Saturday, November 29, 2008

Junk Food Ads Banned in UK

Children’s Programs Will No Longer Include Ads for Junk Food by Jan Zeiger

The UK's telecommunications regulator, Ofcom, recently passed new regulations that will end all junk food advertising to television viewers under the age of 16.

It’s no secret that young viewers are inundated with ads, many of which glamorize food and beverages which could be considered “junk” due to their high fat, sugar, or salt content. A recent study on food-related advertising found 130 food-related ads in about 100 hours of preschool programming. More than half of these ads were geared towards children, with most of them promoting sugary cereals and fast food. Also noted in the report was the fact that the advertisements appeared to be focused on gaining brand recognition rather than immediate sales. It seems that a main goal of ads that target children is to present the product as exciting or fun, resulting in a positive association with the recommended food or beverage.

This study was done on three television networks: PBS, Disney, and Nickelodeon. PBS and Disney consider their preschool blocks of television to be “Ad-Free” but frequently show logos and feature slogans and music of their sponsors which include McDonald’s and Chuck E. Cheese.

The UK is the first industrialized nation to ban television ads that encourage young children to consume junk food. While the ban won’t occur overnight, it will eventually include all programming geared towards children under the age of 16. The Center for Science in the Public Interest is in favor of such regulations and hopes that the US will follow suit. The United States currently has an organization that reviews ads targeted to children, but the Children’s Advertising Review Unit does not consider a product's nutritional value.

The CSPI teamed up with the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood in 2006 and threatened to sue Kellogg and Viacom (owner of Nickelodeon) over their marketing practices. This is in response to the Federal Trade Commission’s promise that it simply won’t place restrictions on ads aired during children’s programs. It is important to note that a new voluntary program, The Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, is designed to help promote healthier lifestyles among children. Voluntary participants of the initiative include Coca Cola, Campbell’s Soup, and Kraft Foods.

Dr. Susan M. Connor, PhD. “Food-Related Advertising on Preschool Television: Building Brand Recognition in Young Viewers” Pediatrics. October 2006.
Center for Science in the Public Interest--2/23/07 press release
The copyright of the article Junk Food Ads Banned in UK in Children’s TV is owned by Jan Zeiger.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Target market: Children as consumers

What do you call a consumer who wants to buy everything you have, doesn't care what it costs and is less than five feet tall? A marketer's dream? Nope. You call them kids. -- AdRelevance Intelligence Report, 2000

Children are bombarded by brand messages almost from birth, including counting books for preschoolers that use M&Ms or Cheerios, exposure to brightly coloured and appealing branded packaging in the supermarket, movie and toy tie-ins in fast-food restaurants, product placement in movies, advertisements on television and the Internet, and pitches from entertainment and sports stars in a range of media. In fact, it's almost impossible to escape marketing messages. No wonder, then, that children as young as two are starting to recognize logos and request specific brands as soon as they begin to speak.

Children are a prime target for marketers. Not only do children today have more disposable income at younger ages, but they have significant influence over family purchases. YTV's 2002 Tween Report estimated that Canadian children aged 9 to 14 spend $1.9 billion and influence $20 billion in family purchases per year. Marketing experts call it "pester power," or the "nag factor" -- the ability to get kids to nag their parents to buy a specific product or take them to a specific restaurant. After all, if your child asks you for the latest toy 37 times a day for a week, the odds are that you'll eventually give in and buy it.

As a result, there is now a whole segment of the marketing industry devoted to figuring out how to sell things to kids. Children were first identified as a target market in the 1960s, and the concept has continued to increase in popularity, as shown by the recent explosion of books with titles like What Kids Buy and Why: The Psychology of Marketing to Kids; BrandChild: Remarkable Insights into the Minds of Today's Global Kids and Their Relationships with Brands; and Kidfluence: The Marketer's Guide to Understanding and Reaching Generation Y Kids, Tweens, and Teens.

