Are Screens Killing Kids' Imaginations?
Physical, free-form play is being sidelined for screen time. But research suggests we could be permanently damaging children’s ability to imagine. So what happens when we leave kids to their own devices?
Imagine a bird turning into a snake as it flies over a river. This has probably never happened, yet we have no problem visualising it in vivid detail. Imagination is intrinsic to our experience of the world. Try to imagine life without it – you can’t, of course. Our propensity to imagine is what differentiates humans from other animals.
It’s not just that humans enjoy being distinct; imagination makes life richer. It allows us to anticipate the future effects of our present actions. It enables morality, the ability to empathise, the agency for love and the possibility for creativity. Our capacity to visualise realities outside our own experience is essential to who we are. And it all starts when we’re children.
Children pretend, they make-believe, they explore the world around them without bounds. Give kids a stick and a patch of dirt and they’re singing on stage. Turning external props into objects of imagining is called ‘pretend play’ and is the seed of creativity. Pretend play exercises the muscles of the imagination, strengthening it so that in adulthood we have developed the depth of our imaginative capacity. Without pretend play, the literature suggests that our imaginations do not properly develop. So while we rely on the imagination to engage in pretend play, pretend play is itself necessary to the development of the imagination.
Pretend play gives children a clear sense of what’s real and what’s fantasy. It helps kids develop their vocabulary around future tenses, understand that there is a variety of perspectives at any given moment, and the ability to integrate both positive and negative emotions with cognition. This bolsters civility, empathy, and the ability to self-regulate, and cognitive flexibility, which is the key to creative thinking.
In recent years, free-form, physical play has been slowly replaced by digital activities. A growing number of apps and online games designed for children has seen a migration towards screens. Parents wary of the “app gap” — a developmental gully between kids who access screen time at a young age and those who don’t — immerse their children in online play. The assumption is that this type of play teaches all the lessons of old-fashioned mucking around, but with the added benefit of tech acumen.
This is not necessarily so. In fact, virtual worlds may be harming the development of children’s imaginations by misleading the child’s brain to thinking they are engaged in imaginative, pretend play, when they are actually engaged in a combination of practice and rule games. The digital playspace offers only superficial and artificial representations of children’s imaginative worlds. Images are flat and fleeting, and toys are prescribed rather than imagined.
Dorothy Singer has been studying the imaginative play of children for more than forty years, predominantly at Yale University. In 2012, when asked what her favourite object of pretend play is, she replied “the box is about the best toy a child can have”. A box can be a spaceship, a car, a house, a boat – the possibilities are endless. Remember that age-old parents’ lamentation of a child pushing aside their toy in favour of the box it came in? In a digital space, there is no box.
Club Penguin was a massively successful online game for children in the mid 2000’s that involved players creating digital penguin avatars that played mini-games. Children could also interact with each other by selecting comments from a prescribed menu that prevented swearing and the sharing of personal information. But there were limitations on their behaviour within the game. A child could dress their penguin avatar, but they could not use the penguin as a chair. That might sound obvious, but it shows the extent to which the child was bound by the laws of the game, and was prevented from using the penguin as a symbol for some other object or idea – the very essence of pretend play. Imagining the penguin as more than just a 2D representation is impossible in the digital space. This means that kids playing in virtual worlds might interact with the virtual world as though they are engaged in make-believe play, when really, they are engaged in rule-bound play.
Remember that age-old parents’ lamentation of a child pushing aside their toy in favour of the box it came in? In a digital space, there is no box.
Devices also provide us with ready-made visual content, which displaces the creative imaginative process. When the mind is bombarded with sensory input from virtual worlds there is little room to acquire and manipulate abstract imagery, which comes from within. If a child’s imagination is still developing, continuous displacement from virtual play could have permanent effects on their creativity and cognition.
It all gets more convoluted when play becomes dictated by the business objectives of the corporations who make these gaming platforms, making children’s minds the target of corporate marketing. Profit, rather than entertainment, dictates the design of children’s characters, the fictional worlds in which they exist, and hence the way children play.
Screen media implants images in our brain that are ready-made. Sadly, most of us are ambivalent to this, perhaps because we’ve lost touch with our own image-creating abilities, how we use them and the critical functions they serve in our lives. By externalising the imagination in this way we risk stunting our imaginative capacity, a unique human quality we should fight to preserve.