Compelling Reading for Every Parent: The Case for Make Believe

Several weeks ago, I received a copy of Susan Linn’s The Case for Make Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World to review for the Simple Kids readership.  I’ve been looking forward to sharing this book with you from the moment I read the first page.

Susan Linn is a psychologist, director and co-founder of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, and pioneer in the use of puppets as play therapy.  She has also written a book titled Consuming Kids.  As you can imagine, her philosophies and beliefs line up perfectly with the purpose of Simple Kids.

In the opening chapter of The Case for Make Believe, Linn lays the foundation for why play is important for our children.  Her extensive work with children and her experience in providing play therapy allows her a broad base from which to speak about the mechanics of play and what it is, exactly, that our children are learning as they play.

Not only are fine and gross motor skills developed through play, but also, as Linn writes:

Make believe is a natural means of coping with deep fears and fantasies, even for children leading the most sheltered of lives.  It can often seem quite gruesome and serves two purposes.  It’s a way for them to gain a sense of mastery over the things that frighten them or overwhelm them.  It’s also a time when young children, working so hard to conform to exhortations to “be good,” have a chance to give voice to their very human desires to express the unacceptable – anger, selfishness, meanness, and fear (21).

From this perspective, Linn is able to invite the reader to see how make believe play is being threatened and why we must work so diligently to protect it. She speaks on:

  • the invasive and pervasive nature of commercialism – a topic she has devoted another book entirely to covering, but which she discusses powerfully in the second chapter.
  • how from birth, parents are encouraged to provide devises and equipment so that from infancy on, our children are accustomed to a life of “all screens all the time.”
  • the powerful and profound effects of play therapy in children who are undergoing stressful situations – whether that stress if from changing schools or from the loss of a sibling.
  • the subversive nature of violence in many of the toys and video games marketed for boys.
  • the “Princess Trap,” and how the Disney Princesses not only dilute and limit the imagination of girls, but also how Disney’s picture of a “princess” effectively excludes people who aren’t fair-skinned.

One of the most eye-opening points for me was Linn’s discussion of “middle childhood” – the years from age six to ten – when the swirling physical changes of infancy and early childhood have calmed and before the hormone-driven upheaval of adolescence descends.  Perhaps it is because my oldest daughter will soon enter middle childhood that I was particularly interested in learning that creative play continues to an excruciatingly pivotal part of development at this age.  Complex problem solving skills, development of autonomy and independence, and creative experimentation are all wonderful aspects of development nurtured and encouraged by creative play – and all of those things are being severely threatened by too much screen time and toys that choke out creativity by doing everything for the child.

This book is the kind of reading that inspires positive and healthy change.  I know that many in the Simple Kids audience are already taking proactive measures to protect, nurture, and encourage make believe in their homes.  I have to confess that I am a parent who fell willingly for the allure of Baby Einstein videos and Dora on DVD.  Though I was already moving away from a commercialism-driven path through raising our children, The Case for Make Believe solidified what I was already discovering to be true – my kids are great at play.  I want to make more space for that in our home.

Finally, Linn closes the book by writing, “The last thing I want is to make parents feel guilty.”  This is why she advocates so strongly for societal change, not more parental guilt.

The impetus for her advocacy for make believe is this:

Play is essential to the development of creativity, empathy, critical thinking, problem solving, and making meaning.  Given what’s at stake, don’t we all have a moral, ethical, political, and social obligation to provide children with the time, space, and tolls to generate play? (26)

My answer is an enthusiastic yes.  If you haven’t already, I would encourage you to read this book.  It will challenge and encourage what the ways play is honored in your family.

I’m borrowing one last idea from Susan Linn in the form of these questions: As you think back on your own childhood, what are your favorite memories of play? And how old were you when you remember your happiest, most engrossing play?

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  1. canuck_grad says:

    I think I would have been about 4 or 5…. I have a very vivid memory of playing with hot wheels type cars (in my are we call them “dinkies”) with some boys from my neighbourhood in the bushes in front of my house – creating roads, imagining houses, garages, etc.

    (Off topic, but I think it’s great that my parents got me lots of hot wheels stuff even though I was a girl, it really bothers me when people stick closely to gender stereotypes for toys. Interestingly though, my husband and I were both hot wheels fans when we were younger. Mine were all organized by color or something in special cases and got brought out for play and then put away. His were in garbage bags with tons of spare parts, because he would smash them up, take them apart, and put them back together again in different configurations lol).

    • SUCH an interesting reflection on how boys and girls play with the same thing!

      I need to start a little Hot Wheels collection for my younger daughter. She equally loves baby dolls and monster trucks!

  2. I was shocked when I went to her website and The American Academy of Family Physicians is teamed up with The Coca-Cola Company. My father wouldn’t let any of us girls watch the princess movies because most of the defied their parents in some way or were “scantily clad”. It also helped we had a T.V. for movie watching only. I look back and I never really needed it and honestly my childhood was filled with lovely memories!

