Interview with Susan Linn, Champion of Play-Based Learning.

Dr. Susan Linn and Audrey book cover

Interview with Susan Linn, Champion of Play-Based Learning.

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Play Helps Kids Grow And Cope With Stress.

In a world where children are constantly bombarded with screens and advertisements, it’s important to remember the value of play-based learning and fostering creativity and imagination. Susan Linn Ed.D., a leading expert in child development, shares her insights on the importance of play and the impact of media and commercial marketing on children’s development. Learn more about her advocacy for children and the benefits of creative play in this interview with ChildsPlay International.

Susan Linn’s unique background allows her to examine big-tech companies not through the lens of technology, but as ad agencies. 

The New York Times

Susan Linn is a renowned expert on child development and advocates for kids’ access to unstructured play. While known as an advocate for play-based learning, in her latest book “Who’s Raising the Kids?” she addresses the impact of tech companies targeting children.

Our Interview with Susan Linn.

In mid-December, 2022, ChildsPlay International (CPI) interviewed Susan Linn after reading The New York Times rave review of her latest book where Susan talks about the way that screens and commercial culture influence children’s values, their relationships, and their learning.

Like CPI, Susan believes in the importance of play to kids’ becoming creative, competent individuals, and in its role in helping kids to manage stress. Susan’s earlier book, “The Case for Make Believe,” relates her experience at Boston Children’s Hospital where she used play as therapy for traumatized kids. It also explains why play is crucial at every stage of a child’s growth. 

CPI works in areas (e.g., Pakistan, Nepal, Kenya, Ghana, Haiti, and Peru) where children are impoverished, as well as under stress from civil unrest, HIV, and their status as refugees. We asked Susan to “translate” her work to these settings. 

Children in Nepal enjoying Creative Play during CPI workshop.

Children playing traditional games at the outskirt of Kathmandu, Nepal

The following is an edited version of our conversation.

CHILDSPLAY INTERNATIONAL (CPI): In some cultures that we work in, what you call “pretend play” – a sort of free-form fantasizing – may not always be valued. Please speak to how this kind of creativity can be expressed even within non-receptive cultural traditions, or in the face of kids’ current, difficult situations. 

SUSAN LINN (SL): Children are born with the capacity to play and create — neurotypical children, anyway. If it is allowed to flourish, it is a natural part of childhood. Also, it is the foundation of learning and creativity, constructive problem-solving, self-expression. It is how children wrestle with life to make it meaningful. Children play about what is going on in their lives if they are given the opportunity to do that. I think that a phrase that a lot of people use is that play is the work of childhood. I do not quite go along with that because I think it’s important to differentiate between work and play. When you are working, what is most important is the final product. When you are playing, what is most important is the experience, what is happening in the moment. Play can be an important part of work, having the opportunity to create. We talk about playing with ideas, and I think that work, as I said, can embody periods of play. But once the product becomes more important than the process, it is no longer play.

CPI: Our current mask-making workshop in Haiti is a good example of what we do. One theory about it is that you can create something wonderful without being an expert. We just finished a six-week workshop, which was partly about mastery of making masks. The results were physically glorious: the sense of accomplishment, the sense of pride in representing the Haitian tradition of Carnival. There was a real connection with “we are Haiti,” we are contributing something larger. At the end of working with 200 children, we selected 20 for an ongoing mask club, because we really want this not to be a one-shot deal. There is something about being chosen as one of the best that instills a [good] kind of feeling.

We want to make clear that what ChildsPlay attempts to do is to see play as therapeutic, but we are not doing play therapy. Could you speak to the effect of a child being recognized or mirrored in some way, as a response to play, and the importance of that?

SL: It is important for children to have the time, space, and inspiration, and the safety to play. You can’t force somebody to play, and you can only play if you’re safe, if you’re physically safe, if you’re psychologically safe. It’s important for adults to recognize that play is a way of exploring the world, that when they encounter children doing what seems to an adult a meaningless activity or not productive activity, to take a step back and let children explore whatever it is that they are doing, as long as nobody’s being hurt. Part of it is stepping out of the way, to provide safety for children and tools, simple tools. I do not mean like saws, although I guess you could. Woodworking is certainly creative, but [so are] blocks or sticks or leaves or something like that. It is important to celebrate children’s creativity, but it’s also important not to overdo the reward for it.

