The Enrichment Activity That Beats ‘Em All

Here’s a phenomenal azhzfaiyyf
NPR piece
– transcribed — that solves the classic overprotection question, “Well, why NOT keep kids inside all the time if it’s safer?”

A lot of parents think it was fun back when they played outside as kids, but since that kind of thing presents at least SOME danger (no matter how tiny), why not skip it and replace it with organized sports (they still get fresh air!), educational activities (won’t hurt on those Harvard applications!) or simply keep them at home, indoors? (Better safe than sorry!)

The problem is that more and more research is showing that PLAY – plain old, run-around, parent-free PLAY – is the building block of everything we are trying to nurture in our kids: Responsibility, communication and, most of all, it turns out, something called “self-regulation.”

Self-regulation is the ability to control oneself and work toward a goal. The classic self-regulation experiment involved giving 4-year-olds a choice: Eat one marshmallow now, or wait for the researcher to come back in a few minutes and you can have TWO.

The kids who could make themselves wait did better academically later on in their lives. In fact, self-regulation turns out to be a better predictor of future academic success than a kid’s IQ score. So brains matter, sure. But the ability to control oneself and plan for the future are even more important. And I think you can guess what builds that very quality.

Play. Because in play, children listen to their “private voice,” a voice directing them to come up with a solution, not just passively obey. Pre-schools allowing more time for free play ended up with kids way more willing to help each other – and even help clean up. They understood cooperation and responsibility better. I guess you could say their private voice is coaching them in something on par with “maturity.”

The other part of this NPR essay talks about how childhood was once very clearly associated with play. Now it’s associated with the things we buy for kids to play WITH: toys.

Now, obviously, I’ve got nothing against toys. Nothing against Little League or piano lessons or tutoring. My kids have done them all (and own a ridiculous number of toys, most of them in a big pile and missing some crucial piece). But if we don’t give our kids time to just plain play – and if schools don’t give them that, either — we are depriving them of the one “enrichment activity” that just may be the key to…everything. Or at least, everything good.

And did I mention it’s fun? That too.  – Lenore

61 Responses to The Enrichment Activity That Beats ‘Em All

  1. LauraL August 19, 2009 at 6:49 am #

    posting just so I can get follow up comments via email. 🙂

    However, yes – hasn’t everyone looked around after a Christmas morning (ok, those who do Christmas, lol) and discovered that the baby is in a box and ignoring all the toys?

    Imagination is a wonderful thing, and the Tickle-Me-Elmos of the world don’t encourage active play, but passive play.

  2. Forced2BCopterMom August 19, 2009 at 6:54 am #

    Yes! Thank you for, yet again, putting into words what my husband and I have felt for years!

  3. Dillon August 19, 2009 at 7:34 am #

    Hear, hear (i think that’s how you write it). i’m all for good old imaginative outside play. just told someone today that outside play ranks in my top 5 “discipline” techniques.

  4. barb August 19, 2009 at 7:34 am #

    Daniel Willingham writes about this very thing (self-regulation) in his book: Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. He also has a lot of other things to say too.

    The print is small but that is the only down side to the book. Amazon reviews are all 4-5 stars from educators.

    Open ended play and exploration is also a component of certain educational philosophies (Rudolf Steiner, Charlotte Mason and others as well as many home educators who do something other than “school-at-home”).

  5. Tanya August 19, 2009 at 7:37 am #

    Our 3 1/2 yr old daughter spends 3 days a week at a Reggio Emilia inspired preschool…
    it’s all about play. The way Mia’s learned about self-regulation is AMAZING!
    GO Play GO!

  6. Eric Howe August 19, 2009 at 7:45 am #

    Are you saying that childhood (a small part of a lifetime) is supposed to prepare you for being an adult (the majority of a lifetime)? Madness! Nonsense!

  7. LauraL August 19, 2009 at 7:46 am #

    Eric, for shame! Don’t you know our children are supposed to stay living in their same rooms all their lives, with me doing their laundry and cooking their meals? I had children so that I would have to take care of them the rest of their lives, not teach them to be self-sufficient and thoughtful and logical! The nerve!

  8. Esme August 19, 2009 at 7:48 am #

    I love your commentaries, and this one especially reminds me of parents that think that *play* is a privilege, and end, rather than a means.

    I’m sure you’ve touched on this before, but play is natural ( bio-evolutionary trait ) and even tho we’ve embarked on this thing called ecofriendliness and *sustainability*, many people have a deep (mis) distrust of nature and its role as the best teacher, hence a deep distrust of *play* even tho their instinct tells them otherwise.

