No 9-year-old kid in the history of the universe was ever happier than my son the day he pulled a Charizard from a pack of Pokemon cards. Charizard was the coolest, rarest, most desired Pokemon.
Even now my son, long an adult, describes seeing that orange dragon card in his hand as a transcendent moment.
So I’m not at all surprised that people of all ages are caught up in the augmented reality game of Pokemon Go.
Played with a smart phone, Pokemon Go displays an image of a Pokemon on the screen when a player arrives at a particular physical destination.
It’s part competition and part nostalgia – and apparently as addictive as the old card collecting version.
It’s also a reminder of the importance of play for humans of all ages. For adults, play is a welcome break from the routine and stress of ordinary life.
Sports, board games, cards, Candy Crush – play offers us a chance to socialize or tickle our brains.
For children, play is even more important. In a 2007 article in Pediatrics and then in a follow-up in 2012, Kenneth Ginsburg, a physician specializing in adolescent medicine, argues that play is one of the most important tasks of childhood.
“Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is important to healthy brain development,” Ginsburg writes. “It is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them…Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills. When play is allowed to be child driven, children practice decision making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue.”
Ginsburg sounds the alarm about recent reductions in children’s playtime.
The emphasis on testing that came with No Child Left Behind meant that many school districts eliminated or reduced recess, the creative arts, or physical education.
The pressure of tests and a curriculum focused on making children “college and career ready” has resulted in ratcheted up levels of homework and test prep activities, cutting into the opportunities children have to play.
Children growing up in poverty have additional obstacles. They may live in neighborhoods unsafe for outside play, or they may not have sufficient adult supervision.
Television and passive video or computer games can keep children from doing the kind of creative play that helps them mature into healthy adults.
Summertime is the perfect time to evaluate our use of play, both our own and our children’s. Although some children thrive with a busy schedule – sports practices, day camps, play dates – most children also need time when they have to manage their own entertainment.
When my sons were small, boredom was a powerful motivation to invent a game with their neighborhood pals, build a new Lego construction, draw a unique spaceship design, explore the creek in the woods.
Far from being a waste, summer break can be the downtime children need – time to read a book for fun, time to visit a park with a parent.
It’s also time NOT to carry around the steady weight of study and testing that they will have to pick up soon enough.
In the meantime, if they want to walk around catching Pokemon, let them. Or better yet, join them and play together.
Kay McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.