The ages and stages of advertising

In Canada, the average child watches about two hours of television a day and sees more than 20,000 commercials per year. And marketers have become increasingly sophisticated, using research into developmental psychology to exploit children's age-specific vulnerabilities and make their messages that much more powerful:

Up to age four or five, most children don't understand that there is a difference between entertainment and advertising. They watch commercials and television programs with equal attention. Commercials aimed at this group often associate the product or brand with fun and happiness, rather than talking about actual product facts.

Children don't develop a concept of other people's beliefs, desires, and motives, known as "theory of mind," until they are at least six years old. It's difficult for children younger than seven or eight years old to understand that the intent of advertising is to get them to buy things. They also tend to take advertised claims about a product literally.

Tweens, age eight to 12 years, understand the purpose of ads but are still vulnerable to them. These children are starting to develop their sense of identity. "Aspirational" marketing targets their desire to be slightly older and seem more sophisticated than they are.

Teenagers are trying to differentiate themselves from their parents and fit in with their peer group. Marketing aimed at teenagers may focus on teens' insecurities, or it may take positive qualities such as their activism and desire to challenge conformity and repackage them in the form of cool, counter-culture brands.

Children with developmental disabilities or problems with impulsivity may be even more vulnerable to advertising messages than other children their age.

Professionals who work with children are becoming increasingly concerned about this onslaught. In 2003, the Canadian Paediatric Society issued a position statement on the impact of media on children and youth that raised several concerns about advertising. In 2004, a coalition of Canadian health groups led by the Centre for Science in the Public Interest called for a ban on advertising aimed at children 13 or younger. Quebec has already banned print and broadcast advertising aimed at children under 13, although children certainly see advertising from other sources as well.

Selling fat and sugar

Many activists consider food advertising to be a leading cause of the increase in overweight in children. A report released in December 2005 by the Institute of Medicine, Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity?, observed that in the United States alone, over $11 billion dollars a year is spent on marketing food and beverages to children. And the food advertised to children is generally less than nutritious: most of it is highly processed, rich in saturated fat, salt, and sugar, and poor in nutrients like fibre, vitamins, calcium, and iron. A study in the September 2005 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, which analyzed television commercials shown in the U.S. during programs children watch, found that:
  • An average of 10.6 food commercials were shown per hour, meaning that a child who watches two hours of television per day would see nearly 8,000 food commercials per year.
  • Eighty-three per cent of the advertisements were for convenience foods, fast foods, candy, and soft drinks, compared to only 2% for fruits and vegetables.
  • Commercials showed snack-time eating more often than breakfast, lunch, and dinner combined.
  • A 2000-calorie diet made up of the foods in ads aimed at children would give more than the recommended daily value of sodium and would contain 171 g (nearly 1 cup) of added sugar.
  • Most characters in the advertisements were of average weight, no matter what or how much they ate.

Food manufacturers and advertisers urge physical exercise and media literacy through programs such as Long Live Kids, developed by Concerned Children's Advertisers. They also argue that it's up to parents to watch what their children eat and teach them healthy habits. "Sure they should," say Kelly Brownell and Katherine Battle Horgen in their book Food Fight, "but look at what interferes. Parents try their best, but it is no contest between them and pressures to eat unhealthy food…. A few parents prevail in the face of this pressure, but they are dwindling in number." While physical exercise, media literacy, and moderation are all good things, it's foolish to ignore the impact of food marketing on children.

Psychologist Susan Linn, author of Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood, goes further. She writes, "Marketing products by feeding into children's 'need to be in control' exacerbates an ongoing, normal tension in family life that arises as children move from the total dependence of infancy to the independence of adulthood." She argues that advertising aimed at kids deliberately undermines the parent-child relationship, both by encouraging children to nag their parents for what they want, and by portraying parents and other adults as either absent or incompetent.