    Child’s play is really just an emulation and embellishment of the adult world……

  9. archdiva August 19, 2009 at 7:53 am #

    Just today, I stumbled upon a product for sale that every child simply must have: A Build-a-Fort kit!

    It contains a tarp, some rope, some clips and glow sticks.

    Um, sounds an awful lot like the blanket over the chairs with clothespins and a flashlight fort I made when I was a kid…for FREE.

    We’re buying our childrens’ childhood now instead of letting them create it. So sad.

  10. LauraL August 19, 2009 at 7:55 am #

    @archdiva, yep. We’re telling them HOW to create it. No room for imagination here, kiddoes….

  11. suzannerevy August 19, 2009 at 8:10 am #

    Free play is on a par with food, imho.

  12. Uly August 19, 2009 at 8:36 am #

    Stealing that link, hope it’s okay.

  13. MFA Grad Student August 19, 2009 at 8:39 am #

    And people wonder why successive generations of children are displaying less and less creativity, independence and ability to deal with life outside of a regimented bubble? How the hell are they supposed to learn any of those things if they’re not given the chance? –sigh–

    It’s not just play that’s gotten structured, it’s even the things that kids play with. I was mad for toys like Legos and Construx when I was a kid – they were great, you could make practically anything and even though it was fun looking at the suggestion sheets and figuring out how to recreate them, you were only limited by your imagination (and possibly by the amount of Legos in your possession). I was so disappointed the last time I walked into the Legos store in Chicago – there were more Legos sets than ever (and there are some damned impressive Legos sculptures/displays in the store), but the sets now seem to be designed so that you can only make what the set is for (an X-wing, train station, pirate ship, etc) and are far less interchangeable than they used to be. I’m sure it’s possible to find ways to make pieces from different sets into something other than what they were meant to build, but it still takes away from the original spirit of toys like Legos. I’ve run into more adults than I can count who’ve voiced similar complaints, and not necessarily because they want to buy Legos for their kids.

    Which actually touches on a related point – when was the last time ADULTS were encouraged to play just for the hell of it, either? We go to the gym or rock climb or ski or hike not because we just enjoy doing so, but to lose weight/build team relationships/network. We go on structured tours/company outings/family vacations, rather than allowing ourselves to explore new places or allow new relationships to form and strengthen organically. Everything has to have a purpose or be one more step towards some sort of goal. Is it just me or has spontaneity and fun been completely squelched out of adult activities? I’m doing my first triathlon in a few weeks and when people ask me, “Why are you doing this? To get in shape/raise money for a cause/[fill in the blank]?” I answer, “Sure, it’s great exercise and I have dropped some weight, but I’m mostly doing it because I enjoy the challenge and it’s fun,” and I’ll tell you, most of the time people look at me like I’m nuts. I’ve even taken up fire dancing and again, the same thing – sure it’s great exercise, good for coordination, developing grace and stamina, etc., but damn it, even if I remain a clumsy, overweight oaf, I’ll STILL do it because it’s just plain fun (but carefully, of course – there’s a difference between having fun and being stupid, the former being good for one’s health, and the latter having a rather detrimental effect on one’s health).

    Maybe if more adults embraced the idea of allowing themselves to cut loose and play more often – perhaps even with (gasp!) their kids – it would reintroduce a much-missed concept in childhood (and parenthood): having fun, just for the hell of it.

  14. KC August 19, 2009 at 9:26 am #

    This is off topic for the post, but I wanted to share with you photos of bruises on my arms sustained during a warrantless search off my home. What set the whole thing in motion was my not being appropriately respectful to a police officer over the issues of my children’s freedom at a very small county fair.

    I am charged with reckless endangerment of my children, resisting arrest, and interfereing with a government investigation of some such. I can’t tell the whole story now, since my initial court date is Thursday.

    At the time I was manhandled in such a way to get bruise hand-prints on both my arms, the police officer in question was 15 hours into a 19 hour shift on a very hot day. By the time he finished my booking, he said he had been up for 24 hours.

    Free-range isn’t just a parenting issue. It’s a civil rights issue.

  15. Dave August 19, 2009 at 9:35 am #

    Free play is not only good for kids It frees up parents. Sounds it soundss ll
    Ike a win win situatkion.

  16. Karen August 19, 2009 at 9:52 am #

    Hear, hear! THAT is why we homeschool 🙂

  17. Susan August 19, 2009 at 10:46 am #

    Ah, self-regulation. My 7 yo just CAN’T manage to save up his allowance or other money he gets. Has to use it right away, no matter what. Guess there’s no Harvard in HIS future!

