[by Owen Strachan] 

A friend recently tipped me off to a great NPR article on the importance of child’s play. Here’s a key quotation on how child’s play has changed in the last half-century:

“Instead of spending their time in autonomous shifting make-believe, children were supplied with ever more specific toys for play and predetermined scripts. Essentially, instead of playing pirate with a tree branch they played Star Wars with a toy light saber. Chudacoff calls this the commercialization and co-optation of child’s play — a trend which begins to shrink the size of children’s imaginative space.”

Aside from the clearly unfortunate nature of this development from an “enriched life” standpoint, the loss of imaginative, undirected play has had quantifiably negative effects in the physiology of children. Here’s a very telling quotation:

“A recent study replicated a study of self-regulation first done in the late 1940s, in which psychological researchers asked kids ages 3, 5 and 7 to do a number of exercises. One of those exercises included standing perfectly still without moving. The 3-year-olds couldn’t stand still at all, the 5-year-olds could do it for about three minutes, and the 7-year-olds could stand pretty much as long as the researchers asked. In 2001, researchers repeated this experiment. But, psychologist Elena Bodrova at the National Institute for Early Education Research says, the results were very different.

“Today’s 5-year-olds were acting at the level of 3-year-olds 60 years ago, and today’s 7-year-olds were barely approaching the level of a 5-year-old 60 years ago,” Bodrova explains. “So the results were very sad.””

The loss of self-regulation is, perhaps surprisingly, intimately connected with the loss of spontaneous, child-directed play that nurtures the imagination. Thus, when one loses a connection with the imagination, and when one couples this loss with a permissive society, one is left with a generation of children who have little self-control and a host of corresponding personal problems. What, after all, is more integral to maturity than self-control?

I would encourage you to read the whole article–it’s worth it, as it will stimulate much thought among Christians. If the studies mentioned in the piece are true, and they certainly seem to be, then we Christians will need to make sure that we reserve a substantial place in our child-raising for the cultivation of the imagination. Furthermore, we will need to make sure that we do so not primarily by placing toys with preprogrammed stories in the hands of our children, but by thrusting our children out the back door with the lively admonition to, well, “Play!” That is to say, articles like the one cited in this post only encourage us to do what many parents, following their common sense intuition, have been doing for many hundreds of years: encouraging kids to be kids. This is not to say that such parents do not push their children on to maturity and seek to develop them in spiritual and social terms such that they become God-fearing men and women capable of contributing to home, church, society, and the broader kingdom. No, they do. But good parents do so while realizing that the seasons of life are precious and that a key part of the season of childhood is the development and exercise of the imagination.

I am not yet a father. I cannot wait to be (and my wife, praise God, is fourteen weeks along!). I do not speak, then, as an authority, but as one who was blessed to be raised in a home where the imagination was not simply tolerated but was stimulated and allowed to develop. To this day, one of my favorite things to do is to engage in creative exercise through basketball games. I may not invent tales of knightly heroism or dashing rescue anymore, but I do still allow my fun side to run wild, quite literally, on the court. That’s a gift that my parents gave me–and that I hope many Christian parents will continue to give in days to come. What’s at stake, after all, is not simply well-rounded children, but children who understand and delight in the gift of imagination and then go on to live self-controlled lives while glorying in the message of the Bible, the story that in its incredible genesis, action-packed body, and fantastic resolution crests all other tales in majesty and truth.