Protecting kids from marketing messages: What parents can do

It's probably impossible to completely shield children from marketing messages. However you feel about it, marketing is an inevitable part of the world we live in. Still, parents can give their children tools to help them cope with the barrage. The Media Awareness Network, the Canadian Paediatric Society, and Susan Linn have many suggestions:

  • Start young. Children are influenced by marketing from a very young age.
  • Limit children's exposure to advertising on television and on the Internet. Don't allow them to have televisions or Internet-enabled computers in their rooms, and limit TV time to one or two hours per day.
  • Talk to your kids about how advertising works and what advertisers are trying to accomplish. Explain that advertising is a multi-billion dollar business whose goal is to get people to buy things, and that they are very good at it.
  • Encourage kids to think critically about marketing messages. You can start as small as you like: last year a Grade 6 math class in Thunder Bay, Ontario debunked a "fun fact" on a package of Smarties, which claimed that Canadians eat enough Smarties each year to circle the earth 350 times. They found that in order for the claim to be true, either the earth would have to be a lot smaller, or each Smartie would have to be 3.5 metres in diameter.
  • Help kids to understand the strategies used by advertisers. Talk with kids about specific ads: "How do you feel about the people in the ad? Do you want to be like them? Why or why not? Does the ad make you feel uncool for not owning the product, or that you'll feel good about yourself if you buy the product? What are some other ways you could get those feelings, without buying the product? Has the ad used any ambiguous words or impressive-sounding facts and figures to make the product sound better than it is? At the end, did the announcer say anything like 'some assembly required' or 'batteries not included'?"
  • Explain about product placement: if characters in a movie or TV show are using a particular brand, the advertiser probably paid a lot of money for it to be there.
  • Discuss how your kids can be smart, responsible consumers by knowing what is good for them and what isn't, what is good for the environment and what isn't, and what is good value for money.
  • Educate children about nutrition using Canada's Food Guide. Discuss whether eating only things you see on TV makes for a healthy, balanced diet. Make a distinction between "everyday" foods and "sometimes" foods.
  • Before going grocery shopping, decide exactly what you plan to buy, including snacks and treats. Having a list that you and your kids have discussed ahead of time makes it easier to avoid impulse purchases and set limits in the store.
  • Monitor your own media habits and buying habits, and change them if necessary. Children pick up early on what's important to their parents.
  • Make sure TV, Internet, and video game "screen time" is balanced with family time, active, creative play, playing outdoors, reading, and other activities without marketing attached.
  • Know that you're probably not alone. Share your concerns about advertising with other parents. You may be able to find other parents who feel the same way you do, and you may be able to settle on consistent rules for TV-watching.

    Robin MarwickMedical Writer, AboutKidsHealth

Talking to Kids about Advertising

Today's kids have become the most marketed-to generation in history, due to their spending power and their future influence as adult consumers. By talking to kids about advertising - how it works and how they're targeted - we can help them to become more savvy as consumers and more resistant to the pressures to be "cool."

Here are some tips on talking to kids about advertising.

Start young.
Until the age of six or seven, children have difficulty distinguishing advertising from reality and may not understand that ads are there to sell something. In fact, children watching TV often find the commercials more engaging than the programs! Talking to children about advertising from an early age encourages them to become active - not passive - consumers of commercial messages.

Explain how advertising works.
Talk about how the job of marketers is to play on human insecurities by creating ads that imply their products will improve our lives and bring us happiness. Have kids make a list of the good things in their lives (the things they value) and then make a list of the things they wish they could buy. Have them compare the "real life" list with the "wish" list. Do they think the things on the wish list will bring them happiness? If so, why?

Point out the tricks of the trade.
Explain that advertisers use many methods to get us to buy their products. Some common "tricks of the trade" include pulling on our heartstrings by drawing us into a story and making us feel good; using misleading words, such as "the taste of real . . . ," "studies have shown" and "for a limited time only"; making exaggerated claims about a product; and using cartoon characters or celebrities to sell products or brand names.

Explain how marketers target young people.
Look for examples of how marketers try to build brand loyalty in young children. Talk about cross-marketing - show how the release of a new kids' movie is usually preceded by a huge marketing campaign involving tie-in toys, fast food, clothing and books. Explain how marketers target image-conscious pre-teens and teens with messages about being "cool" and attractive.