    But, speaking of Harvard, we feel slightly better about our (lack of) parenting skills after my husband met a Harvard economics professor at a conference. She was trying to teach her kids savings behavior by offering to double their money if they were able to hold onto it for a month. So far, no payments have had to be made.

    Maybe all of them just need to be thrown out into a yard with some dirt and sticks, and their self-regulation will develop.

  18. SheWhoPicksUpToys August 19, 2009 at 10:50 am #

    Yay! This is what I was trying to get at in my comments from last week and our e-mail exchange that followed from it. I’m glad to see it’s actually happening from a widely-heard source like NPR!

  19. BMS August 19, 2009 at 11:07 am #

    An aside about the legos: There is hope. The kits that can theoretically only make 1 thing can be combined by resourceful kids to make all manner of things. The passenger plane has been a space shuttle, has been modified to include an upper deck, and has suffered numerous gruesome plane crashes. The high speed train can be modified 8 ways to sunday and still run. But you have to be a mom willing to let them take $100 worth of legos and do what they want with them, instead of insisting that they keep them exactly as the box shows them.

  20. Ashley August 19, 2009 at 11:55 am #

    About legos:

    My baby’s only 7 weeks, so I haven’t bought any for her, but maybe you aren’t looking hard enough? I have a friend who’s a lego fanatic and the vast majority of his (million piece) collection are the plain colored blocks. He does have some of those kits, but he mostly purchases plain blocks. I assume that your average toy store will have a lot of kits but also several plain sets; I’m certain they’re still available.

  21. MFA Grad Student August 19, 2009 at 12:08 pm #

    @BMS – $100 worth of Legos. Wow. If only I had been able to convince my mom to spend that much on Legos in one shot when I was a kid… 🙂 Your kids must be having a ball with them!

    On the plus side regarding toys, I’ve noticed that there have been more little brain-teaser/puzzle/game stores popping up with more than enough offerings to whet the play appetite of both kids and adults alike. My friends and I wandered into one last weekend and spent over an hour playing with everything they had out on tables (and it was a lot) and there were more than a few things that looked like they had been designed by people who loved playing with Legos as kids. I saw about 1/2 dozen things I know my 6-year-old niece and nephew would love (ok, and about a dozen more I wanted for myself – my husband’s going to have an easy time shopping for me for Christmas this year).

    At least with the school year starting, kids will have recess period to play as they please, at least until the weather starts getting bad again (they still let kids out for unstructured play at recess, right?).

  22. Bernadette Noll August 19, 2009 at 12:36 pm #

    Imagination and inspiration should not be pushed aside for imitation. And imitation is what so much of kids play is today because so many of the toys they are given tell them EXACTLY what they’re supposed to do. Dance like Dora. Wave your wand like Harry. Dress up like a Disney princess.

  23. KarenW August 19, 2009 at 12:46 pm #

    We bought thousands of Legos at a rummage sale for $60 – some complete sets and a bunch of random ones including hundreds of the little lego people. I made my money back on ebay selling the complete sets and my kids are enjoying the rest!

    Here’s a problem that I have and I would love some advice. What to do about Christmas? I’m afraid my kids now expect piles of new toys, because that’s always what they’ve received. But I kept track of the toys from last Christmas, and they all were such a pile of crap, almost none of which are being touched any more. I’ve already told them that I’m forbidding any commercial watching during the months before Christmas. Does anyone know of toys out there, besides legos, that are actually good?

  24. Uly August 19, 2009 at 1:40 pm #

    Lots of toys are good. How old are your kids?

  25. Uly August 19, 2009 at 1:56 pm #


    My go-to list for presents runs like this:

    1. Craft supplies. This can be as basic as crayons and paper or as advanced as yarn and crochet hooks (or betweens and fat quarters, or whatever else).

    2. Books. Books, books, books, books, BOOKS. I guarantee, you do NOT have enough books. *I* don’t have enough books, and I’m fairly sure I have close to 600 on this floor alone, not counting the dictionaries. Pick your kid’s interests and age, get some books for that. Get a magazine subscription. Get books AND a magazine subscription. Get craft books – my niece was all over my string figures when I showed them to her. Get games books – most of them list traditional street games. Get factual books or fiction or whatever you like. BOOKS. (I read a lot, can you tell?)

    3. Baking supplies. Everybody loves to bake 🙂

    4. In a pinch – and I know this isn’t very “free-range” of me, so sue me – a class for a kid who isn’t already overscheduled is a nice treat. A kid who does 2 activities daily and twice as many on the weekends won’t be too thrilled with a quilting class, a cake decorating class, a Jedi class (my brother-in-law does that. He gets to wear a cape and swing a toy lightsaber in artistic patterns. Yes, he’s a huge geek), a parkour class (he TEACHES this class, which is kinda awesome – and parkour is, like, the ultimate free range), a… whatever-is-available class. But a kid who only does one or two things, or nothing at all, will find it a nice change of pace, especially if it’s a short-term thing and not lasting a season or a year.

