Unsupervised play develops better learning skills
Willis Webb
On a recent summer night when there was nothing worthwhile on TV (imagine that), Life Mate, our visiting son and I decided to rent a video. A call to the half-dozen phone book video-DVD rental listings produced shocking results—all the phones were disconnected.

Over the last couple of years, the proliferation of cable and satellite hook-ups with the ability to “rent” via your TV, has made video rental stores extinct, at least in our area.

Our inclination to read every evening probably kept us from realizing that dramatic social change sooner. For the last 25-30 years or so, TV has become a babysitter and child occupier.

That provoked a bit of thought and research. One source is educator/ columnist Mary Jane McKinney in the Canadian Record.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics and a couple of research groups, that last three decades of being glued to the tube or other more directed activities, has brought about less independent thought and action among our children.

Anyone born before the early 1950s, has not been under the spell of TV or to the increasing trend to organized/directed activities for children. It seems AAP and other research groups determined that unstructured and unsupervised play develops something they call “executive function.”

Older folks not subjected to 6-10 hours a day of TV and supervised activity, it seems to me, tend to be more easily endowed with executive function than more recent generations.

This lack of executive function today stems from modern day parents wanting so much success for their offspring. Youngsters are driven from school to dance or piano lessons, karate, little league sports and any number of other highly organized or structured activities.

Unlike older folks, today’s children don’t seem as likely to get down and wallow in the dirt and “make up” games.

In the 1940s and early 1950s, children ran unsupervised all over town (if you were lucky enough to grow up in a small town) or the neighborhood. Of course, most moms, who worked in the home every day, peeked out the window regularly to see where their child’s imagination was leading them.

A dearth of toys prompted those growing up in earlier times to make the best use of what was available. A 50s youngster might be seen talking to thin air, when in fact he was creating dialogue for several characters in a makebelieve world. A stick could be a “space gun,” or at least a cowboy pistol and a simple broomstick was a pedigreed horse that was faster than the wind.

That kind of imagination is credited with developing the aforementioned executive function. Children who have never had unstructured play don’t develop executive function as readily.

Researchers say that rambunctious play, made up by children without toys and with no adult supervision, leads to inventing and creating games and toys. Children left to their own designs tend to police each other and themselves.

Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist, has done extensive research on criminals and mass murderers, beginning when he was appointed to investigate the case of the University of Texas Tower sniper, Charles Whitman, who in 1968 killed 14 people. Whitman, an exMarine sharpshooter, fired from the UT Tower at students walking across the campus.

Since then, Brown has interviewed more than 6,000 criminals. Two common denominators emerged from all those interviews— the criminals grew up in abusive families and never played as children.

Today’s emphasis on standardized testing and teaching to the test in schools, seems to keep children from being inventive and creative. Teaching to the test leads to more drill and less free play. The inclination toward watching TV, playing video games and afterschool classes does not develop self-regulation.

High dropout rates, drug use and crime are tied to that lack of executive function developed by children who are given more time to, as researcher Laura Berk termed it, “develop their feelings, pay attention and learn.”

I believe children who get early life skill guidance and have reasonable freedom will use it more wisely.

Willis Webb is a retired community editor publisher of more than 50 years. Email him at

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2010-09-30 digital edition

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