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Play is Under Attack


Jenny Wagler

National Post

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 spaces."

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 thinking."

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 swing."

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 together."

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 notice it."

But the effects, he said, are potent and well-documented.

"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.




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