    5. Time. Making plans for a special you-and-the-kid trip to go hiking or surfing or whatever they’re interested in can be a great way to fill up a present slot.

    6. Charity. It’s amazing how into it the nieces got at having some money to spend to get food for the food pantry. It’s fascinating how interested they were in buying a toy to donate to somebody who can’t otherwise get toys. I haven’t tried volunteering yet, but it’s on my list.

    7. Playsilks. They’re these pieces of cloth that are long, and pretty, and that you can do stuff with. They’re completely open-ended. (Buy them on etsy, they’re cheaper.)

    8. Legoes, blocks, marble runs, wooden train sets – these never get old.

    9. My nieces have a real fondness for traditional games. They don’t even KNOW they’re traditional, but they’re really into jump rope, chinese jump rope (the Klutz book is a great resource here – and you can get books on jump rope rhymes, traditional games, jacks or marbles games, etc.), jacks, hopscotch, etc. A collection of open ended outdoor toys (balls and hackey sacks and *properly sized* hula hoops (that means you go on to get them instead of the mass market) and chalk and whatever else makes sense) is indispensable.

    10. Board and card games. There’s a lot more than you think, and they’re more interesting than you think, too. Ask for help at or at (We really love Gamewright games around here right now.)

    Basically (with the exception of that last group and I guess the books), when you pick up a toy ask yourself: How many different ways can this thing be used? (I can name at least 10 ways to use a hula hoop!) If you can only come up with one (or if the toy has to EXPLAIN its purpose on the packaging) put it back down. Then ask yourself “Does this look like something ANYbody may have had as a kid, or that any kid today will think of buying for THEIR kids in 20 years?” If the answer is no to both, put it down. Then ask yourself “Does this have so many small parts that if it breaks it will be a nightmare? Does it require batteries?” If the answer is yes, put it down.

    Now that you’ve limited yourself to a box, a stick, and a rope, you know you’re on the right track 🙂

  26. Leanne August 19, 2009 at 3:05 pm #

    Didn’t read all the comments here; it’s too late and I need to get to bed, but about the post itself: Love it. Thanks!

  27. LindaLou August 19, 2009 at 3:47 pm #

    Those are all great suggestions, Uly.

    A year ago, my husband was laid off work and we had a lean holiday season. Honestly, I don’t think the kids even noticed. We told them to pick the one thing they really wanted and they all did. We filled things out with some new art supplies and and used books and everyone seemed just as happy as they’d been on more excessive years. It was a great wake up call.

  28. Katie August 19, 2009 at 6:32 pm #

    As my grandmother has wisely said, [almost] everything in moderation. That’s true of toys, outside activities (extracurricular, not literally outdoors), etc. Except perhaps toys with electronic sounds!

  29. house of sky August 19, 2009 at 7:23 pm #

    Regarding Christmas…I have felt the same way with my stepsons over the years…very simple gifts at our house and hundreds of dollars spent on them at their mom’s. Ultimatley, the boys were oblivious to most of what we struggled to give them, partly because of who they were…Our children together went through a few years of being very spoiled by grandparents till I put a stop to it…no room, kids could not play with them all, and really, it went against what I wanted in their lives. After a lot of thought, we moved to gifts (bday and otherwise) that support time together or some other goal…tickets to a great show (Blue Man Group, Cirque du Soleil, etc.), a cozy chair (cheap from Target) for my 10 year old daughter’s room. These are things that we anticipate together or that they use every day. We cannot afford to just buy all that on a daily basis, so I keep a running list of growing “needs” that enhance, pulling off it for suggestions for the grandparents. It has worked well, my kids (son is 12) really think about purchasing something (they are not guilt ridden….) and we get to do things together that we could not otherwise afford to do! They understand when I say no. And, finally, things that I would hope would be special and meaningful to them, are. Good luck!

  30. highlyirritable August 19, 2009 at 7:48 pm #

    When the time comes for “formal” learning, kids who have had the opportunity to “just play” are more likely to have the ability to focus.

  31. Matt M August 19, 2009 at 8:37 pm #

    The Joachim de Posada TED talk with some video from the study mentioned above. Absolutely hilarious.