De-construct food advertising.
Most food advertising aimed at kids is for fast food, candy and pre-sweetened cereals. Point out misleading language in food commercials, such as a description of a sugary cereal that is "part of a nutritious breakfast" or "natural fruit roll-ups" that don't contain any fruit. Explain how food is prepared by special artists to look perfect in ads. Talk about how fast food restaurants use tie-ins with popular movies and TV shows in order to attract kids.

Talk about the value of money.
One of the most important lessons we can teach our children is how to be smart about money. Our consumer culture promotes spending over saving, so we have to counter that message on a regular basis by discussing purchasing decisions and money-management skills with kids.

Discuss how to be a wise and responsible consumer.
Show kids how to comparison shop, read reviews and investigate warranties. Talk about the effect of mass consumerism on the environment. Encourage them to think about ways they can cut down on buying non-essential consumer products.

Media Awareness Network

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

why choose carefully what we are showing to our children?

Children re-enact what they are watching.
Observe your children, if you show them Dora, they will certainly play Dora after screening it.
If you show them Cow-boys and indians, they will play those... etc...

That is why it is so important to choose carefully which programs you are showing to them. In a collectivity, if you show children scary or violent programs, it will excite them. And I do consider some classics to be violent and scary, most Disney are!

Seeing Bambi loose his mother or Dumbo being so badly treated, makes many children uncomfortable (a very healthy reaction of course). They will have to expel those feeling by acting up. It is a natural way to "digest" those images.

If the collectivity, let's say, a school, for example, because it is raining outside, show a positive program, one with only good message and no scary images. You can be sure that the children will feel good after screening it, and certainly re-enact those good images.

Mary Poppins is a good example. It suggests great ideas and good feelings.

I believe that no collectivity and particularly school should ever show programs with a violent or scary side. Plus, considering that most of the children in America are watching too much TV and movies already at home, and certainly not much documentaries, school seems to be the best place to show them great documentaries which help them discover new facts and probably make them think about the subject, eventually speak about it with their teacher after.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

media education

We are continuing our media education using cartoon without the sound, then with it... as explained in the precedent post. The children are used to it, they are living it as a game and getting better and better at it.

As I said, this exercice create reflex in the way they watch the TV. Their attention is not only global, they do perceived details. Being aware of those make them watch videos or TV programs differently.

The idea is to give the children the media education we get in film school!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Media class

I believe in media education, the same way I believe in teaching kids how to swim in order to feel safe near water.

So today we started one of our media class, I used a bugs bunny cartoon, those cartoon are great to work on.

The exercise is simple, showing the cartoon without the sound first and asking the kid to tell the story.

Then showing the cartoon and asking what he noticed, what seemed different?

Now, beside the picture what can we notice in this cartoon: sound effect, voices, music.
So we watch ones again the cartoon focusing on the voices, the tone of the voices, the intonation....

Then we watch it again focusing on the sound effects, kids usually really like that part :-)
it is also a good occasion to explain to them how those sound are made, that someone is making them. And even let them try making some.

Then we watch it again focusing on the music, joyful music? Sad? Scaring?
And explain that music is there to accentuate emotion.

What is the purpose of all that?

Make the children aware of everything involved in a cartoon, and then in any other fiction. That way their perception will be sharp and complete.

This little exercise repeated over and over will create reflexes the same way you learn how to push the brake when it is time too.
This exercise is what film student are doing in film school.

For me, media education is essential in this so visual world.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Making commercial

My children did not see commercials yet but they love to make fakes ones!

