The power of a
IN MY preteen summers, I wielded a
baseball bat on the front lawn to titanic games roaring in my mind. I
was the Milwaukee Braves, slamming the fastballs of Bob Gibson, Don
Drysdale, and Sandy Koufax. I knew every wrist movement of Hank Aaron.
An imaginary announcer said, "Marichal winds up, the 3-2 pitch . . .
deep! Deep to left-center! Mays goes back, back . . . it's gone! Home
In the winter, I took out the electric football game. I rarely turned
it on. The electricity was in my head. My right hand carried the ball
for the Green Bay Packers. My left hand was the Chicago Bears
smothering my right hand for the tackle. I was also my own crowd and
announcer, shouting "Touchdown Packers!" so loudly that my mother
shouted down the stairs, "You all right?"
I am newly reassured that I was normal. "Play is really the foundation
of what is really being human," said Susan Linn, a Harvard
psychologist, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free
Childhood, and author of the new book, "The Case for Make Believe."
"It is the foundation of creativity, school success, curiosity,
learning, the way children make meaning of their lives. Creative play
is like journal writing, the beginning of self reflection."
Linn has written extensively on how screen time (television, video
games and computers), and heavily-marketed toys wedded to the scripts
of shows crowd out free play. The American Academy of Pediatrics last
year urged a movement back to free play, citing many studies that
connect play to every measure of well-being, and others that suggest
that lack of play contributes to high percentages of college students
not being in control of their lives.
Linn says that free play is part of young people gaining control, even
if it includes violence. I told her that my best friend in elementary
school and I spent our lunch periods playing superheroes, complete
with Kryptonite and planetary doom. She said it is different to take
characters and work out a collective script with a friend than to
gratuitously gun down people, often by yourself, in a video game.
"Children have always played games that involve violence, in part,
because it is something they're afraid of and it is an attempt to get
some kind of control over it," Linn said. "When you play, you can be
powerful, you can control your world and have a sense of confidence
and conquer your fears."
I became a sportswriter years after my free play. My wife, Michelle,
had imaginary animal friends and imitated animals as a child,
answering to her mother only when she called her by the animal of the
moment. She said it might have been the beginnings of loving nature,
taking biology in college, and last year hiking 400 miles of the
Appalachian Trail. Our neighbor Nora, today a physician, said she and
her siblings played post office with stuffed animals that sent letters
to one another. Today her two children run around the yard playing
My youngest son, Tano, played imaginary football games, throwing a
football up in the air long enough for him to switch in his fantasy
from quarterback to receiver to catch it for a touchdown. He does not
yet connect that to future plans, but he was connecting across the
generations of free play to Dad. Though a born New Englander, the
quarterback throwing the ball was Brett Favre of my home-state
Linn wrote in her book, "In saving make believe, we are saving
ourselves." What it means is an America where boys and girls are
encouraged to not use the screen as a first resort of socialization.
The first resort becomes themselves, scripting fantasies on porches
and yards, becoming their own heroes and heroines, or just sending a
letter to their teddy bear.
A bowler in my youth, I still roll imaginary strikes down my hallway
at 52 to break tension. "We've reached a bizarre place where nurturing
creative play is a threat to corporate profits," Linn said. "The more
creative children are, the less stuff they need."
Susan Linn ©2004 | All Rights
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