  32. Susan August 19, 2009 at 8:38 pm #

    As folks above have noted, there are lots of great toys and games out there, in all price ranges. One thing about books – make sure you talk to the child directly about what they want before purchasing. My daughter is a huge reader, and if you asked me if she has read a particular book, I can’t be certain. She has actually told people not to get her books any more because she’s gotten so many books she’s already read, (which she usually gives to the library book sale or school fundraiser.)

    Although my kids do play with the boxes, they also play with the toys they get as presents A LOT, so I don’t see them as a waste of money. Maybe I’m lucky in that the grandparents do a good job at picking out toys that are a good match.

    As for Lego, a group called Historic Albany forwarded this site to me yesterday – see
    Grownups, at least, can certainly do a lot of things with Legos besides what is depicted in the kits. This is a model of a real set of row houses in Albany, New York – on Elm Street across from the Governor’s Mansion, if you’re familiar with the city.

  33. kandroo August 19, 2009 at 9:34 pm #

    lego : just sweep the whole lot – all the kits together , bionicle arms, castle ogres etc – into a big storage box when you are fed up stepping on it and want to clean up . they soon learn to improvise..

  34. kandroo August 19, 2009 at 9:39 pm #

    dang -continued
    kids will improvise and just use whatever piece comes out of the box first (i’m still letting them play with the lego – just once in a while i do like to see the flooor 😉 ).

  35. Elizabeth August 19, 2009 at 9:43 pm #

    Great article in the NY Times this past Sunday that is related to this entitled, Your Baby Is Smarter Than You Think:

    It’s about how the brain learns but I like the conclusion the researcher ends with:

    “There are no perfect toys; there is no magic formula. Parents and other caregivers teach young children by paying attention and interacting with them naturally and, most of all, by just allowing them to play.”

  36. Denise August 19, 2009 at 10:09 pm #

    @MFA Grad Student

    With regards to recess at school – more and more schools are eliminating recess. My son’s school system only requires that they have PE OR recess every day, and they opt for PE.

    I’m gearing up for a battle about reinstating recess at school, because free play IS so important. Wish me luck.

  37. LauraL August 19, 2009 at 10:51 pm #

    Denise, I can put you in touch with someone who fought for recess in not just her school but her state and was successful. Drop me a line at 1968raynebow at g mail dot com and I’ll link you up for her advice if you’d like it.

  38. Socialwrkr24/7 August 19, 2009 at 11:13 pm #

    This past weekend I went over to visit a friend of mine who is a 1st grade teacher. When I walked in, she was watching a video that was demonstrating different outdoorgames to teach children – like 4 square, tag, ect. When I asked her why she was watching she answered, “We are figuring out which games are appropriate to teach the kids at recess”. When I followed up I learned that during the past year, there were too many fights and “wandering” children during recess – so the school has decided that recess should be structured with the children being given the choice of playing pre-taught games.

    I was slightly appalled.

    I agree that we should give kids the tools, ideas, and options to encourage their play. But the whole point of recess (in my opinion) is to promote FREE PLAY! Children getting to run around, blow off steam from sitting all day, and making their own choices. I also believe that recess is where children learn those important social skills like having to initiate play, use their imaginations, compromise and work out problems with their peers. Adults should be on hand to HELP them work through these situations – not DO IT FOR THEM by only allowing structured games.

    In my opinion, this is one more instance of adults taking the “easy” way out and not taking the time and energy to teach children how to handle these situations.

  39. MFA Grad August 20, 2009 at 12:32 am #

    @Denise – What the hell?? Opt between recess and PE? There’s no interchanging the two. PE is a CLASS – and one that kids would benefit from having every day. It’s structured so that kids learn the rules for traditional sports and get the benefit of exercise and learn about playing in teams and all that. Recess is for recreation and a good way for kids to blow off steam and relax and run around without having to take orders from adults after having been pent up all morning and gotten an influx of energy from lunch before heading back in for afternoon classes. No recess? No wonder the kids get moody/tired/fidgety over the course of the day. Sheesh! Best of luck trying to get you kids’ school to reinstate recess.

  40. MFA Grad August 20, 2009 at 12:48 am #

    (ok, I’ve tried posting this a few times, but it doesn’t seem to come up, so apologies if this results in multiple posts)

    @KarenW – if your kids like legos, they might like things like Erector sets or Q-Ba-Maze (translucent cubes used to build pathways for marbles). Strategy games are also great and there are a bunch for any age range – some good ones are “building” games like Cathedral, Quatro or Gobble, counting games like Mancala, or old standbys like chess (there’s even a 4 player chess version now!), othello, or go. Check out the Marbles Brain Store online – one just opened up in Chicago and they’ve got some great stuff.

