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During my twenty years as host of the nationally syndicated The Parent’s Journal public radio show, I’ve chatted with many of the leaders in the world of child development. Whether it was David Elkind or Penelope Leach, Fred Rogers or Benjamin Spock, they all—every one of them—spoke of the significance of play. And now I want to help parents help their children enjoy the wholesome, old-fashioned experience of playing creatively and freely . . . without batteries.
I started by collecting and inventing hundreds of games, and then I tested them one by one on different groups of children, ages twelve months to ten years. When the kids rejected a game or an activity, I rejected it too. When a game inspired them to come up with a variation of their own, I appropriated their invention.
But why “unplugged,” you may ask. Since most of us embrace technology to some extent every day—can you imagine a world without e-mail?—it may seem far-fetched to suggest that parents minimize the amount of time their child spends connected to anything with a screen, a plug, or a battery. Besides, it’s so easy to plunk a kid in front of a TV!
But children need to interact with living, breathing human playmates, and not be held captive by the lights, sounds, and images on a screen. They need to run, chase, ride, skip, and jump, and not sit still for prolonged blocks of time. We need only look at the huge rise in childhood obesity to understand how children suffer physically when they remain inactive.
But the toll on kids who rely primarily on electronics for their entertainment goes way beyond some extra pounds. When a child sits in front of a screen, he has no opportunity to connect with the natural world outside—mud, water, sand, stones, leaves, seeds, animals, insects, sunshine, and rain.
It might not seem like such a huge loss at the moment when your child is contentedly clicking buttons on the keypad, but there is something essential about a child getting his hands messy. In addition, because electronic games are preprogrammed with finite possible responses, they limit the imagination. A child who draws, paints, builds, and invents experiences a creativity that has no boundaries. By learning that he has the ability to shape his world—either alone or in the company of others—he gains the self-confidence he needs to grow into a problem-solving, creative adult. And who could ask for more?
Excerpted from Unplugged Play, by Bobbi Conner; Workman Publishing, August 2007. Bobbi Conner is the creator and host of the award-winning syndicated radio program “The Parent’s Journal,” broadcast weekly nationwide since 1986 on public radio stations. For information, access to hundreds of audio interviews with child development experts and a chance to share your own play tips with other moms and dads, visit www.unpluggedplay.com.