It’s important for adults to recognize that play is a way of exploring the world, that when they encounter children doing what seems to an adult a meaningless activity or not productive activity, to take a step back and let children explore whatever it is that they are doing, as long as nobody’s being hurt.

A Good Toy Is 90% Child And Only 10% Toy

SL (cont): What is important about play is the process, and that it is self-generated. You play out of yourself and your experience, and what takes your fancy in the world. One reason I’m hesitating to talk about rewards is that if you’re doing something to please somebody else, you’re not playing. I think that is important. 

In the United States, we do a lot to prevent children from playing. The toys that we give them often inhibit, rather than encourage creativity. The toys do way too much. They are too noisy. They deprive kids of voice and of being able to initiate. In other parts of the world, child slavery, child constriction, hunger, all those things can restrict and inhibit children’s play. But I do think adults can be encouraged to step back, and to see what develops, as long as nobody is being hurt.

CPI: Do you work with parents? Do you involve parents, for example, giving them guidelines about how they can constructively encourage creative play?

SL: I did play therapy with puppets at Children’s Hospital and at the children’s AIDS program, which was a daycare center for kids with HIV. So, I did sometimes work with parents, but I speak to parents in my talks or things that I’ve written.

Children in Sri Lanka enjoying Creative Play during CPI Storytelling workshop.

Susan Linn advocates for creative play and play-based learning.

Children in Sri Lanka playing during CPI Storytelling workshop.

Creative Play.

CPI: What are some of the things that you would emphasize?

SL: When it comes to creative play, less is often more. Children play with whatever is at hand. If there’s sticks available, they play with sticks, and they transform the sticks into other things. If there’s mud, they dig rivers or they play bakery or do something like that. [As] the saying goes, a good toy is 90% child and only 10% toy. So, a toy is good for children in that it encourages play, and basically lies there until somebody does something with it, or transforms it into something else. Again, in the United States and other developed countries, one big inhibitor of creative play is commercialized culture. Kids play less creatively with media-linked toys, for instance.

Toys that are embedded with computer chips and do things on their own. A child pushing a button to make a toy do back flips is not playing, really. The push in commercial culture is to market toys that do more and more of the playing for children, thereby depriving kids of opportunities to express themselves, to create, to build their own worlds.

CPI: One issue for CPI is that children increasingly use devices, and they’re primarily devoted to Western media and western culture. If you have a black Disney princess and an Asian [princess], that is not the answer. 

SL: It is complicated because you’re right, none of the commercial culture is the answer, but it is important for kids if they’re immersed in it, to see themselves in media. I mean, in my new book, “Who’s Raising the Kids? Big Tech, Big Business, and the Lives of Children,” I write about when was in Mexico, and I was doing some work with an asylum. And mostly, where I found myself was with the kids. Somebody donated money to buy toys for the kids. So, I got to go buy the toys, which was really fun, and I wanted to get some baby dolls. And there I was in Mexico, and every single baby doll was white. In fact, every single doll was white. That does a disservice to brown and black children.

CPI: Building on your experience in Mexico. What would be the ideal toys or play material that you would get for that group of children?

SL: Art supplies, blocks, balls, stuffed animals, maybe animal figures — high preference not to have licensed toys. Anything that isn’t the end but is the beginning of play, that encourages expansiveness in children. Then if you can be outside, water, sand, places to run around. Kids play more creatively in green spaces.

Children in Peru enjoying creative play during a CPI Storytelling workshop.

Girl in Peru enjoying Creative Play  during CPI workshop.

Balance Creative Play With Goal-Oriented Activities

CPI: You think that schools and parents, and nonprofits like ChildsPlay, should allow more time for what you call “pretend play” relative to structured, goal-oriented activities like soccer and violin practice. Do you think there is a kind of balance, and does that change with time as children grow older? Do you think that both are necessary, and should we change the balance as the child grows? 

