It seems that the era of playing with nothing, (also called, imaginative play) has ended. It ended with the dawn of the Mickey Mouse Club and advertisement for toys on a regular basis, not just once a year (Christmas.)
Almost overnight, children's play became focused, as never before, on things — the toys themselves.
"It's interesting to me that when we talk about play today, the first thing that comes to mind are toys," says Chudacoff. "Whereas when I would think of play in the 19th century, I would think of activity rather than an object."
Howard Chudacoff is a cultural historian at Brown University. I quite agree with him and when I think about my play time as a kid, I remember 3 toys: legos, blocks and baby dolls. The legos seamlessly transformed from food to a phone to medical equipment as my little sister and I played house, grocery store, doctor, library and school, to name a few. The blocks were telephones, stamps, dishes, etc. We didn't have the play food, play kitchen or play house. It was called a bedroom or a swing set. But in our minds' eye, it was a small house with 9 children sharing one bedroom. Or a schoolroom made up of monkeys, teddy bears, elephants and cabbage patch kids, all getting an equal chance to learn how to read.
Nowadays we fill our children's bedrooms with too many toys that limit their imagination and stifle their creative free play. I am at fault. I point my finger to myself as much as to anyone else who is still reading this post.
When we were trying to sell our home, we decluttered all the kids' toys. We stored everything except blocks, books, cars and barbies. They did not miss any thing else. They didn't ask where the fisher price little people and all their farms, castles, houses, zoos and trains went off to. They reinvented the blocks each time they sat down with them.
We know that children's capacity for self-regulation has diminished. A recent study replicated a study of self-regulation first done in the late 1940s, in which psychological researchers asked kids ages 3, 5 and 7 to do a number of exercises. One of those exercises included standing perfectly still without moving. The 3-year-olds couldn't stand still at all, the 5-year-olds could do it for about three minutes, and the 7-year-olds could stand pretty much as long as the researchers asked. In 2001, researchers repeated this experiment. But, psychologist Elena Bodrova at the National Institute for Early Education Research says, the results were very different.
"Today's 5-year-olds were acting at the level of 3-year-olds 60 years ago, and today's 7-year-olds were barely approaching the level of a 5-year-old 60 years ago," Bodrova explains. "So the results were very sad."
This study just serves to remind me that it makes little sense to rush off and enroll my 3 year old or my 5 year old in soccer or ballet. They will be fine if we wait another two years. They are gaining something much more important right now, the ability to self-regulate...and hey, it's a lifetime skill that I am still honing!