Thursday, February 21, 2008

Left to the Imagination

NPR has a meaty story this morning on how, during the post-war era, the nature of children's play has changed. Briefly: with the appearance of toys that required more-scripted play, there has been a corresponding decline in kids in their capacity for what is called "executive function":

Executive function has a number of different elements, but a central one is the ability to self-regulate. Kids with good self-regulation are able to control their emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline.

We know that children's capacity for self-regulation has diminished. 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."

Sad because self-regulation is incredibly important. Poor executive function is associated with high dropout rates, drug use and crime. In fact, good executive function is a better predictor of success in school than a child's IQ. Children who are able to manage their feelings and pay attention are better able to learn. As executive function researcher Laura Berk explains, "Self-regulation predicts effective development in virtually every domain."

Running parallel to this has been the increasing emphasis in schools on developing cognitive abilities (read: "teaching to the test") at the expense of so-called "free play"--unstructured free-time; the highly-endangered concept of recess. That matters because it is unstructured play that exercises the child's capacity and ability to imagine, which aids in the development of executive function. And there's more, which I don't have time to talk about just now. Trust me, though: if you've read this far, you'll want to hear this story in its 7-minute entirety.

I got to wondering, as I listened, if there weren't also some correlation between these trends and the subject of and ensuing discussion at this post and this one. The story didn't address this particular angle, but I thought: the story's example of a scripted toy is a toy machine gun first made in 1955; part of Barbie's status as an evil archetype of gender roles is that it is so over-determined regarding the sorts of play it encourages. Its launch date: 1959.

See the title of this post: Perhaps, as less and less is left to the imagination (figuratively as well as literally) regarding the display of (children's) bodies, less is left to the child to decide--to imagine ("executive function")--regarding what to do with that body, what is/is not acceptable on his/her terms. If that's so, though, the consequences of increasing parental disinvolvement in reading those scripts, as it were, would seem pretty much self-evident.


R. Sherman said...

I'll have to listen to the complete program when I have more time, but please allow a comment born of ignorance.

Frankly, I wasn't thinking about Barbies or toy guns as a problem as much as video games/virtual reality simulations. Dolls and toy guns, admittedly geared toward specific genders, nonetheless required children to create stories in order to enjoy the toy. After all, pop guns and dolls have been around along time. I wonder whether a study done in 1961 or so would have shown the same decline.

I would think that the problem has more to do with passive entertainment, i.e. watching oodles of TV versus active play, i.e. my mom screaming "Go outside until I call you in for lunch!"

Much to contemplate.


Sheila said...

I will definitely listen to the NPR story, John; it certainly touches on much of what I find "the matter with kids today".

I'll be interested to hear what is said about toy machine guns and Barbies -- because I don't think of those toys as prescribing scripted play. They establish a context, that's for sure, but within that context I believe a multitude of scripts is possible.

John B. said...

Randall and Sheila,
Thanks for stopping by.
The people interviewed in the story, as you note, mean by "make-believe" a sort of invention ex nihilo: the transforming of a stick into a pistol or a corncob and some scraps of fabric into a doll, for example. With the toys, as you heard them claim in the story, the focus for the child becomes what s/he can do with the toy as-is; they'd argue that, sure, narratives can be invented that incorporate the toys, but the toys themselves implicitly limit the range of possible narratives.

Something else that I wondered about as I listened was the correlation, if any, between this generational loss of executive function and the emergence of ADHD, a disorder that I'd never heard of when I was a child and which would have been "treated," at least at my school, with the euphemistically-named "board of education." I don't know nearly enough to move beyond just wondering about that, though.

John B. said...

More idle speculation:
Something I have noted in my students is that, on the whole, they have difficulty thinking abstractly and conceptually--things like being able to articulate fairly a point of view contrary to their own, discussing a philosophical premise and its implications, etc. This sort of thing is something students are called on to do all the time in college, so it's an ability of no little importance. For a long time, I saw their relative lack in their ability as a failure of instruction in earlier grades--this is something that can be practiced, after all. But after listening to this story, I wondered if perhaps their difficulties in reasoning abstractly arise from their decreased opportunities to engage in make-believe even earlier on, in childhood. As Randall points out above, VR games, while certainly cool, essentially put the gamer into a ready-made world, and all that's required of the player is a quick learning of/playing by the rules; no invention is required of him/her.
Put another way: the substituting of a ready-made world for this one is not at all the same as inventing that other world.

dejavaboom said...

I've yet to listen, but I have to tell you, this chills me to the bone! A mental inventory of my boys' toys suggests that most all of them are of this ilk...Scripted play might even extend into more literally scripted: 1/3rd of their toys are derived from movies and cartoons, and sometimes when I play with them, if I'm out of character or make a mis-step, the boys will get-all-up-in-my-face and say, "SpongeBob wouldn't say that!"

What am I allowing to happen to my children? What can I do about it? I am mortified.

John B. said...

Because I happen to know more or less where you live, I can say with all confidence that the place where you and your children live in an ideal space for combating this creeping scriptedness. I, too, grew up in a rural area, with scripted toys, yes, but also woods and fields to play in. As Randall said he was told to do by his parents, send your kids out to play. No toys--just their brains and hands. They are young enough that they'll be able to make their own fun. And even when not playing, they will wander--and wonder at what they see: plants, animals, bugs, etc. One of the coolest things my father ever gave me was the names of the animals and plants we lived among.
Books also exercise the imagination--the reader has to visualize the scenes and characters described. But, being an English teacher, you already know that.

Gwynne said...

This is an interesting point...and one that I could wholly does appear that much of what is "wrong with kids today" stems from underdeveloped executive skills (leading to ADHD or simply lack of any self-control). Like you all have suggested, the heavy use of TV and video games probably has a lot to do with that. I grew up in a small town and later, when we moved to the country, I can remember overhearing my parents say, as my brother and I traipsed off into the woods with satchels on sticks, pretending to be hoboes, "isn't it great to see them using their imaginations again?" Kids today don't just play outside much.

And I will throw in my two cents again that some of this responsibility is borne by the parents. As you suggested in your previous two posts, I agree that some of the responsibility goes back to those who are pedaling the crap (whether it's video games, or so-called "belly shirts," or beds named Lolita), just as we hold drug dealers responsible for what they are selling. But it takes a buyer to keep the drug dealer in business. And it takes parents to decide what toys their children will and won't have and more importantly, to recognize the importance of controlling things like TV and video game time.

I've not listened to the clip yet, but based on your synopsis, it sounds like a very valid thesis and one that many parents should hear.