Imagine child's play as a medieval castle under siege from all sides.
From the north, government core curriculum standards are squeezing out school recess.
From the south, encroaching forces of electronic media and videogames are breaking through fortress walls.
And from all sides, parental fears are seeping under the foundations.
Play is under attack.
Since the 1970s, kids have lost an average nine hours of free playtime a week. Kids are getting less free time outside. And when kids are given recreational activities, they are likely to be adult-led and adult-supervised.
So say play advocates like Danielle Marshall, who works for KaBOOM!, a nonprofit which has built more than 2,000 playgrounds nationwide.
"There is a play deficit in the United States," said Marshall. "It's having a detrimental impact on our children.
"The sad reality is play is being taken away from kids," said Marshall. "Some of it is adult-imposed. Other things are trends in society. The way children are playing today has definitely changed."
Play is paramount
First, a lesson on the importance of play.
Cindy Dell Clark, an anthropology professor at Rutgers University-Camden, studies how children use play to cope with chronic illness. It's true that young animals roughhouse and fool around, she said, but play among human children is not universal. The way children play depends on how they grow up.
"Kids don't do pretend play in all societies," said Clark. "In a lot of societies, kids have important work to do. Their chores are important for economic survival."
Cultures that encourage children to use their imaginations, tell stories or act out roles are offering a signal that it must be important. It has value, especially in a society that wants children to become independent.
"In a society like that, where everyone is an agent that operates for themselves, play is important," said Clark. "It helps kids to navigate what they're experiencing socially and make sense of it for themselves."
In the course of her work to study how children with diabetes and asthma coped with their illnesses, Clark found kids used their imaginations to handle stress and make sense of their disease.
She recalled the case of one boy with asthma whose stuffed animals were taken away because they contained possible allergens. He had to learn how to stay calm during a nighttime asthma attack. So he imagined the cartoon characters printed on his bedsheets could come to life and protect him.
"He conjured the idea of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as his protectors," said Clark. "If he were really close to death, (he imagined) they would fly out the window and get his doctor."
In another case, a mother invented a game to help her little boy cope with his insulin shots. She pretended the needle was a zebra, and with each injection, she would tell her son the zebra was going to give him a kiss. When the shot was over, the boy was allowed to take the syringe, put it on the floor and stamp his foot on it, saying, "Bad zebra, you hurt me."
The scenario allowed the mother to show her son she was giving him the injection out of love, and the boy was allowed to demonstrate his objections.
"Only play allows you to do that," said Clark. "Play allows you to take yourself out of this very literal circumstance and go into 'as-if' playing."
Playing allows children to act out a new way of thinking about the real world, she said.
"I think each and every one of us can nurture that in our children," Clark said. "It's what makes it possible to be resilient for all of us. Play doesn't say there is only one way to intepret everything. You can shift meaning around - it's a loving zebra, it's a hurtful zebra. It can be kind of limber and ambiguous."
Play as teacher
Kids also learn through play, said Marshall. They have to figure out the rules when they make up games.
They learn to problem-solve and develop their decision-making skills.
"A lot of times, adults drive what children are doing in their lives," said Marshall.
But when kids play, they can explore ideas and try things out in a safe way.
They also build relationships on the playground, and learn how to negotiate with their peers.
And there are physical benefits, too. The rise in childhood obesity coincides with the drop in outdoor play time. Playgrounds challenge small bodies and helps kids develop gross motor skills, Marshall said.
But many parents keep their parents from playing outside because they are concerned about their safety.
"We've gotten to the place where we want to bubblewrap our children, and we don't want them to get hurt whether that be physically or even emotionally," said Marshall. "We don't want anything to happen to them."
Perhaps the reduction in play can explain the growth of museums dedicated to promoting play. The Garden State Discovery Museum in Cherry Hill engages children's imaginations the moment they walk in the door, said museum director Kelly Lyons.
The museum features exhibits intended to spark role-playing and pretending. The pint-sized diner lets kids reverse roles with adults; a pretend farm market, construction zone and veterinarian's office offer more ways to explore the world of grown-ups through play. On Sept. 15, the museum will open a new 2,000-square-foot exhibit called the Dinosaureum, a giant climbing structure designed to give kids space to climb, slide, crawl and stretch.
Children learn best through play, she said.
"If you're constantly feeding them information in an academic way, they don't learn how to do it on their own," said Lyons, who is the mother of a 7-month-old son.
"If you give them the opportunity to make mistakes and really be engaged by things, ultimately what you have on your hands is somebody who loves to learn and that's always a good thing."
But the value of play gets lost in society's demand for perfection, according to Karen Hutchison, a play advocate and expert. She teaches her education students about the importance of play at Rowan University, and was the U.S. delegate for the International Play Association's Right To Play Award earlier this summer.
Parents have structured their children's lives so much, there is no time for play unless it's adult-directed, Hutchison said. Schools are trimming recess time, too. Between 60 percent and 80 percent of recess has been so modified or limited, you can't call it recess anymore, she said.
Play is part of our DNA, Hutchison said. It's directly connected to brain development. Play "absolutely alchemizes learning, rather than hampers it," said Hutchison.
True play is unstructured, she said. "It's messy and it's child-initiated," Hutchison said.
"We've become a society of helicopter parents," she added. "We hover over our kids and we don't want them to get hurt, when actually, the opposite happens. By allowing them to go onto the playground and get scraped knees and even broken arms, they learn what they can do and what they can't do."
Experience, she said, is the best teacher. And that's what play is all about.
By Kim Mulford, (Cherry Hill, N.J.) Courier-Post