Sticks, Stones and Video Games: Tools for Imaginary Play

Our fear of sticks and tech keeps kids from learning responsible behavior

Posted Jul 11, 2015

Andrea Bonior makes some excellent points about the importance of allowing creativity and imagination in play without overzealous, politically-correct, anxiety-driven restriction that keeps kids out of trees and puddles and away from sticks.  When I was a kid, we lived near an orange grove and my neighborhood buddies and I spent a lot of our summer sitting in one particular tree, freely making use of sticks for a multitude of purposes.  We make bows and arrows.  Then swords.  Then wands.  We used the sticks to draw fantastic houses in the dirt.  We stuck sticks into oranges to let the juice out. We also used small sticks to block up irrigation ditches to make tiny dams for imaginery creature.  We came home exuberant, exhausted and filthy. It was great.  

My concern is the gratuitous dig at technology as support for the greatness of imaginery play in nature.  Setting up technology as the foe of 'good' kinds of play increases the technophobia already rampant across society.  It does not follow that because outdoor play (with or without sticks) is so good (which it is), that technology is bad.  In truth, we wouldn't want our kids out in the park all day without spending at least a little time learning how to do other things, too.  There are lots of kids who don't have the same access to outdoor play and its accessories.  Technology is like sticks.  There are good and bad ways to use them both. Just like with sticks, there are creative, social and responsible ways for kids to use technology. 

There is learning happening in all games no matter what the content--rules, rewards, sequences, goals, levels and persistence.  Games never worry about hurting your feelings.  You don't get enough points, you die.  Try again.  Kids do not have their self-esteem deflated by such straightforward assessments of their skill level.  They try again. Do not underestimate the value of accepting the results and wanting to improve them. Competence and mastery in games builds self-efficacy and can also be a social currency that provides a basis for social interaction and relationship building in the same way people use golf or running.  Many video game experiences reinforce structural, social and technical learning by providing a platform for imaginery play.  Minecraft, for example, offers the ability to design, invent and share.  It allows kids to feel control over an environment and develop visuospatial reasoning skills--the basis of logical reasoning--and rewards skills that are transferable to offline activities, such as persistence and self-regulation.

Pamela Rutledge/Shutterstock
Source: Pamela Rutledge/Shutterstock

Don't get me wrong.  I agree with Dr. Bonior and I would encourage outdoor stick play over technology whenever the chance arose.  Most kids have more chances to use technology than sticks.  But when sticks, stones, mud and trees aren't available I prefer games to television.  While I suspect Dr. Bonior is using technology as a strawman, there are many people who view technology like the Pied Piper of Hamilton, fearing that their kids are going disappear into their computers and mobile devices at age 5 and emerge at 22, pasty-faced and ill-prepared for life.  Good parenting is about teaching balance, values and good decision making by setting limits and providing a full menu of learning opportunities.  It's also about letting them fall out of a tree every once in a while, as hard as that is.  As Dr. Bonior suggests, we need to get over the fear of our kids playing with sticks and tree climbing. How else, as she says, will they use to learn the the right and wrong ways? Equally important, however, is getting over the fear of the digital world that our kids also need to learn to navigate for the same reason.