images5 What is the little creature on the left? Dragon? Dinosaur? Your goofy neighbor up the street? What’s this creature’s name? Harvey? Lola? Chuckles?

Psychologist Susann Linn, in town promoting her book The Case for Make Believe, showed her audience a slide of the puppet above to drive home an unsettling reality — play is vanishing from childhood. The sock puppet was followed by one of a horse puppet (though it could have been a donkey, but not a unicorn or a zebra) and then one of Cookie Monster. Guess which image invited the widest range responses to her questions: What is this? What is its name?

Creative play, the very lifeblood of childhood that is central to all that comes after, is vanishing from our kids’ lives, overtaken by screens, beeping mechanical action figures, talking robots, videos and other “toys” that make child’s presence nearly superfluous.
“But what does it do?” asked a child who was given a battery-free, plug-less, screen-deficient stuffed animal. Linn traced how the minutes 6-8-year-old children spent doing what we called play back in our day — drawing, building with blocks, dressing up — dropped from an already minimal 25 in 1997 to only 16 five years later.

“Play is central to learning,” she said, “it teaches children the glorious experience of self-generation.” It might sound elementary that play teaches self-control, broadens problem solving skills, helps children act out their feelings. But not in today’s world where parents have been seduced into thinking that babies can be made smarter by watching Baby Einstein tapes and being set up in front of computers as soon as they can sit. Linn, who is also director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood warned of what she’s dubbed the coming of Problem Solving Deficit Disability because children no longer have the experience of extended periods of using their imagination. Where will our scientists come from? she asked.

What has curtailed the hours that used to be given over to finger paints, turning refrigerator boxes into space ships and playing in the fresh air? Fear, organized activities, and the commercialization of childhood to the tune of $17 billion in 2007. Up from $100 million the year my first born was conceived 25 years ago. And even that sounds like a lot. The miniaturization of technology, she said, has been a disaster for children as it has made it all the easier to create a universe in which minds in formation are so infrequently, if at all, called on to bring their own ideas into the world.

I could go on and on but I won’t. Bottom line kids don’t need to be seduced by Webkins into becoming pint-sized on-line consumers. The best screen in a kid’s life is the parent wise enough to give him toys that will inspire creativity not extinguish it. Watching Baby Einstein won’t get your daughter into Harvard. Playing in the sandbox probably won’t either but she might come up with an interesting essay.

Play is the foundation of what it is to be human. Think about that one. Where will we be our if children’s capacity for independent thought is snuffed out? Woes R Us.

Here’s my playlist:
Ladel’s Books — a terrific bookstore in Detroit; multicultural books games puzzles, plus a great outdoor garden beneath a beautiful tree for parties and playing.

Chinaberry Books — wonderful selection of books for all ages, classics new and old for readers infant to 90. Toys, puppets, oh this is a wonderful wonderful company.

Ravensburger Ignore the online malarkey promoted on the home page and look through the board games. Ingenious, creative, multi-level, Ravensburger games challenge all ages and skill levels. My daughter routinely beat me at a memory game based on Grimm’s fairy tales. Remember, Enchanted Forest, Emma? 01148

Catch up on last week’s Book Fair events:
Harry and David: Faith in the City

First Diary/Last Lecture

Nine: The Judicial


Three Cheers for Jewish Book Fair