Make Believe: How Creative Play Helps Kids

podcast iconIs all of your child’s free time taken up by electronics?

Are you looking for ways to unlock your children’s creativity?

Creative play, also known as make-believe, is just the answer.

To learn why creative play is important for children, I interview Dr. Susan Linn for this episode of the Parenting Adventures podcast.

More About This Show

parenting adventures podcast michael stelzner

The Parenting Adventures podcast is a show from My Kids’ Adventures.

It’s for parents (and grandparents) who are looking for creative things to do with their kids.

The show format is on-demand talk radio (also known as podcasting).

In this episode, I interview Dr. Susan Linn, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and author of The Case for Make Believe and Consuming Kids.

She’s also co-founder of the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood and did award-winning ventriloquist and entertainment work, some of which includes the TV show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Susan shares why creative play is essential to a child’s well-being.

You’ll discover how to limit screen time, encourage creative play and the types of toys that help a child express creativity.

Share your feedback, read the show notes and get the links mentioned in this episode below!

Do your kids spend too much time on technology? Learn why creative play is so important. In Parenting Adventures podcast 3, Dr Susan Linn shares her tips.

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Here are some of the things you’ll discover in this show:

Creative Play

How Susan came to have a passion for working with kids

Susan explains how creative and imaginative play were a central part of her childhood, which led her to become a ventriloquist.

With her mother being a pioneer in early childhood education, children were always really important in their household. Susan grew up with parents who nurtured and valued creativity and originality.

Throughout childhood, the toys that Susan had encouraged creativity, such as dolls, stuffed animals and art supplies. Plus there was always a lot of music in the house.

Susan was 6 years old when she saw a ventriloquist on television, and that’s when it all started for her.

You’ll hear Susan’s journey to becoming a ventriloquist and how it led her to work with children.

Susan’s work has included teaching preschool, performing with puppets, creating public service announcements with puppets for kids and play therapy with puppets, and at present she is currently running the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood.

campaign for commercial free childhood

The Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood is aimed at trying to do something about the escalation of commercialism in the lives of kids today.

Listen to the show to find out why the escalation of commercialism is a big factor in undermining creative play today.

The type of play that is important for kids

Susan says that we have to remember that babies, preschoolers and elementary kids through to adolescents all have different needs and experiences as they grow. It’s really important that adults honor that.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that we discourage screen time for children younger than the age of 2, and limit the time for older kids.

Research shows that screen time for babies and preschoolers takes them away from activities that prove beneficial to their brain development. This means activities such as hands-on play, active play, face-to-face time and interactions and conversations with loved ones.

two brother toddler boys playing with tablet pc

Screen time for babies and toddlers is not good for brain development. Image source: iStockphoto

Susan explains that it’s important to know that babies’ brains grow and develop at a rapid pace. The connections they make are based on their experiences. So the more a baby does something, the stronger the connection between the neurons in the brain.

You’ll hear why hands-on creative play reinforces creativity and constructive problem solving, and also helps with the ability to initiate a task and bring it to completion.

The problem with many of the apps available today for very young children is that they diminish, rather than encourage, creativity. Children are forced to do things in a particular way. The PLAY-DOH Create ABCs app is a prime example of this.

play doh app letters

PLAY-DOH Create ABCs app only allows children to carry out a task in a certain way.

Listen to the show to find out the problem that’s happening with toy companies that are afraid of losing business to the digital media market.

Hands-on creative play that is ideal for children

Susan says that a good toy for a child is one that is 90% child and only 10% toy. It should be a toy that lies around until a child picks it up and brings it to life. It can be used over and over again.

Children should be encouraged to use time-honored creative toys, such as sand, water, mud, sticks and dolls and to play outside—basically toys that aren’t electronic.

running time

Playing with sand can encourage creativity in children. Image source: iStockphoto

There is so much pressure to use screens all the time, but children need to learn to take pleasure in the rest of the world around them. They shouldn’t rely on screens for stimulation, soothing or entertainment.

the case for make believe

Susan’s book, The Case for Make Believe.

Children need to develop their inner resources to generate their own fun, plus they also need to have silence, time and space for their own creativity.