    Eureka Puzzles also has some pretty nifty toys/puzzles/games (also online). The man who owns the store travels all over the country and is usually up on the newest twist on old favorites (like a chess variation involving bouncing a pen laser off reflective pieces). His collection of Japanese puzzle boxes is beautiful (definitely more of an adult thing, but if you know an older kid who would know how to take care of and appreciate something both challenging and beautiful, it may be worth it as the boxes often become family heirlooms).

    The Hanyama cast iron puzzles are also fantastic – they’re beautiful and VERY durable/well-constructed:

    Oh, and they’re not really toys per se, but poi (a set of strings with beanbags/balls/flags attached at the end) can be great for kids to play with. I’ve been spinning poi for about 7 years and I love them – more to the point, my nieces and nephews now want a set after watching me spin, and at ages 6-9, I’m sure they’ll pick up the skills quickly (as kids tend to do, sigh, I miss being young). The Spinsterz website has some great non-flame poi – the velvet poi are basically beanbags and the kids won’t get injured if they hit themselves while learning (and they will, but it’s more embarrassing than anything). The website also has DVDs for learning the basics, or they can go to for a series of free web videos breaking down the basic moves – great for beginners.

    Books, art sets or (if your children have expressed an interest in playing music) musical instruments are also wonderful ideas. Someone who mentioned taking their kids to things like the ballet or theater or museums as gifts rather than buying stuff also raises an excellent point – the best gifts don’t always need to be just another thing for a kid to play with.

    I hope you find these suggestions useful. It’s never too early to start thinking about Christmas shopping apparently (it’s only August and already I’m seeing the Halloween displays going up in the drugstores). Your kids are lucky to have a parent who’s putting this much thought into finding gifts that they will both appreciate and find useful, rather than just giving another toy they’ll probably lose interest in before New Year’s Eve.

  41. TC August 20, 2009 at 1:03 am #

    So timely! Just yesterday, my eight-year-old came running inside from playing with his friend, asking me to help him find his jump rope. When I did, he said, “Oh, great. Now Friend1 and Friend2 can tie me up for our game!”

    My first instinct was to snatch the rope back, I’ll admit. Then, I swear, I thought of you guys, and instead, I just suggested that he not let them tie his hands behind his back (my own childhood memory of splitting my lip when I feel with my hands tied behind my back at my cousin’s house is one I’ve told both my kids often as a funny story…but came in handy as an example here), and that he try to stay on grass, so if he fell, it wouldn’t hurt so much. And then I let him go. To play. And learn.

  42. MFA Grad August 20, 2009 at 1:05 am #

    @Susan – great link for the Legos. I have a lot of adult friends who like to unwind by breaking out the sets from their childhood and just building whatever comes to mind. The legos sculptures I’ve seen have been mindblowing.

    They can be pretty useful for school projects, too – 5th graders in my school had to do reports on an aspect of Medieval history (a written report for class, and an oral presentation for the school’s Medieval faire – think Ren Faire for tweens). I had two friends who did their reports on castles and churches respectively and ended up combining their presentations to build a castle and cathedral (using David MacCaulay’s books as references) surrounded by a village for the faire. It took up nearly an entire lunch table – I don’t want to think about how much their parents had to shell out for all those legos (and the boy doing the castle report was a notorious lego fiend to begin with). Needless to say, they got A’s on their reports. 🙂

  43. Cat August 20, 2009 at 1:18 am #

    The saddest thing to me is that I can give my son (1yr now) all the opportunity for imaginative play possible, but I don’t know if he’ll be able to tear other kids his age away from TVs and video games to play WITH him.

  44. KarenW August 20, 2009 at 1:49 am #

    Thank you to those who offered suggestions! I have a 6 year old boy and 9 year old girl. I think I may lean heavily toward arts & crafts for her and building toys for him. Mind you, they both still believe in Santa, so they need to be tangible presents, not tickets for events or classes (those are great too, maybe for birthdays). But I’ve certainly learned my lesson about which toys are useless and bound to collect dust in a matter of weeks.

  45. BMS August 20, 2009 at 2:02 am #

    Oh, I didn’t buy the $100 worth of legos. They did. They saved their allowance, birthday, and first communion dollars for months. Then they bought a ride to the Lego store with some chores. Then they got the legos. 🙂

  46. Uly August 20, 2009 at 2:09 am #

    Karen, if you have a six year old and a nine year old, you don’t need to stick to building *toys* – my grandmother used to give kids from the age of five up actual tools, real hammers and small saws and wood and whatnot. She said (and still says) it’s the best thing for a young child.

