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.
The cardboard box arrived at the perfect time. I've learned from my older daughter that windows can close quickly, and Allie's current obsession with pretend play "" especially the roles of Mama Dog and Baby Dog "" won't last.
On a recent afternoon, the box started out as a doctor's office. "So how do we play?" I asked.
"You can turn into whatever you want to turn into," Allie said. "You just shut your eyes and be still for a minute, and then you open your eyes and not be still.
"So try that, and be a doctor," she commanded After I fixed her broken arm "" and gave her a complete checkup "" the cardboard box became an airplane bound for Africa.
Allie was the passenger, and I alternated between the roles of pilot and flight attendant. Allie didn't hesitate to break character when she found fault with my performance, such as during my lackluster coming-in-for-a-landing sound effects.
"But it's bumpy at Africa," she said. "Bump, thump, bump, errrrrrrrrrr!"
I was eagerly awaiting direction for our African adventures when the scene abruptly changed. All of a sudden, the airplane cabin became a library, and I was instructed to be Miss Jen, the children's librarian.
Sometimes, of course, kids get creative for reasons other than entertainment.
The other night, after asking me to fetch the toy phone she had left in her room, and not getting the answer she wanted, Allie tried another tactic: "There's a pesky monster in a cave next to my room, and I'm not brave, so you have to go get my phone."
I tried presenting an imaginary solution to the imaginary problem ("Wave your magic wand and make the monster disappear"), but she wasn't buying it.
I guess my make-believe skills have gotten a little rusty since my days of arranging doll tea parties and playing school. As an adult, I'm too mired in the practical details of life: grocery lists and bills, appointments and deadlines and schedules. It's hard to shut down the internal censor and multitasker that are always running in the background.
But if learning to fully immerse myself in a pretend world helps me to be a better parent, the effort will be worth it. Who knows? It might also benefit me in other areas, from fiction writing to finding creative solutions to day-to-day problems.
It seems the best way to re-learn how to think out of the box might just be to crawl inside one.
Lisa Miller is a freelance writer who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.