But what is a commercial: it is a Television advertisement.
"The vast majority of television advertisements today consist of brief advertising spots, ranging in length from a few seconds to several minutes (as well as program-length infomercials). Advertisements of this sort have been used to sell every product imaginable over the years, from household products to goods and services, to political campaigns. The effect of television advertisements upon the viewing public has been so successful and so pervasive that it is considered impossible for a politician to wage a successful election campaign, in the United States, without use of television advertising." (

This is exactly what I explained to my 6 years old children: commercials exist to make you do what they want instead of what you want, they exist to create needs that you would never have without them. And for all that, they lie. They got it and it makes them laugh, so they love making some fake ones.

What is the idea in all that: making is taking control. Knowing, understanding what a commercial is, how it's made and for what goal, will build a kind of protection against its influence.

This is part of this media education I believe essential to give to our children today, in this world where Television has such a big part of the life of many families.

Friday, May 23, 2008

first contact with cinema

French inventors Louis Lumière and Auguste Lumière were technologically and artistically of great importance to the development of cinema.

A demonstration of the Edison Kinetoscope in 1894 inspired the Lumiere brothers toward motion pictures.
By the following year, Louis had created and patented the cinématographe, the device that changed the face of early cinema. A combination camera, projection device, and printer, the hand-cranked cinématographe differed from Edison's camera in that it was relatively compact and easy to transport while Edison's was cumbersome, noisy, and used 48 frames per second as opposed to Lumière's 16.
With the cinématographe, the brothers were able to chronicle daily events outside the studio.
Their first such film, La Sortie des Usines (1895), filmed workers leaving the Lumière factory at day's end. They made 19 more little films including the famed L'Arrivee d'un Train en Gare, and Les Repas de Bebe, as well as the early slapstick film L'Arroseur Arrosee (Watering the Gardener).

As my children were not yet exposed to cinema, movies, I started by showing them Lumieres movies!
So they were able to appreciate, "l'arrivee du train en gare de la Ciotat" noticing all the details! They were particularly interested to see that people were dressed differently and that there were no cars.

Georges Méliès was a French filmmaker famous for leading many technical and narrative developments in the earliest cinema.

He was very innovative in the use of special effects. He accidentally discovered the stop trick, or substitution, in 1896, and was one of the first filmmakers to use multiple exposures, time-lapse photography, dissolves, and hand-painted color in his films.

Because of his ability to seemingly manipulate and transform reality with the cinematography, Méliès is sometimes referred to as the "Cinemagician."

My children ADORE Melies movies! They are a lot of fun to watch, silent movie full of magic and fantasy. They appreciate particularly "sorcellerie culinaire" (1903) et "La conquète du pole" (1912)

I believe that it is important to start a story at the beginning.
The same way we usually start to read the alphabet before reading words, it makes sense to have our first contact with cinema with the first movies ever done. I believe that it does help to apprehend this audiovisual language as well as he does help to differentiate fiction from reality.

We finished this first contact with cinema screening "Entr'acte" by Rene Clair (1984).

For this production, the Dadaists collaborating on the project invented a new mode of production: instantanéisme. The complete film takes about 20 minutes using such techniques as watching people run in slow motion, watching things happen in reverse, looking at a ballet dancer from underneath, watching an egg over a fountain of water get shot and instantly become a bird and watching people disappear. The cast included cameo appearances by Francis Picabia, Erik Satie, Man Ray, and Marcel Duchamp.

My children laugh a lot during this screening, particularly looking at the ballet dancer from underneath, they first did not see what it was, then they noticed the feet, and that was the beginning of a long laugh. They like the movie and it was a lot of fun to watch it with them.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Disney No Longer Marketing Baby Einstein Videos as Educational

As a result of CCFC’s Federal Trade Commission complaint, Baby Einstein has completely redesigned its website and is no longer making educational claims about its DVDs and videos. In 2006, CCFC filed an FTC complaint against Baby Einstein for making false and deceptive claims about the educational value of their products. In December, the FTC decided not to take enforceable action against Baby Einstein when the company promised to “take appropriate steps to ensure that any future advertising claims of educational and/or developmental benefit for children are adequately substantiated.” Since no substantiation exists, Disney will not be able to claim that the videos have educational value.