SL: In the United States, the whole push towards academics in kindergarten and even preschool is terribly problematic because it deprives kids of opportunities to use their whole bodies, to explore the world with all their senses, and develop the social skills that kids develop when they play with other kids. That push for academics or, or the push to produce something, starts too young in the United States. I know that in Finland, kids don’t have to learn to read until they’re seven. If a child wants to learn to read, if it comes from them, that’s fine, but they don’t have to learn to read and until they’re seven. We would benefit from something like that here. We could benefit if kids held off on devices except for video chatting with the adults who love them. We held off with devices till [our] kids were seven or eight.

Kids learning to swipe and tap and make things bigger on a smartphone or on a tablet, by the time they’ are adults, it is all going to be voice anyway.” 

Susan Linn

CPI: There’s a tremendous concern among parents that children be educated for life and success as soon as they can be. That creates a kind of interesting tension.

SL: Well, especially because the push from the tech industry is that kids need to start with devices younger because they need to learn how to use them in order to get a job. But that is ridiculous because the technology is going to change. Kids learning to swipe and tap and make things bigger on a smartphone or on a tablet, by the time they’ are adults, it is all going to be voice anyway. 

It’s not a Nign of Amazing Intelligence that a Child can Use an iPad.

People in the tech industry say they make these devices for people who are brain-dead. So, it’s not a sign of amazing intelligence that a child can use an iPad. But people think that it is. That’s what Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Golinkoff talk about — that kids are not empty vessels waiting to be filled up, but active learners. Kids learn when they play with water. They learn which way it flows. Playing with blocks, you learn about gravity, or even math. So, what kids need to be successful, is to be interested in the world and curious about the world, and to feel competent in generating ideas. That comes from play. I think about what D.W. Winnicott said — that it’s in play. and maybe only in play that we can really be ourselves. He equated play with creativity, and creativity with health.

Play is profound; it is an activity that fosters growth and is essential for the development of empathy. Its power lies in its unstructured nature. Linn argues for strangeness and silence, for uncharted exploration. Playing alone, with adults and with other children is as necessary as sleep, food and love. Tech companies destroy such play and replace it with device addiction, a simulacrum and a false promise of connection that does none of the developmental work of the real thing.

Susan Linn to Zephyr Teachout for The New York Times

CPI: ChildsPlay operates in areas whose cultural traditions differ from ours, obviously. In these areas, do you think that creative storytelling and drawing are more important to the kids’ mental health than some of the traditional activities that are sanctioned by their respective cultures? Would we create tension if we promoted, or any organization promoted, the kind of activities that looked to a traditional person’s eyes o be Western as opposed to traditional games, traditional activities that kids are supposed to play?

Girl in Sri Lanka enjoying play-based learning and creative play during CPI workshop.

Girl in Sri Lanka creating artwork during a Storytelling Workshop conducted by CPI.

SL: If young children are allowed free time in these cultures, that provides an opportunity for creative play and play-based learning. If a child’s life is extremely rigid and filled up all the time with activities that are generated by somebody else, that is a problem and probably a universal problem. But I would think that in many cultures, kids do have some free time at least early on in their lives. I think that guarding that is important. Anybody working in a culture needs to honor the culture, and also work closely with the elders in the culture, and make sure to come to this kind of agreement about what’s okay to do. 

CPI: What’s wrong with emphasizing, early on, math and these kinds of hard skills? Maybe learning the Chinese language, maybe fencing, the kinds of things that are goal oriented? You become a master in them. They are not just free play. What is wrong with getting kids into the rhythm of this kind of discipline that will help them prosper? This is a tough world. So, is there a point at which we switch over into this? Or do you argue that “pretend play” will ultimately help them with these harder skills, which they need? 

SL: We need to talk about ages. For preschool and kindergarten kids, having materials to explore and use, and the time, the space, the silence and the inspiration, is probably the most important thing. There are kids who are more driven than other kids and who will start playing the violin at four. But again, you learn math, or the foundations of it, from playing with blocks or trying to build a house or trying to construct whatever, or to dig a river and then figure out how to get the water to go down it, and then to put in an island and figure out how to get the water to go around the island. You are learning all that stuff. Math is not just two plus two. There is a deeper foundation to it. My colleagues who teach math [think] it is important that there’s a deeper meaning to the math that’s being taught. 