When Susan wrote her book, The Case for Make Believe, she realized that the difference with commercialization today is the access that children have to their favorite character.

Susan explains that when she was a child, with the small amount of access you had to an on-screen character, you had to make up your own scripts.

Whereas children today can watch their favorite character time and time again on television, apps, video games, even in the back seat of their parents’ car.

peter pan movie

Susan loved playing Peter Pan as a child.

You’ll hear the problems that can arise from this type of access to a child’s favorite movie character and what you can do to encourage more creativity with it.

Listen to the show to discover the type of agreement you can have with your children before you go to see a movie.

What parents can do to limit screen time

One of the things that you can do as a parent is to institute times in your children’s lives when there are no screens. This includes adults too.

It’s very important to have screen-free dinnertime, as this is an opportunity for families to talk to each other. Some families have started to turn off screens one or two nights a week and instead have family game nights or cook together.

It’s the first time in history that you can’t assume that your child’s leisure time includes creative play. The most common leisure time activity for children around the world is to watch television.

boy watching tv

Children consume their leisure time with watching television. Image source: iStockphoto

As a parent, you need to carve out time for your child to play away from screens.

You’ll hear Susan talk about the addictive nature of screens, and when to recognize it as a problem.

Listen to the show to find out why experiences are so important to us as humans.

What parents do (often unknowingly) to inhibit creative play

Susan says that not only is being a parent one of the most challenging experiences that you’ll ever have, but being a parent who’s really thoughtful about how you raise your child is even more challenging.

One of the first things you need to recognize is the amount of time you spend with a screen, and understand that your child models your behavior. So you need to set time limits for both yourself and your children.

daughter watching mother with digital tablet outdoors

You need to carve out time to spend with your children, away from your electronic devices. Image source: iStockphoto

Listen to the show to find out what you should do to make sure you have quality time with your children, away from your electronic devices.

Examples of why creative play is essential to your child’s well-being

Susan says that hands-on creative play is a window into your child’s heart and mind. When they play creatively, they often play about things that they care about or are worried about. It’s a way for them to work on their concerns.

When Susan used play therapy with puppets, she discovered that no two children play exactly the same way.

sibling playing hand puppet

Children express how they feel through creative play. Image source: iStockphoto

Susan explains how four children reacted when they were given a dog puppet to play with. One child used it to relate it to their recent trip to the dentist, another used the puppet to cut a very precise incision in Susan’s puppet’s chest. This particular child was about to face heart surgery.

A child who had been in hospital for a year used the puppet to pretend to cut Susan’s puppet into a million pieces and then serve them to the doctors. Although this didn’t really happen to her, it was her way of expressing her experience while in hospital.

You can see from these examples that a child expresses feelings through creative play. Susan explains that it’s how they naturally wrestle with life to make it meaningful.

Creative play with our children is essential to their well-being. You’ll hear what you can do to encourage screen-free time and why it’s important not to change their habits immediately. has some amazing ideas on how to engage you children in different activities that don’t involve screens or commercialism.

screen free week has some fantastic resources for activities away from screens.

Listen to the show hear why the exposure to violent games is not healthy for children.

Key takeaways mentioned in this episode:

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What do you think? What are your thoughts on creative play for your child? Please leave your comments below.

Images from iStockPhoto.

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About the Author, Michael Stelzner

I am a dad of three kids, the founder of My Kids' Adventures and the founder of Social Media Examiner. I also host the Parenting Adventures podcast. Other posts by »


  1. Thanks, Mike. This is eye-opening: to realize that the proliferation of games and merchandise surrounding characters from books and movies is actually taking away kids’ ability to use their imaginations is pretty sad. Susan Linn was a great guest with some important things to say.

  2. Pranav Sanghavi says:

    Hey Mike thanks for another fantastic show with a brilliant guest, Dr. Susan Linn. My daughter and I have a whole host of characters that we have created for story telling, like Gina the Cow (which has become very popular with her friends as well). I am now trying to reduce her addiction to TV for creative indoor and outdoor activities. So this show was a big help. Thanks again.

  3. Glad you found it helpful

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