Imagination and Play in the Electronic Age: A Book Review

Authors: Dorothy G. Singer and Jerome L. Singer

by Charlotte Reznick, Ph.D.

This is a book to be enjoyed, savoring each thought, description of research, and idea. Not to be rushed through because it’s packed with important information. It’s a relief and a pleasure to learn what our common sense and intuition tells us is backed up by the literature. I share many of the details of the Singers’ work and have tried to reorganize some of it for better flow. I often use their own words or close to it, because they are so compelling.

The Singers’ objective was to focus on what research (including their own) says about imagination in the life and play of children. They address a series of salient questions that have direct effect on children’s development. For example:

  • How does TV impact kids, and specifically, their imagination?
  • How serious is exposure to violent themes in media and how do they influence imagination and behavior?
  • Is play a distraction or a detriment to learning?
  • How can we enrich and stimulate creativity and play?

Many of the parents I see in my practice complain about what they feel are the negative influence of media on their children, and they don’t know what to do about it. Parents’ responses range from extremely limiting or eliminating TV and computer time for their kids, to throwing up their hands and having no control whatsoever but worrying about what is the right thing to do. Thankfully, the Singers give real information about this and more.

They make a compelling case showing how imagination is fundamental to many aspects of cognitive development (from developing a good memory to effective problem solving) that are critical for creativity, cooperation, leadership, and success in life.  Parents that appreciate imagination, curiosity, adventure, and creativity, tend to have children that are more imaginative.

I see the value of imagination in my work helping distressed children constantly.  I encourage them to use the wisdom of their imagination to solve their own problems. They do this by creating pictures in their mind’s eye that help them learn how to reach a desired goal.  Sometimes their images show them a new way to solve their problem – other times they may call upon an inner guide (e.g., animal friend, wizard, or wise person) who shares knowledge or gives imaginary gifts to help overcome their concerns.

The Singers’ focus on symbolic pretend play as the foundation for the “work” of play. Play is not just important for its own sake – for fun – but because it develops, as one example, important social skills in learning to understand oneself and others. When a child pretends the role of another (e.g., baby, mommy, teacher) she learns to understand and control her feelings, and develop cooperation, flexibility, and empathy. Children learn verbal and nonverbal communication and feelings of trust with their friends. Play can also be restorative in releasing stress, and working through trauma and grief.

Such healing “work” of play takes place in my office every day.  Small children come in with big problems and through their imaginative play are able to process and work through their worries.  One angry 5-year-old girl consistently went to the dollhouse. Week after week she kept playing herself as a 2-year-old toddler falling off the roof of the house and breaking her leg.  Her mother isn’t there to catch her and she’s terrified till help reaches her.  Over time and through assisted play, she was able to release her trauma by creating a new scenario where help was there immediately.

The impact of TV on kids’ imagination was then first addressed by statistics. How much TV is actually watched in homes can be shocking. In 2000, the average household with kids had 2.8 TVs on 7 hours 40 minutes a day. A 2001 survey found children as young as 6 months watching approximately 1 hour of TV plus 40 more minutes of videos. Kids 2 to 11 years watched 3 hours of TV a day, while poor families watched more than 30 hours a week.

As to be expected, children with a TV in their bedrooms or whose homes watched TV a lot, spend more time watching TV and less time reading or playing outdoors. And early studies with preschoolers showed that those who watched much TV were less imaginative. TV can also induce long-term fear in kids. College students reported lasting fear effects of frightening TV seen when they were kids.

With all the concern about watching TV, there is also great positive potential. Clearly TV can be both entertaining and educational. It’s not the technology that’s the problem, it’s the excessive viewing and content when it’s not stimulating kids’ imagination and creativity. When TV is used along with reading, family discussion, and curricula involving critical thinking, it has potential to give information about many other aspects of the world that we might not normally be exposed to (e.g., other cultures, art, music, nature, science, medicine), as well as offering positive ways of solving conflicts and motivating kids to learn and increase academic skills. For young children, programs like Barney and Mr. Rogers foster creativity and imagination. For example, Barney makes the point of emphasizing the value of pretend games; Mr. Rogers has strong imaginative content.

