The basic thesis of the story: it was only relatively recently, with the advent of year-round toy advertisements on television, that children's play in our culture became focused on the toy, rather than on play. Before then, play was fundamentally an activity, a free-wheeling imaginative make-believe in which children narrated stories, individually and collectively. But the focus on toys, with ever-more-articulated detail and pre-scripted stories, restricted the imaginative sphere of the child. Add to that the increasing focus on child safety, and the trend to put kids into adult-managed activities: Little Leagues, karate classes, gymnastics, summer camps, etc. (To quote the satirical newspaper The Onion: "Child-Safety Experts Call for the Restrictions on Childhood Imagination.") In the end, children had much, much less room for imaginative play.
Which, it turns out, was a disastrous mistake. Imaginative play turns out to have a strong role in the development of "executive function," a constellation of cognitive abilities that includes, most significantly, "self-regulation" -- the ability to control emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline. And executive function is a better predictor of success in school than a child's IQ.
What makes this story particularly interesting for me is that it is a sweeping endorsement of Waldorf Education pedagogy. Waldorf distinguishes itself with a strong de-emphasis on early reading, instead making the ideal environment for imaginative play for younger children. In the Waldorf preschools and kindergartens, you will not find a single alphabet block. Instead you will find the raw material for imaginative play: play stands, colorful silk scarves, polished stones, pieces of wood, and extremely rudimentary dolls. You will also see lots of handwork and practical arts: knitting, felting, drawing, painting, cooking, and gardening. These are basic exercises for self-regulation.
The NPR story also helps justify Waldorf's strong prohibitions against exposure to media and commercial messages. Waldorf teachers urge parents to limit, and preferably eliminate, all TV, radio, and computer time for young children. School dress codes forbid brand logos, television characters, and all forms of writing. Now we know why: television targeting young audiences is deliberately, consciously trying to co-opt imaginative play for the sake of selling products.
Think of all the modern complaints about the rise in "attention-deficit disorder", and discipline issues in school. Is it any wonder that they can't sit still and pay attention, if we never gave them the chance to practice those abilities?
I find it exciting and promising that the mainstream culture is starting to realize what Waldorf teachers knew all along: children do not need to be little Einsteins. They need to be little children. They need to play.