Book cover Who's raising the kids by Susan Linn

In Who’s raising the kids? Susan Linn talks about the way that screens and commercial culture influence children’s values, their relationships, and their learning.

CPI: You argue that in children, screens replace the desire for play and create imitative, rigid consumers. Can this desire ever be replaced? As the person grows up, they become attached to screens, which you argue creates an imitative, consumerist personality. Can a person who has grown up that way ever redress the loss? 

SL: Children’s brains are growing and developing, and the things that children do and do not affect the architecture of the brain. The more you do something, the more those synapses get connected; habits and behaviors are formed in childhood. That can be changed, but I do not think that it’s easy. One thing that must happen is that people have to want to change. In Who’s raising the kids? I talk about the way that screens and commercial culture influence children’s values, their relationships, and their learning. So early childhood experiences are incredibly important. Are they the end? No, but it’s harder change things that have become habits and a way of being in the world.

CPI: How do you raise people’s awareness of this, the fact that they may have lost something that they do not even know that they want or need? 

SL: There’s a lot of advocacy for limiting screen time even for young adults. Some of that advocacy is coming from young adults themselves who are advocating for media Sabbaths, and really trying to pull themselves away from social media. I have not heard people talk about it in terms of creativity. What they talk about is in terms of loneliness and depression, and a life of all screens all the time, and a lack of human connection. I do worry about that with the power of the tech industry, technology comes between people. It comes between parents and children. For instance, where parents read eBooks to kids, the conversations that they have — especially if the eBooks have a lot of bells and whistles — are not conversations that promote literacy. They are conversations about “do this, push that,” that kind of thing. Even when parents are reading eBooks that don’t have those flourishes, they’re less apt to cuddle with kids. There is a struggle for the screen – these devices are made for one person to use. So, it is not like sitting in a chair with a picture book and having your arm around a child, or a child sitting on your lap. 

Who Owns the Metaverse?

CPI: I’m assuming that for all the reasons you just articulated, you probably oppose Mark Zuckerberg’s proposed metaverse, because maybe people will flock to it. It’s the easy way out. They don’t have to reflect. They just disappear into something that completely does everything for them. I’d be very interested to know what you think as a person who’s interested in development about this metaverse that’s calming for us.

One thing that really worries me about the Metaverse is who owns it.

SL: I was just reading an article about all these brands that are creating activities for children in the metaverse. One thing that really worries me about the Metaverse is who owns it. One of the tragedies of all screens all the time, is that basically everything that children do on a screen (not absolutely everything, but most things) is mediated by corporations. So, that is troubling. So even sandbox games (they’re called that because they’re games you can play online with other people) are like the sandbox but it’s not a real sandbox. It’s designed to promote competition. Competition can be a part of play if it does not completely take over. But it’s to promote envy and to monetize envy in order to sell things. I think that the real problem with technologies today is they are incredibly powerful, and they are incredible tools for persuasion. They are owned by corporations, whose primary interest is in making money to the exclusion of everything else — particularly children’s wellbeing.

CPI: What do you think about these American Girl dolls? Another version of the metaverse? They come with an elaborate backstory and elaborate costumes, and they cost a great deal of money. A child plays with it, but it is all done for them. When I was a kid, I had a doll that basically had no clothes and no stories, and I had to do the rest. These gorgeous American Girl dolls come with books, whole stories about them.

SL: When the American Girl started out, there were four of them. It was owned by a woman named Pleasant Rowland. But they were very expensive. They were also beautifully made. The clothes were beautifully made. The stories were like a springboard. So, they would come with a book. But the company was sold to Mattel. And it just escalated from there. Then they had these American Girl stores, where you can take your doll to have a facial. 

When my daughter was born, my mother bought my daughter an American Girl doll to give to her when she was a little older. She did have clothes and things like that, and I recognized the class problems with that. But a doll coming with one book is different than a doll coming with a video series and with apps, and where visual media is so much more powerful in terms of memory and shaping behavior than books are. Because in a book, there is a story in a plot, but you use your own voice. The book itself isn’t designed to be addictive. It’s not designed to keep you coming back and that kind of thing. You might come back because it’s a good story, but it’s not like TikTok, which has endless scrolling. So, you can never basically get off it. 

