The Power of Play

The importance of play in early childhood development has been pointed out in psychological research. The human brain is wondrously malleable from infancy to seven years old. The globe has been explored, but the brain is the most exciting frontier remaining to fully chart.  Language acquisition in the first twenty-four months of life is an incredible phenomenon.  More so is the capability of that infant brain to acquire more than one language and to keep the phonological and syntactic codes of multiple languages separate.  In many ways the acquisition of language can be seen as free play, alone and with the parent. The baby babbles freely and playfully imitates the speech of his mother. The child’s language acquisition accelerates as the parents sing, talk and recite nursery rhymes to the child. The adults invent many new verbal games to play with the child as well as using the familiar Patty-cake, Ride-a-Pony and This Little Piggy.

Fascination with how play formed such an important part of my life and that of my peers growing up in the 1950s and 1960s led me to recall the games and activities that occupied so much of our waking hours.  Recollection of my childhood days underscored the fact that playing outdoors was vital.  We preferred even to play a board game on the front porch than to stay inside.  Fortunately, television did not broadcast around-the-clock and children’s programming was within restricted hours.  We went to bed at a decent hour, way before that off-the-air signal appeared on the screen, and we could be alert for school the next morning.  Unorganized activities (soccer moms take note) without adult surveillance in those pre-teen years allowed for the free play of imagination. We created our own images on the screens of our minds without the pre-packaging of manufactured electronic toys.

I fear my readers will think me a Luddite, one of those dowdy anti-tech dinosaurs, who claim the good old days were Nirvana. Hardly. I love my computer and acquired my first one in 1984. I concede video games improve hand and eye coordination and have their place as an enjoyable past-time. What I do not concede is the unbridled time spent on computer games to supplant outdoor games, inventive play, and reading as the major portion of a child’s day.  I would not have the child’s computer time scheduled for the hour before bedtime.  The computer screen seems to extend wakefulness and inhibit normal sleepiness at the end of the day.  I would schedule that fun hour when the child first arrives home from school at a time before supper.

Reflection along these lines was the catalyst for my series of poems on childhood activities.  A childhood without electronic gadgets and television 24/7 was magical. Physical exercise and expansion of the imagination were its hallmarks. An overweight eight-year old was an oddity.  I reflected that the growth of consumerism created a market for expensive toys. Previously, more often than not, children made do with simple toys or made their own.   Those makeshift kites and jump ropes somehow provided endless hours of entertainment compared to today’s electronic games that may be abandoned altogether a few weeks after the Christmas present is unwrapped.  I collected the poems I wrote to recapture this pre-digital age childhood in my poetry book Playground. I hope aging baby boomers will take a trip down memory lane in this book. For those born after 1969, I hope it motivates you, as President Obama counseled also, to turn off the television and read a book aloud to your children.   Allow into a child’s life the room for the type of play that empowers, the play that expands imagination and inventiveness.

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