    • The message of many Disney movies was not something I considered until I watched The Little Mermaid with my little girls recently. (I blogged about it here.)

      The Case for Make Believe examines the affects of commercialism, and I am sure Susan Linn’s book Consuming Kids delves even deeper into the issue!

  3. great article!

    could you provide a source for the adorable puppets in the picture at the top of this post? i’d love to add them to our play collection. thanks! 🙂

  4. We had a great yard growing up, and one of my strongest memories was raking leaves in the fall (I was maybe 8?) and I would rake them into piles to create a “house” floor plan with leave piles as the walls. Or sometimes I made them into a maze. I would work for hours on that with friends or even by myself. Loved it.
    .-= Emily´s last blog ..Project Life {February 21-27} AND a Photoshop Tutorial =-.

    • I would say the 8-10 range is also the time of my happiest, most engaged play memories. We did TONS of outdoor play, and even indoors, I would construct elaborate stories with my Barbies. I don’t remember my parents specifically not allowing much screen time, but as I think back, there must have been times they insisted the TV was turned off.

  5. Awesome post, I am certainly going to look into that book! Almost all of my memories from childhood from about age 4-12 are of creative, imaginative play both with my sister and with neighbourhood friends. We did everything from play “house” and “school” with very elaborate storylines as we got older, to build outdoor forts, to play barbies and put on stage shows. We had a chest full of dress up clothes that were super fun, too. We also played outside all the time. We climbed trees and fences, too.

    My question for you (and others) is at what age to kids start learning to entertain themselves in this kind of play for longer periods of time?? As you know, we don’t have tv at our house so Nate’s screen time is very limited and we have lots of creative toys (little people, blocks, a play kitchen, cars and trains, puppets and dolls) but there are very few times that he seems capable of “playing” with any of them on his own yet. When he does get into that zone, I am very careful to leave him be. Should I expect to see more of it soon?

    • AJ does MUCH better playing with Dacey. I think around 3 or 3.5 is when independent play really comes into its own (at least in my limited experience). Dacey will play for a LONG time with just two stuffed animals. It’s very unusual for AJ (2.5) to play for extended periods of time on her own. If she is with other children, she is starting to actually play along (not just parallel play).

      Hope that helps a little, Jen! I would say you guys are *almost* there.

  6. Great post! I too was a hotwheels, Dukes of Hazzard Girl! My best memories are around 7 and exploring the canyons behind our little farm house making huts from branches and rock and tracking the herd of cows( which were wild horses in my mind!) climbing trees and long , lg run off drains! I find it so important that while my daughter loves to be a fairy, she equally loves to dig in the dirt and get muddy with the boys too.We encouraged our son who’s older to continue his daydreaming and make believe play also and he’s a secure pre teen with a good sense of self now. Thanks for sharing this..they also like their screen time which is not as easy these days to get away from.

    • And Susan makes the point that screen time – in moderation – is not bad or destructive. In moderation, it’s fine and it IS hard to avoid these days. And it can be a really good thing. I think the caution is just on monitoring how much room is left for imagination.

    • Sorry ! Wrong login, same person. 🙂

  7. All of my most vivid memories of play take place outside, between the ages of 5 and 9. From picking flowers in the local churchyard to make “perfume” (aka crushed flowers in a bucket of water with food colouring) to climbing trees and running around in cornfields playing hide and go seek. I was quite the bookworm too and I remember taking my pile of books up a tree to sit and read.

    My husband has similar good memories of outside play, which is why we try to let our 2 year old son have as much outside time with our neighbour’s children as possible. As he does not yet have any siblings he really seems to enjoy playing make believe with the older children. He already loves to pretend being an animal or using his basket and wooden vegetables to “go shopping”. He’s also getting an interesting habit of playing practical jokes, which is adorable, he’ll pretend to be hurt and then when someone comes over he’ll run away laughing. Watching his creative play is one of my most favourite things as a parent.

    I do however fall into the trap of letting him watch too much TV on some days, something we’re really working on.

    This book sounds interesting, I’ll have to take a look and see if they have it at my local library.
    .-= Satakieli´s last blog ..March 2 =-.

    • I am so looking forward to warmer weather! My childhood is full of outdoor memories, and I love hearing other people’s fond memories of play time outside as well!

  8. Okay, I have to admit I felt myself brittle a little at the reference to the Disney Princesses, but I’m trying to be open minded.

    I LOVE Disney, and I love princesses, but to be fair, we don’t actually watch the Disney princess movies because my oldest is very sensitive to anything tense or scary in a movie, so that may skew my viewpoint some. For us, Disney princesses are just characters, and my girls only know the basic storylines, so they become the jumping off point for hours of pretend play. They love to dress up and be feminine (in between their sword fights and nature explorations), and I like that they spend time doing those things as well.