  47. Uly August 20, 2009 at 2:13 am #

    I forgot poi, and ribbon wands – those fall under the category of “basic outdoor playthings” I suppose 🙂

    Whoever it was that mentioned mancala, I have a fascination with the subject. In fact, there is no game called “mancala”. The term refers to a whole family of games, some of which are more complex than others. You can google about it. It’s really a *fascinating* subject. (For that matter, there are many regional variations on chess and checkers as well. Who knew?)

  48. MFA Grad August 20, 2009 at 2:28 am #

    @Uly – I had no idea that “mancala” actually refers to a family of games rather than one specific game, but that explains a lot. The sets I’ve seen in stores refer to it as African in origin, but my grandmother gave me a lovely carved & painted bamboo board and shells when I was a kid and told me it was a popular Filipino game. I will definitely have to do some more research on the subject.

    The multiple variations on chess are similarly fascinating, My husband got me a set years ago called Noble Celts – same pieces with the same moves as standard chess, the but the pieces move in circular paths instead of linear. It’s a complete trip to play. I’d love to try my hand at 4 player chess at some point.

    Board game culture in general is actually rather fascinating as well (being friends with board game geeks is hilarious). An Iraqi doctor friend of my father is a backgammon fiend – watching the man play is like watching a genius at the piano.

    And it’s nice to see someone else who knows what poi are! I’ve never tried it, but I’ve heard making sock poi is simple (and a good way to recycle old socks and/or bits of fabric) – I’m actually trying to convince the PE teacher at my old school to add poi to the curriculum (he’s already added yoga and tai chi, so why not?). I know quite a few people who make their own hula hoops, often with LED lights (apparently also simple) – crafting toys like that could be a great activity to share with kids.

  49. MFA Grad August 20, 2009 at 2:33 am #

    @BMS – Genius! 🙂 Your kids no doubt appreciate those Legos even more after putting in so much work & saving themselves. Good for you!

  50. Uly August 20, 2009 at 2:34 am #

    It’s also played in India and there are traditional versions in the US, presumably brought over by slaves.

    In fact, I think I know of one or two Mancala games that are played traditionally in Central Asia!

    When it comes to board games, though, I tend to right now be more interested in newer ones myself. My mom and I play a lot of Carcassonne (with a zillion expansions), and my nieces love playing Pick Picnic with me.

  51. Daisy August 20, 2009 at 6:55 pm #

    Hey, I was able to apply this principle of “self-regulation” last night, after reading the item. My 6 yr old daughter was playing with the 5 yr old boy two doors down (yes, she’s already allowed to play outside or at the neighbor’s) in his garden, and I could hear her crying as I sat in my garden. (The neighbor boy has some behaviorial/developmental issues and can lose control sometimes, but does not mean any harm.) I got up to go find her, but thought about the idea of kids learning rules and self-regulation among themselves, so all I did was check that the front door was open so she could come in and find me if she really needed me. When she did come, 10 minutes later, she was absolutely fine. I think we both learned a lesson in self-regulation there. Thanks!

  52. Blake August 20, 2009 at 10:30 pm #

    I cannot state how much I agree with MFA on adults being encouraged to play. My last semester in college (okay, that was January to May of this year), I was part of the International Studies Club at the urging of the President. Cute Asian girls can get me to do anything, I think. Anyway, a lot of the club activities were done for precisely no reason other than fun.

    We went to nearby Red Lodge, MT for a ski trip. What was fun about that was that only three of us had actually skied before, so the ones who did know how taught the ones who didn’t. It’s just a fun group to be with in the first place, so that was great. We also went to a local indoor rock climbing place and spent a couple of hours there. We were all exhausted, but it was great. Again, there was no real reason for it. A girl who worked there and was also in the club thought it would be fun, and so we did it.

    Maybe if adults learned how to play again (Wii doesn’t count), we’ll also learn how to let children play again without crippling worry. If the worry is still there, at least we can be secure in playing outside with our children will bring some measure of protection.

  53. justanotherjen August 23, 2009 at 12:53 am #

    I just had to comment on the Lego thing, too. My almost 8yo son LOVES legos. So did I as a kid. He started getting a few small kits when he turned 6 and now has a huge 20 gallon tub filled with legos (including all of the ones me and my brother had as kids). For his birthday last year he got 4 sets of various sizes. Same for Christmas. he has Star Wars ones, Indiana Jones, super spies, construction sets, house kits, etc.

    For the first person that said the kits aren’t fun because they come with such specialized pieces you are wrong. Those are their favorite parts.