We are deeply troubled that the FTC failed to hold Disney accountable for years of deceptive marketing; essentially, the FTC is telling corporations that it’s okay to lie to parents because if you get caught there will be no consequences as long as you promise not to do it again. At the same time, we are proud that CCFC’s complaint spurred substantive changes to the Baby Einstein website. Gone are claims such as the description of Baby Wordsworth as a “rich and interactive learning experience that … fosters the development of your toddler’s speech and language skills,” or that Numbers Nursery will “help develop your baby’s understanding of what numbers mean.”

Thanks to all of you who urged the FTC to act on our complaint and shared your experiences with Baby Einstein with the Commission.

The FTC’s response to CCFC is available at

The FTC’s response to Baby Einstein is available at

CCFC’s original complaint against Brainy Baby and Baby Einstein is available at

Saturday, March 08, 2008

High school musical and commercial

Many people seem to think that my children are not aware of the TV world because we are not watching TV. Well, don’t forget merchandising :-)
They know about Dora as there are many Dora products everywhere and they did even read one or two stories of Dora. (I cite Dora as it seems to be the favorite character of K student)
They know Superman and Spiderman as well, thanks to their leap pad.

And since yesterday they know about High School Musical!
They were lucky enough to see the play! On stage! And the cast was all kids!
I felt they were so lucky to live this experience.
Plus because we were there really early, they go a chance to see some of the rehearsal! How the kids had to warm up their voice, to remember where they will have to stand at this specific moment of the play… How they were themselves joking around, very instructive.

Then, when the musical started, they were all playing their part. My kids were fascinated.
I am happy that they could see everything involved: the musician playing the music on our right, the light beings turn on and off, the set being changed over and over following the story, the cast changing costumes from one scene to another…
The story was going on, but everything was changing in just one place, not like in real life and must faster than in real life. Little concept that need to be assimilated in order to make the difference between real and not real.

As I said before we are not watching TV and therefore we are not watching commercial. But I did explain to them what a commercial is: well, people trying to make you spend your money buying things you do not need but they need to sell you because they want your money.
So, we decide to shoot our own commercial :-)

Hands-on, isn’t’ that the best way to apprehend things, to understand how that works?

Friday, February 22, 2008

Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills

I think the following article is worth thinking about it:

Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills
by Alix Spiegel

you can read this article and listen to the talk on NPR here:

Morning Edition, February 21, 2008 · On October 3, 1955, the Mickey Mouse Club debuted on television. As we all now know, the show quickly became a cultural icon, one of those phenomena that helped define an era.

What is less remembered but equally, if not more, important, is that another transformative cultural event happened that day: The Mattel toy company began advertising a gun called the "Thunder Burp."

I know — who's ever heard of the Thunder Burp?

Well, no one.

The reason the advertisement is significant is because it marked the first time that any toy company had attempted to peddle merchandise on television outside of the Christmas season. Until 1955, ad budgets at toy companies were minuscule, so the only time they could afford to hawk their wares on TV was during Christmas. But then came Mattel and the Thunder Burp, which, according to Howard Chudacoff, a cultural historian at Brown University, was a kind of historical watershed. Almost overnight, children's play became focused, as never before, on things — the toys themselves.

"It's interesting to me that when we talk about play today, the first thing that comes to mind are toys," says Chudacoff. "Whereas when I would think of play in the 19th century, I would think of activity rather than an object."

Chudacoff's recently published history of child's play argues that for most of human history what children did when they played was roam in packs large or small, more or less unsupervised, and engage in freewheeling imaginative play. They were pirates and princesses, aristocrats and action heroes. Basically, says Chudacoff, they spent most of their time doing what looked like nothing much at all.

"They improvised play, whether it was in the outdoors… or whether it was on a street corner or somebody's back yard," Chudacoff says. "They improvised their own play; they regulated their play; they made up their own rules."

