in
Education at the University of Toronto. "It's a very
scary thing to think that some of [children's] little
lives might be so busy going from activity to activity,
moment to moment, this test to that test, that they
don't get an opportunity to operate in those optimal
At the annual humanities congress, Ms. Bezaire argued
that a changing social context, standardized testing,
prescriptive toys and paranoid parenting are threatening
outdoor and make-believe play.
Masters student Rhon Teruelle from McMaster University
identified a different menace to play: the "immersive
advertising" which he said exploits young users of the
popular virtual pet ownership Web site, Neopets.
When kids are free to play outdoors and invent
make-believe games, Ms. Bezaire said, they use their
minds in powerful ways.
"A park bench can become a doctor's office one moment
and a hospital bed the next, or a grocery store five
minutes later - and it's very abstract, very high-order
And the benefits, she said, run deep: "Play has profound
contributions around ideas of developing yourself and
the world and others and really imagining possible
futures for ourselves," she said.
But in an urbanized, digitized age of high stress,
pandemic child obesity and "stranger danger," she said,
childhood is changing.
Play, she said, is being curtailed by over-protective
parenting, undermined by toys that don't stimulate a
child's imagination and squeezed out of classrooms by a
regimen of standardized testing.
Parenting advice, she said, focuses on constant
protection and not on raising independent children.
"Flip through any parenting magazine and you see
protect, protect, protect," she said.
In daycares and schools, she said, this attitude is
enhanced by a fear of liability, which she said results
in "silly rules" such as "not being able to build blocks
more than two high," or "not being able to jump off the
The current toy market, she said, has also changed play
dramatically from the days when "a cardboard box and a
stick" allowed a child's imagination to run wild.
"The Lego that we grew up with was very open-ended. But
now if you look down the toy aisle, the Lego is very
prescribed," she said. "There's only one way to put it
And then there's the classroom, where she said a push
toward standardized testing in the 1980s and '90s has
put the pressure on teachers to deliver measurable,
testable results. In this context, she said, play tends
to fall to the wayside.
"In the schools, and in many kindergartens, you really
have to go looking for the play," she said. "There's a
lot of pencil-and-paper work, skill and drill, a lot of
push towards learning reading."
And beyond the classroom, in the cyber playspace, play
faces other threats, said Mr. Teruelle, a masters
student in cultural studies. His focus is Neopets: a
virtual pet-ownership Web site for 5- to 12-year-olds
that allows players to create a pet, win points by
playing games, and spend the points to look after the
pet. But while he allows that the game itself is "fun"
and "educational," he said it has a darker side.
"A quick tour through Neopia reveals that several Disney
characters, as well as personalities associated with
Mattel, MGM, McDonald's, Corus Entertainment and Kraft,
are noticeable during game play," he said.
Neopets has trademarked this strategy of "immersive
advertising," which Mr. Teruelle says resembles product
placement in movies and TV.
"If you're playing a game, [the brand references] are
constantly in the background. They're omnipresent,
they're always there - but not always in a matter of
engaging with the children," he said. "You almost don't
But the effects, he said, are potent and
"Children, even though they display agency, are still
very impressionable," he said. "There's a reason for
corporations targeting kids at such a young age."
Mr. Teruelle advocates a policy that would prohibit
advertisers from targeting young kids. But until such a
policy could be implemented, he said, it falls to
caregivers to make kids aware of the advertising images
that bombard their play.
Subscribers receive no more
1-2 emails per week