    My kids play with Legos completely different then I ever did. They build outlines of houses and then slowly add furniture and rooms. The walls never go past 1 or 2 blocks high but many rooms are built on stilts and connect with bridges. Those special pieces are used for all sorts of things. The newest creation was refrigerators that my son made with doors that came from an old train kit I had as a kid, some windows, clear slanted roof pieces and some tiny doors that were supposed to be on storage bins from several other kits (a race car one and an airplane).

    Even my 3yo loves to build with them. This Christmas I think the kids are just getting Legos. It’s the only toy they have that gets played with daily. Our biggest problem is storage. We had to sort out all the tiny and special pieces so they could be used. They are now in shoe boxes. We need a drawer system for the amount of blocks we have.

    It helps that Mom loves Legos so much. I spent 5 hours building kits for Christmas. I enjoyed it. They are puzzles to me. I just ask the kids to keep them in that condition for at least a few days and then they can tear them apart. Sure we’ve lost lots of parts and probably can’t put any of the kits back together but the kids have more fun playing with those blocks then anything else they own.

  54. CMC August 24, 2009 at 5:32 am #

    I’ve not read thru all 50+ comments, but I really like the NPR article, and it just seems to me that free-range outdoor play is essential – I know I sure did it as a kid. My mom would demand my brother and I get out of the house and would just… play – frolic about the neighborhood and explore and pretend and stuff like that. But now it just seems like letting kids prance about outside is just asking for a kidnapping. How can we keep them safe while still letting them roam outside???

  55. ebohlman August 24, 2009 at 6:27 pm #

    CMC: We keep them safe by doing exactly what your parents did when you were a kid. The key here is that it only seems like they’re at risk of kidnapping; they’re actually at less risk than you were at that age (not that the risk was ever particularly high). What’s changed is that a lot of people in the media have figured out that if you make parents feel that their kids are at high risk of kidnapping, they’ll keep their kids inside and make up for not letting them play outside by buying them lots of stuff. That makes money for their advertisers (the reason the media exist in the first place) whereas letting kids engage in unstructured outdoor play doesn’t.

    This is why, though it’s indeed difficult, you should try to base your decisions about your chidren’s safety on statistics rather than emotions. The problem is that our emotions don’t distinguish between real kidnappings, fictional kidnappings on TV crime shows, repeated reports of real kidnappings decades ago (Adam Walsh, the Lindbergh baby), false reports of kidnappings to cover up parental crimes (Susan Smith), and reports of kids missing where everything turns out OK (kids who just got lost briefly). Again, those emotions are manipulated for commercial gain, with the result that a lot of them are as genuine as a tween girl’s crush on a movie star or pop singer. Not the sort of thing we should be using to guide life-or-death decisions for our kids.

    If, for example, you hear that 50,000 kids are kidnapped and murdered per year in the US (commonly circulated figure), it really helps to know that that’s roughly the number of people under 25 who die of all causes each year, and it’s at least three times the number of people of all ages who are murdered each year. The CDC maintains good information on death rates at various ages and from various causes. The FBI maintains statistics on serious crimes against children. They tell you where the real risks are, which helps you focus your efforts on doing things that will make your kids truly safer, rather than making them scared or actually endangering them (driving your kids everywhere to keep them from being kidnapped is to their safety what taking up smoking to keep your weight down is to your health).

  56. Uly August 25, 2009 at 12:43 am #

    Ebohlman, I’m just gonna ditto you and pretend I said all that.

  57. sonya August 25, 2009 at 2:26 am #

    I would like to add that unstructured play doesn’t have to mean outside play (fortunately when you live in a climate that is too hot in summer, too cold in winter). My kids just spent an entire rainy weekend engrossed in a game of their own devising which seemed to consist of making a whole world out of colored craft paper for two cutout dolls (which they made too). Included were tiny board games for which they created complicated rules, and treasure maps. I was the one who sat around saying “when is the rain going to stop, I’m bored” – they were quite happy (except when I made them tidy up the mess of chopped up paper).

  58. efleaa September 3, 2009 at 1:06 pm #

    Very impressive writing,,thanks.

  59. efleaa September 9, 2009 at 9:05 am #

    Very well written article, keep up the good writing, thanks Jerry.

  60. mar September 20, 2009 at 7:01 pm #

    i have friends a few years younger than me who connot play a game if they havent learned and agreed on all the rules. like once, i was trying to get them to use their natural problem solvin skillz.( i know i shouldnt experiment on friends but i wanted to see what these 1998- 2000 people have issues with that us early to mid 90s kids dont.)they couldnt do it. they just kept asking me how they were supposed to do it. i gave up and told they the easiest way i could think of. i made it simple. that made it boring. the whole fun of that game is figureing out HOW. but they wouldnt…. it makes me so sad.