    You definitely have my interest peaked, but I’m not sure I *want* to know more and have our world rocked by what she says either, LOL!
    .-= Mandi @ Organizing Your Way ´s last blog ..Decluttering & Organizing Your Bathroom =-.

    • Oh, and I have a HORRIBLE memory. I don’t really remember much of my childhood. Sad, I know.
      .-= Mandi @ Organizing Your Way´s last blog ..Decluttering & Organizing Your Bathroom =-.

    • Mandi, let’s you and I try to never chat about Disney, OK? I’d like to try and keep a good relationship with you. =) *wink*

      That said, I’m with Megan and Susan.
      .-= Aimee´s last blog ..The Picky Eater and Me: A Survival Guide =-.

    • Well, now listen. Dacey has a Princesses lunchbox and she was Cinderella for Halloween, so clearly we aren’t completely anti-Disney.

      The book makes some really thought-provoking points about the utter lack of cultural diversity in the Princess crew. Sure, there is Mulan and a very Euro-looking Jasmine, but the main ones you see on most of the merchandise are the white princesses. It was an interesting perspective I hadn’t considered before.

      Anyway, I do think many girls do utilize the princesses as a jumping off point for lots of imaginative play. And when you have a houseful of girls, the Princesses are nearly impossible to avoid, aren’t they? 🙂

  9. Great post! I’m going to look into that book. I am a strong believer in play therapy, especially being a creative arts therapist.

    I have so many wonderful memories of playing fantasy/make believe games with my brother and cousins. We would pretend everything from school or office to witches and monsters. Then when we hit are preteen to teen years we started video taping “movies”. They are pretty hilarious.
    .-= Jennifer´s last blog ..Getting a Good Laugh…at Myself =-.

  10. This was so interesting to read; thank you! I have a 13-month-old daughter and my husband and I are trying to be very careful about how much tv she watches & the kinds of toys we buy her. I’m definitely going to check out this book & hope I can find some good information that we can use right away.

    On another note, I have strong memories of my parents “half-hour” rule; we could watch 30 minutes of tv a day. My brother, sister & I hated the rule but I have so many fond memories of playing. My sister & I were obsessed with dolls and Barbies (I don’t remember much Disney princess stuff) but becuase my dad is in farming, we were equally into playing outside, riding on tractors & jumping on hay bales.

    So many fun memories to look forward to building for my children!

    • I think we are about to devise a 30 minute system here, too. We’ve gotten lazy during the winter, but now that spring is upon us, we need to get back on track. Thanks for the idea!

  11. Thanks for the review and I’m looking forward to reading the book! Especially the chapter on Disney princesses…I’ve been in a dialogue with my 15 year old niece who thinks I’m falling down on the job as a mom bc my 3 year old daughter doesn’t have any exposure to the princesses. It will be interesting to bring an outside perspective to the discussion.

    I was a very shy kid and spent tons of time in imaginative play that I remember fondly. I think my most vivid memories are between the ages of 5-9. My mom was very insistent on outdoor play even if I was playing the same imagination game as I would inside.

    • I think it is so interesting that so many of us have such powerful memories of wonderful playtime during our middle childhood years. I’ve never given it much thought, but these are the years we definitely need to be nurturing all of that make believe.

      I think you’ll find the book to be a great read!

  12. Thank you so much for the review of the book – I’m definately going to hunt it down. I am an enormous advocate for the nurturing imaginative/pretend play in the early years. The value to young children in all developmental domains can’t be underestimated.

    I remember building fairy worlds and even houses for fairies out of my brothers’ lego. I’d draw whole neighbourhoods and just get lost in it. At preschool at the moment I am having so much joy in watching the kids immersed in this play as we are creating gardens and dance floors and houses for the fairies that live in the bush next to the centre. And all with natural or recycled materials – not a plastic toy in sight!

    • Oh my gosh. I want to go to your preschool! It sounds like so much fun! I know my girls would have a blast there.

  13. Thank you for this post! My 6-year-old twins have always been extremely creative with their play and I was always so happy that we have only open-ended toys, lots and lots of costumes, tons of art supplies, and tons of books, etc….but I totally blew it with getting them each a DS. My son is a little addicted, mostly because of peer pressure…all the other boys in his class talking about their DS games, etc.

    My question to the group is….how do you tell a kid who loves their new toy that you think the toy is making his brains rot out of his head, even with limited amount of playing time (15 minutes a day, 30 minutes a day on weekends)

    Can I justify taking the DS away for good, or should I? How do others handle this?