Parents have a great influence. Even though they cannot always control their child’s viewing (e.g., at a friend’s house, or on the Internet late at night) they can talk to their children and explain why watching too much or violent TV is not good for them.  I might approach the littlest kids by making it personal to them; asking how they feel when they watch scary or angry TV and helping them connect the idea that watching such shows doesn’t make them feel good inside and so they should avoid them – to more sophisticated explanations for older kids.

The Singers’ very thoroughly assess major research, and conclusions are shockingly powerful. They show a preponderance of evidence over and over again with the same results. Children and teens who watch a lot of action or violent TV shows and often play violent video or computer games are more likely to show’ higher levels of aggression (including getting into fights and using weapons if available) and disruptive non-cooperative behaviors, over and above family influences. The Singers’ rightly conclude there is no good reason to watch violent TV at all.

Effects were seen as early as preschool, comparing Barney to Power Rangers. Children watched Barney quietly, some singing along with kids on the show or laughing and smiling.  Children watching Power Rangers were more restless, some standing to imitate punches, karate chops, or kicks by kids on the show. During free play afterwards, Barney watchers played peaceful building games with blocks; Power Ranger watchers didn’t organize any pretend play and several actual fights began. Children imitate aggressive behavior they have seen on TV, and the amount of violence presented on TV daily is simply overwhelming. These results seem to go against the long held thought (Bruno Bettelheim) on the potential psychological cathartic value of exposing young kids to violent fairy tales.

Longitudinal research studies results suggest that aggressive behavior from watching TV violence can extend into adulthood. In one long-term study, heavy viewers of violent TV, especially boys, showed greater likelihood of serious acts of aggression, spousal abuse, or other criminal behaviors as adults. Results held up even when childhood neglect, family income, neighborhood violent atmosphere, and psychiatric disorders were controlled.

Similar results were found for playing violent video games, which emphasize destructive violence by the game player. In one study, young adults who either played violent video games or observed others play, had higher heart rates, more nausea or dizziness, and more angry thoughts. In an analysis of 50 studies with 4,000 participants, those who played violent video games were more likely to express angry thoughts and aggressive behaviors, experience hostile beliefs and physiological arousal, and were less willing to behave cooperatively or to help others.

In their analysis of the data, the Singers’ suggest that there are angry, aggressive prone children who may watch violent TV shows because their content makes them feel “normal” and seem to justify their hitting and fighting with others.  If this is true, then I suggest the implication for parents is if they feel they have aggressive prone child, they must be especially careful in what they watch and play.

Subtle, but disturbing effects were seen in another study with teens that had a history of exposure to violent video game play. These teens showed lower activity in their brain’s frontal lobes, as measured by a functional MRI following exposure to violent video scenes. The frontal area of the brain is generally associated with impulse control, effective planning, and focusing attention. And since we know that frontal lobe activity is slower in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), I wonder if we need to consider the question: Are video games contributing to making our kids ADHD?

Of course not all of the millions of kids who play these games will become aggressive and hostile. But if only a small percentage show these effects we need to be concerned. Intervention through lessons designed to help kids become critical TV or video viewers are effective. 

Positive aspects to video game playing are seen if games are focused on skills such as driving, sports, and acquiring academics. The Singers’ suggest that games like Myst or some sorcery or science fiction adventure games may stretch and nourish one’s fantasy life. Such intellectually creative games emphasize ingenuity in detecting escape routes, identifying and discriminating friends or hostile magical figures, and choosing appropriate wizardry.

Aside from concerns over violence in electronic media, computers still have cautions. Dangers include the possibility that on-line friends might replace real friends or discourage developing outside friends; persistent use may create confusion between reality and fantasy; and use at too young an age such as for infants and toddlers, even if designed to stimulate brain activity, might lead to losing critical 3-dimensional sensory experiences.

As with violent TV and video games, parents and educators have a responsibility with computers to inform their children about spam, risks of chat rooms, potential harm from identity confusion, and awareness that computer time may displace time needed to concentrate on perfecting social skills, playing imaginative games, and reading.

