Columns, Imagine That

The magic box

Fostering cognitive development through creative play

Normally, Laura (daughter) and Mike (father) Mann work together on their shared column. These last two months, they looked at the same topic (creative play) each from her or his own angle of vision. In the January issue, Mike shared his thoughts. This month Laura offers hers.

If you looked into my closet when I was a child, you would see, amidst the clothes and toys, a large, rather unassuming cardboard box sitting in a prominent place. Crayola drawings of princess dresses scrawled on its exterior hinted at the contents: This was my dress-up box; what it contained was, to a little girl, pure magic.

Stuffed to the brim with old dresses and scarves, this was the box that I would go to when I wanted to play pretend and become someone else: a princess, a ballerina, or a “grown-up lady.” To an outsider, these costumes might seem like an odd assortment of second-hand attire, nothing more than shabby housedresses and bridesmaid castoffs. But these limitations of the adult world mean nothing to an imaginative child. The outfits are the symbolic props of the pretend world where kids make their own rules.

Laura Mann

Free play helps children stop and think about their action, then develop a response according to what they think is right.

Fast-forward 20-odd years, and the world is a different place. Kids spend their days cramming for increasingly demanding standardized tests; they then go to structured after-school sports and activities, and return home to watch TV and play video games. Millions of children see this as a way of life, but researchers who study childhood behavior and brain development say that unstructured play, in which children are given opportunities to make their own rules, play an important role in cognitive development.

Developing one’s executive function

When a child engages in a free-play activity like playing dress-up, she is developing a critical cognitive skill known as executive function. When she puts on a costume and assumes the role of a grown-up, the child acts according to rules that she puts in place, as to how that character should act. What she is really doing, according to researchers, is exercising self-regulation: learning how to resist impulses, control emotions, and exercise restraint, without a teacher or coach or television program telling her what to pay attention to or do next.

Free play helps children stop and think about their actions, then develop a response according to what they think is right: When the child, in his make-believe role, encounters a problem, he carefully considers how that character would solve the problem. As an adult, that child is going to be more likely to process things in the same manner, and solve problems as he thinks a good, responsible person should.

Equipping your child with these skills can be hard when a parent is pressed for time. Encouraging free play within groups of children is a great start. Children assume roles and develop imaginary scenarios quickly within groups.

Mike Mann

Give your child toys that aren’t specific to a certain type of play. A big box full of old clothes that the child can use for whatever purpose he wishes is better than specific costumes, such as a firefighter or a doctor, that are intended to suit only one role. An empty refrigerator box and some crayons can turn into an afternoon of unstructured fun for a child who is required to think about what the box should become (a house? a fort? a race car?), then treat the box accordingly. Choose books that feature characters displaying self-regulation — one classic example and a personal favorite is The Little Engine that Could, in which the engine makes it up the hill by giving himself pep talks, setting a goal, and basking in a sense of accomplishment once the goal is attained.

To the casual observer, a little girl playing dress-up may seem idle, but she is developing valuable skills by looking into her dress-up box and deciding what kind of magic lies within. The true magic is working within the brain of the imaginative child as she develops skills that will stay with her for a lifetime.

Laura Mann is a freelance writer and blogger, and a student in Emerging Media and Communications at the University of Texas. Michael Mann is an award-winning storyteller (www.storymann.com), a speaker for the MediaWise Movement, and a father of four, including Laura.

© Michael Mann, 2009, all rights retained. Printed by permission of the author.

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