    • Wow . . . good question. I can’t speak from personal parenting experience, but I think 15 minutes a day is very reasonable. In the book, Susan talks about how some screen time and some video gaming is fine as long as it doesn’t crowd out the time for make believe. It sounds to me like your home already has some wonderful opportunity for play, and so perhaps some game time here and there wouldn’t be too bad . . .

      But again, I haven’t had to cross this bridge yet! Maybe others will other/better/different advice!

  14. Oh, and my favorite play moments – in a neighborhood with about 12 kids in three houses….was when the older girls organized a neighborhood Olympics with real medals (ribbons, actually, with the winners name typed on them). The whole shebang was organized by the kids and we even had medal ceremonies. So cool!
    .-= Trish´s last blog ..Throw Me Down Week – Day Two: Ugly Afghan Contest =-.

  15. Looking forward to reading this! I am already on board with her concepts, but need practical applications, especially as my little girl gets older and older. Everyday she tells me what a big girl she is becoming and I half cringe, half rejoice. 🙂
    .-= Katie ~ Simple Organic´s last blog ..Gardening 101: Three Options for Creating New Vegetable Gardens =-.

  16. Abby Beattie says:

    I’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s comments, even on a book that we haven’t read yet there’s discussion and different opinions. As a child we had the princess around, we watched the movies as a family, and I still love Beauty and the Beast ( in all it’s forms, not just disney). I spent so much time outside also with neighbor kids. I can remember building this huge fort that the city made us take down because it was an eyesore, and invading alien planets with my cousins in the back yard. So I guess looking back I don’t see how having a few princesses in the picture hurt me or my development, but then again I am biased toward myself!
    I have two little girls, 5 and 3, and a little boy, 18 months. When my oldest was little I definitely didn’t want her to have trademarked, Disney or otherwise, apparel or toys. But then she let her opinion be know, and rather than have a huge power struggle we compromised. But then we talk about the plots, and if she thinks it’s ok for Ariel to run away from home and what were some of the consequences. Was it ok for Mulan to fight the bad guys during a war? Anyway, I am grateful for the reminder to prioritize play, and to let myself enjoy their playing. My girls play a lot of puppy and owner. We have a lot of water bowls left on the ground for little brother to dump over:) I think I’ll get some more hotwheels and get the girls more involved in racing them.

  17. Breanna Sackrey says:

    I can remember being very engrossed in Barbie play when I was 7-8 years old (yes I know they are commercialized), I didn’t have many accessories so my grandmother helped me make furniture out of old boxes and she taught me how to sew clothes for my barbies.
    .-= Breanna Sackrey´s last blog ..Home Safe and Sound =-.

  18. My parents sacrificed a lot to move us to the country on a lake when I was 8. We moved all 6 of us into what had been a 2 bedroom cabin. We lived like that for 2 years before adding on to the house. I mostly remember being outdoors (we had an entire island to ourselves) building forts with whatever the season provided (grass, bark, etc in the spring, summer, fall; snow in the winter); being in the lake; and on the lake (ice skating, etc). I know we played with Barbies and things too but my most vivid memories were being outdoors in all seasons. It was a great childhood. We didn’t have much but I think that made it better–we depended on our imaginations every day.
    .-= Stacie@HobbitDoor´s last blog ..Not So Healthy Food =-.

  19. Wow, this came at great timing for us. I’ve been trying to figure out how to balance the creativity and open-ended toys with the more commercial type that my son is being exposed to now that he’s in Kindergarten (esp. video games). I don’t want to say no to those, since he and his friends have a great common ground there, but we’re definitely seeing a need to limit screen time and encourage creative play. I just requested the book at the library…thanks!

    By the way, have you read Celebration of Discipline? Richard Foster has some pretty amazing things to say about children, imagination, and belief in what is unseen. “Imagination often opens the door to faith.” Pretty neat.

  20. I love the sounds of this book – so much so that my son and I are walking to the library to pick it up this afternoon (I reserved it this week). Make-believe play is a HUGE part of his daily life, but not his friends’, and he often finds it hard to connect with them because they don’t know how to “imagine”.
    .-= Jan (Family Bites)´s last blog ..Spiced Carrot Cake Whoopie Pies =-.

  21. I just wanted to say thanks for this recommendation. I’m only a few pages in, but I can already say that this book, along with Last Child in the Woods and Free-Range Kids, should be must-reads for every parent. They are a compelling triad about the sad state of childhood today…
    .-= Diana (Ladybug Limited)´s last blog ..Red Sings from Treetops =-.

  22. I just read playful parenting by larry cohen and they sound similar. I remember being about 4, sitting outside with a big piece of bark from our tree on the park strip (grew up in a big city) and rubbing it along a piece of curb while I was “making” something and then feeling it getting warm and how impressed I was that I did that. all alone. never told anyone. just sat and enjoyed it. can still see the marks on the curb I made and the feel of the warmth against my skin.
    .-= Nina´s last blog ..easter cookies =-.


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