The Singers’ do like the kind of computer toy that children can take control over: for example, interactive Barney who sings any of a dozen songs if child squeezes his toe.  They suggest many computer games and programs that provide opportunities for imagination and constructive play (e.g., 5th Dimension after school curriculum, games coming out of LEGO Lab), and that certain computer games  (e.g., Marble Madness) enhance visualization skills. Most PBS or Nickelodeon TV shows have Websites that offer games that extend the humor and adventure of their shows. My own experience with children using Journey to the Wild Divine, an enchanting computer training program that uses biofeedback to teach breathing and meditation techniques for a healthier mind and body, has been wondrous.

The Singers’ culminate in sharing their well-thought-out and researched play solution for at-risk preschool children. They developed Learning Through Play, a “guided play” program, using imaginative pretend games.  Typical life situations are turned into simple guided scripts for make-believe games enabling adults (teachers/caregivers) to teach such skills as cooperation, taking turns, using civilities (e.g., please, thank you), pre-academic school readiness skills, and more. The Singers’ aptly note that children who play are having fun, and are also increasing their capacity for imagination and fantasy. Guided play adds the building blocks for cognitive and social development. Examples of games include Restaurant, a story about a birthday party at a pretend restaurant, Mirror, about feelings and emotions, and Bus to the Zoo, about neighborhoods. 

Results were consistent. Children whose parents received training showed significant improvement in overall scores on school readiness, compared to the control group. Training both parents and teachers resulted in the most improvement in the children’s performance and showed more imagination, persistence, and cooperation, as well as higher levels of school readiness.

Videos aimed at children involving more direct talking to and modeling of play behaviors for the child viewer rather than just training adults (Circle of Make-Believe) demonstrated similar outcomes. Children showed significant increases in spontaneous imaginativeness and in pro-social skills, cooperation, sharing, and taking turns, as well as increases in persistence on tasks, concentration, and displays of positive emotions (smiling, laughing, interest, excitement). Many adults found less aggressive play and more constructive social interactions with the kids as a result of playing these games.

The Singers’ offer several simple and effective ways parents can enhance educational use of TV and that can be adapted to computer use:

  • Carefully select and preview programs and games for the very young child.
  • Connect computer activities to the child’s interest.
  • Watch and play with a child to see if he’s confused, bored or scared by a particular event. 
  • Discuss and ask questions about the themes of the program or computer game to clarify the meaning.
  • Incorporate ideas from a TV program or video game into the child’s natural play.
  • Motivate imagination use by asking the child to think of different endings for a story, or to make up other characters who could be on the program or video game.

By my assessment there are several implications of the research described in the Singers’ book. I share a few and invite readers to contemplate others. First, we must get this valuable information into the public domain in a more reader-friendly format. I recommend short articles in national popular parenting magazines to spread the word as one idea. Speaking to TV, radio, and newspaper reporters is another.

Second, impress on parents how critical it is to severely limit or better yet, eliminate violent TV and video games from their child’s life.

Third, place the Singers’ very helpful Learning Through Play curriculum in more at-risk programs than they have already done across the country, and make them available to more preschools and parenting groups.  Bring the Singers’ program (and others of similar value) to the attention of government funding agencies and into the hands of senators and congress members. I believe that not only at-risk families can benefit.  Although many middle class college-educated moms teach their kids these skills naturally in play with their children, more and more time is spent with loving but uneducated caregivers while parents are at work, and these nannies might not approach play in such a constructive way.

Fourth, somehow make it rewarding for video game companies to make more positive, fantasy/imagination-geared games. So many violent games are created because they are exciting and kids love that excitement.  Parents need to demand a change and make it worth the while of the game creators.  Perhaps even organize a nationwide “no buying violent video games day” and see how much money is lost.

Finally, there is a time for electronic media and a time to shut it down.  A time to make time to go “inside” rather than “outside” for information, stimulation, entertainment, and knowledge.  I often tell kids that as much as there is on the outside, when they shut their eyes, relax, breathe slowly and deeply, connect to their “inner computer” and let their imagination fly, they can go places they never before imagined.

Book Review originally published in:
Journal of Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, Vol. 27, No. 2, pp. 197-203, 2007-2008. Baywood Publishing Co., Inc.

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