But during the second half of the 20th century, Chudacoff argues, play changed radically. Instead of spending their time in autonomous shifting make-believe, children were supplied with ever more specific toys for play and predetermined scripts. Essentially, instead of playing pirate with a tree branch they played Star Wars with a toy light saber. Chudacoff calls this the commercialization and co-optation of child's play — a trend which begins to shrink the size of children's imaginative space.

But commercialization isn't the only reason imagination comes under siege. In the second half of the 20th century, Chudacoff says, parents became increasingly concerned about safety, and were driven to create play environments that were secure and could not be penetrated by threats of the outside world. Karate classes, gymnastics, summer camps — these create safe environments for children, Chudacoff says. And they also do something more: for middle-class parents increasingly worried about achievement, they offer to enrich a child's mind.

Change in Play, Change in Kids

Clearly the way that children spend their time has changed. Here's the issue: A growing number of psychologists believe that these changes in what children do has also changed kids' cognitive and emotional development.

It turns out that all that time spent playing make-believe actually helped children develop a critical cognitive skill called executive function. Executive function has a number of different elements, but a central one is the ability to self-regulate. Kids with good self-regulation are able to control their emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline.

We know that children's capacity for self-regulation has diminished. A recent study replicated a study of self-regulation first done in the late 1940s, in which psychological researchers asked kids ages 3, 5 and 7 to do a number of exercises. One of those exercises included standing perfectly still without moving. The 3-year-olds couldn't stand still at all, the 5-year-olds could do it for about three minutes, and the 7-year-olds could stand pretty much as long as the researchers asked. In 2001, researchers repeated this experiment. But, psychologist Elena Bodrova at the National Institute for Early Education Research says, the results were very different.

"Today's 5-year-olds were acting at the level of 3-year-olds 60 years ago, and today's 7-year-olds were barely approaching the level of a 5-year-old 60 years ago," Bodrova explains. "So the results were very sad."

Sad because self-regulation is incredibly important. Poor executive function is associated with high dropout rates, drug use and crime. In fact, good executive function is a better predictor of success in school than a child's IQ. Children who are able to manage their feelings and pay attention are better able to learn. As executive function researcher Laura Berk explains, "Self-regulation predicts effective development in virtually every domain."

The Importance of Self-Regulation

According to Berk, one reason make-believe is such a powerful tool for building self-discipline is because during make-believe, children engage in what's called private speech: They talk to themselves about what they are going to do and how they are going to do it.

"In fact, if we compare preschoolers' activities and the amount of private speech that occurs across them, we find that this self-regulating language is highest during make-believe play," Berk says. "And this type of self-regulating language… has been shown in many studies to be predictive of executive functions."

And it's not just children who use private speech to control themselves. If we look at adult use of private speech, Berk says, "we're often using it to surmount obstacles, to master cognitive and social skills, and to manage our emotions."

Unfortunately, the more structured the play, the more children's private speech declines. Essentially, because children's play is so focused on lessons and leagues, and because kids' toys increasingly inhibit imaginative play, kids aren't getting a chance to practice policing themselves. When they have that opportunity, says Berk, the results are clear: Self-regulation improves.

"One index that researchers, including myself, have used… is the extent to which a child, for example, cleans up independently after a free-choice period in preschool," Berk says. "We find that children who are most effective at complex make-believe play take on that responsibility with… greater willingness, and even will assist others in doing so without teacher prompting."

Despite the evidence of the benefits of imaginative play, however, even in the context of preschool young children's play is in decline. According to Yale psychological researcher Dorothy Singer, teachers and school administrators just don't see the value.

"Because of the testing, and the emphasis now that you have to really pass these tests, teachers are starting earlier and earlier to drill the kids in their basic fundamentals. Play is viewed as unnecessary, a waste of time," Singer says. "I have so many articles that have documented the shortening of free play for children, where the teachers in these schools are using the time for cognitive skills."

It seems that in the rush to give children every advantage — to protect them, to stimulate them, to enrich them — our culture has unwittingly compromised one of the activities that helped children most. All that wasted time was not such a waste after all.

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