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Columns

March 15, 2008

Encourage your kids to imagine

We got an amazing new toy last week.

It's about 21/2 feet tall and 3 feet deep, and it's made entirely of cardboard. It doesn't make noise or require batteries; it has no microchips or paint or small moving parts. It is not associated with a Disney character.

Yet, the box our new washer came in is one of the most valuable and versatile toys my 4-year old daughter, Allie, has ever had.

When I decided to keep this ready-made fort, my goal was just to get a little more use out of an everyday object before it's flattened and hauled to the recycling bin. I didn't realize what an important tool it really is until I heard about a study linking lack of imaginative play with learning problems.

It seems that old-fashioned games such as cops and robbers are an increasingly precious commodity in today's world of commercialized, structured play. Children today spend a growing percentage of their free time doing things that don't stimulate their imaginations: not just the much-talked-about screen time, but also playing with commercial toys and being shuttled to and from lessons, practices and other adult-led activities. My kids are no exception.

Researchers say this shift away from imaginative play is having negative consequences. Today's children are less able to stand still, manage their feelings and pay attention than children 60 years ago "" all skills that are important for learning.

According to a recent NPR report on the subject, playing make-believe helps children develop a skill called executive function, which includes the ability to control emotions and behavior, resist impulses and exert self-discipline. In fact, researchers say, good executive function is a better predictor of school success than a child's IQ, while poor executive function is linked to high dropout rates, drug use and crime.

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