When I wrote The Case for Make Believe, I had a problem — I was writing a book that encouraged people to limit screen time in children’s lives.

Susan Linn

Book cover The Case for Make Believe by Susan Linn

Yet television had a profound and positive impact on me when I was a kid. I became a ventriloquist because of television. Also, it was through television and a movie that I was introduced to these two characters, Peter Pan and Flash Gordon. I saw Peter in a movie theater when I was six or seven. I didn’t see it again until I was 19. Flash Gordon was on television maybe once a year. But if I wanted to access those worlds, which were so important to me, I had to play. It was the only way that I could do it. That’s not the way it is today. Kids can see a movie in a movie theater, but they can see it at home. It’s not just that there’s a movie, not just that there’s a Cinderella movie; there’s Cinderella one, two, and three, Frozen one and two, and I’m sure there are going to be a lot more. That’s a huge difference.

CPI: Do you think we are raising a generation of kids that’s so dependent on screens that they’ll fail to develop inner resources? Will they always need an external crutch, or a sort of comfort and escape? Will they never learn how to explore the world and discover what uniquely speaks to them?

SL: If they are on screens all the time, how are they going to explore the rest of the world? How are they going to develop those other attributes? It is worrisome. One thing that concerns me is that there’s a big concern now that has even reached Congress about social media and teenagers — teenage depression, eating disorders, and suicides that are at least exacerbated, it seems, by social media. We are not talking about young children so much when it comes to commercial culture. That is very troubling because the habits begin in early childhood. The dependence begins in early childhood.

SL: I was interested in your question about some of the societies or cultures that you’re working with who don’t want kids to play.

CPI: There is a certain point where children are supposed to work, and I’m not just talking about carrying the water. I mean going into mines and all that kind of thing. I think creative stuff is often seen as irrelevant. It does not help a child deal with the very real monetary kind of stuff. So of course, that generates different ideas about the value of play. 

In some cultures, what girls can do is vastly different from what boys can do. [There are] patriarchal cultures where boys, for example, are not allowed to express certain kind of feelings. So, the need for play there is even more existential, but maybe it’s something we can explore later on. I was going to bring up the incident that Sarwar [Mushtaq] mentioned concerning Peru. When he was trying to introduce drawing, the teachers said No, we want kids to focus on their schoolwork. There was this sort of tension there.

Students in Ghana drawing

Students in Ghana drawing the Akhan symbol “Sankofa,” a bird looking backward, contemplating cultural roots. 

CPI: When we did work in Ghana, they wanted to do a project about the elders and the local Akhan culture and so forth, which I loved, but it ended up with children drawing the symbols of the Akhan culture. It’s all about keeping within the lines. That’s what is appreciated, that kind of limited mastery. That is something we’re always butting heads about.

SL: And having to respect the culture. But there is a difference between children reproducing cultural symbols and children being sent down in mines.

CPI: I do not equate those at all. I am just explaining some of the complications. It is very complicated. Also, we are coming in as Western people with our own values. It’s extremely complex.

SL: I am so glad that you are the people grappling with that.

Our Takeaway

This conversation left us feeling as though we had known Susan a long time. We recognized her ideas as basic to how we approach our mission. We recognized our own aspirations in her work. We also felt energized. Susan presents an extraordinary combination of thoughtfulness and joy. She is one of those adults who has survived technology’s take-over of our collective sensorium.  

We were particularly interested in her statement that a good toy is 90% child and only 10% artifact. Kids can turn anything into a plaything, provided they have space, freedom, and the assurance that they are safe. This has been CPI’s modus operandi since it was founded. We trust kids to be creative, and then – as Susan says – we stand back and let them explore. Invariably, they build their own engaging worlds.

Susan confirmed CPI’s belief that the need for play is trans-cultural. With some adjustment to cultural norms, every kid should have time to play – and can benefit from it. As Susan suggests, play is itself normal. It comes with the territory of being a child. It is crucial to how kids grow. 

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