Are We Losing the Magic of Play in a Digital World?

If we drive children away from their innate needs to go within themselves to reflect and imagine, we'll be losing something of our humanity. Are we looking up from our screens often enough -- and teaching our children to do so?
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We began by picturing a young Eleanor Roosevelt teaching immigrant children to dance in the very room where we were gathered. Long ago, a dashing young Franklin D. Roosevelt would come to escort her home. I could see in my mind's eye his jaunty straw hat, the long twirling skirts, an awkward young woman brave enough to spend her evenings at University Settlement in lower Manhattan.

Nearly a century later, it was fitting that we began an evening's conversation on the place of attention and imagination in a digital age with this feat of collective reverie. Our minds layered past over present -- and the room seemed richer for the memory. Our capacity to move between the here and now and imagined worlds is central to our humanity.

But today are we driving children away from moments of reflection and imagination -- and intimacy? Richard Lewis, a poet, organized the evening -- the first of a series of three he is holding to examine this crucial question. The first evening in February attracted a dozen music and art teachers, artists, musicians and others. (The series continues March 12 and April 30.)

Play allows us to create a sense of internal space, began Lewis, founder of the Touchstone Center. In play, the young can make something out of the ordinary happen. The child starts the magic -- a magic that can be shared. Lewis told of visiting a New York City classroom where he asked children what happens to the sun shining into a car? And could they recapture that sunshine? The children were intrigued. Suddenly, they were talking about "the human ability to imagine," said Lewis.

We circled the room, offering stories of imagination and reflection in our early lives. A young woman told of the freedom that she felt when she danced. A man spoke of a special, secret rock in a city park. A friend of mine recalled 'cooking' with mud and grass as a child in the countryside. She's now raising a city-bred daughter who didn't play house with the earth as her toy. Yet she and her daughter now cook -- for real -- side by side, sharing moments of culinary togetherness. I talked about the magic of the woods where I played with my friends -- the trees, ponds, paths and hide-outs that were practically characters in our playtime.

Then we began to gently explore what happens when children immerse themselves more and more in an entrancing digital world of another's making. That evening as in the rest of our lives, there was a vague sense of worlds clashing. In celebrating the play of our own childhoods, we couldn't help but worry about its increasing absence in children's lives today, even as we celebrated the promise and achievement of the technological.

Long after the close of the evening, I mused about these questions, dallying with the differences, circling around these puzzles. And I see two causes for concern. True, digital living offers opportunities for the cultivation of imagination: videogames, tv and the 'net offer entrancing, wildly visual fictions. Not since medieval times have we inhabited an era as richly visual as ours today. And that's good.

Yet the screen is a hungry force in the world: children spend more than seven hours daily immersed in media, losing play-time, sleep, quiet and face-time. Lewis recalled watching a child on the subway, glued to a videogame, tuning out a parent who was insistently trying to engage him. If we drive children away from their innate needs to go within themselves to reflect and imagine, we'll be losing something of our humanity. Are we looking up from our screens often enough -- and teaching our children to do so?

As well, while digital escapades tap into the human imagination, immersing the player in entrancing worlds for hours on end, on-screen play too often demands that we fit into templates of another's making. It provides alluring worlds, where we make choices. But these are not worlds of our own making.

We don't yet fully understand what our technologies are doing to us, and how we in turn are shaping our machines. But we have to keep asking these questions -- and looking up from our screens. I wrote this blog in fits and starts, reflecting over time. And one evening, I reread my notes from University Settlement house, as I hurtled through the night on a train.

In the café car, a mother and college-age daughter sat across from each other, mom in headphones glued to an iPad movie, daughter fiddling with her song lists while playing iTunes out loud. Not a word was exchanged for hours. Nearby, a small boy played a video game as his dad toyed with his smartphone. When the father looked over and advised the boy on the game, the youngster hit him and screamed, 'Why'd you make me do that?' Farther down the car, four women shared giggles and beers, and a couple played backgammon. Half the people in the cafe were looking one another in the eye, sharing a laugh, talking. Half were not.

Where are we headed? What's being lost and gained as we become entranced by these new forms of magic? And could a loss in time for play affect our ability to connect? I can't help but think that a rich inner life sets the stage for deep human connection. Imagine that.

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