Book Review: The Case for Make Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World

by Erin O'Keefe, M.S.
PCI Parent Coach in training

The Case for Make Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World
Susan Linn, Co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood and a Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard University Medical School
The New Press, New York, 2009
272 pages

Creative play is the essence of childhood. Some of my fondest memories involve building forts from sofa cushions and battling mythical dragons. I recall the excitement and promise of embarking on dangerous explorations through uncharted (backyard) terrain. One year, my friends and I spent most of our summer designing and building a contraption that we were sure would fly! Most of all, when I think back, I can recall a sense of wonder and endless possibility that such unstructured play afforded. It all seemed so natural and effortless. So why is it now, as the mother of two young children, that this unencumbered creative play doesn't seem quite so easy for my own kids? I feel I have to work to create an environment for my children that will foster imaginative play. Is this perception merely a facet of my different role, that of parent and facilitator, rather than of the child I once was? Or has something else changed over the past few decades since my own childhood? These are the questions that I have grappled with since becoming a mother, and why I was so thrilled to come across Susan Linn's book, The Case for Make Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World (2008), Linn makes a compelling case for the importance of imaginative play in the lives of children, and beyond. Linn clearly demonstrates the ways in which supporting children's imaginative play benefits society as a whole. Despite the tremendous importance of play, at both the individual and communal level, American society not only fails to support imaginative play, but actively seeks to undermine it for the sake of corporate profit.

Dr. Linn is a co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood and a Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard University Medical School. She has worked extensively with children in the capacity of a play therapist. Her own playful character shines through in her writing, as it is interwoven with dialogue between herself (Linn is also an accomplished ventriloquist) and her puppet, Audrey the Duck. Linn's passion for imaginative play as a means of coping with fears, as well as creative expression, is clear in her writing, which is peppered with references to the children with whom she has worked and observed engaging in imaginative play, such as Michael, the little boy who utilized play to deal with his fears about transitioning from day care to kindergarten, or Kara, a four-year-old girl with HIV, who was able to work through her fears and anger through play therapy. In each of her examples, Linn masterfully illustrates for her reader just how vital creative play is for children as a means of dealing with a myriad of issues affecting their lives. Play is empowering; it gives children the freedom to express their feelings and work through them, replacing a sense of helplessness with a sense of mastery. Pretend play combines "two wondrous and uniquely human characteristics, the capacity for fantasy and the capacity for and need to make meaning of our experiences." (p. 12)

Dr. Linn is clearly an expert in her field and does a wonderful job of laying out the reasons why play is an "essential building block for a meaningful life." (p. 10) Yet despite its vital importance to child development, imaginative play is eroding within our present day society. Linn cites a number of studies demonstrating that children spend significantly less time engaging in creative play than they have in past years. She asks the question, "Since the capacity to play is inborn, and used to develop naturally, why is it that parents now have to make a conscious effort to ensure a child's opportunity for make believe?" (p. 26). For Linn, the answer lies in our profit-driven corporate culture, which undermines the importance of creative play in favor of more profitable character-based and directive styles of play. The marketing campaign starts with the "baby scam," wherein the media industry convinces parents that screen time is beneficial to babies. In truth, however, television watching can be dangerous and habituating for young children. Babies that watch TV will grow into children that watch TV. Television watching robs young children of valuable time in which they could be exploring themselves and the world around them. Linn makes the point that it "isn't that the content of TV was better for previous generations, but that there was so much less of it." (p. 29) Today's kids are bombarded with media images from all directions, in the form of television, film, cell phones, computers, MP3 players, and various portable devices. Screens seem to dominate our children's lives, threatening, not enhancing, creative play and make believe.

In addition to having less time to play creatively, the substance of play itself has changed in response to a commercialized culture. A good toy is "10% toy and 90% child." (p. 37) Therefore, a good creative toy just isn't lucrative from a corporate standpoint. The majority of toys today are produced with a kind of "planned obsolescence." (p. 4) Popular character-based toys encourage play that is scripted and imitative. Even toys that should be open-ended, such as blocks, are often sold in sets, sending the message that there is a correct way to put them together, thus limiting their creative potential. The breakdown of imaginative play can be seen acutely along gender lines. For boys, play often takes the form of imitating the violence seen on television or acted out in video games. Creative play could be used as a coping mechanism, helping young boys to process the violence they are witnessing. Instead, the imitative nature of their play precludes this, leaving them with no outlet. For girls, the trend may be even more disturbing, as they get caught up in what Linn refers to as the "princess trap." While fairy tales and princesses have long been a staple of creative play, the "Disney Princess" brand popular today have in many ways co-opted the malleable nature of traditional fairy tale stories and replaced them with scripted characters. Linn describes the "Disney Princess" brand as "…glitter and acquisition-precludes playing out the more psychologically meaningful aspects of the stories…" (p. 174) Little girls also face the loss of middle childhood, which has traditionally been a relatively peaceful and stable time for children. "The market has usurped the years between six and twelve and transformed them into 'tweens'." (p. 185) Entire lines of clothing, books and video games were developed for this new "tween" niche market. This shift has been detrimental to the children's developmental needs. Linn does a wonderful job of evaluating what the costs of such a transition may be, both for our children and to us as a society.

Linn's final chapter is one of hope and encouragement.

"As hard as it may be for overstressed parents to remember to play with their children, it's never been harder for children to play on their own. Just about everything in our society dictates against it. Make-believe flourishes best when a community of caring adults provides children with gifts that can't be bought: time, space, and silence." (p. 204)

She provides us (the overstressed parent) with suggestions for how to parent with intention and nurture creative play. Linn provides ideas and tips for what to do when even the best intentioned parent is likely to resort to television as a form of entertainment, such as while cooking dinner or taking a shower. She supplies her reader with bulleted lists, tips, and suggestions to help spark creative play. Linn also suggests a list of Web resources for anyone wanting to research the topic further. For Dr. Linn, the solution seems to be a more intentional type of parent; we "have to know who we are and what we value." (p. 199) An individual, who is in touch with their own internal motivation and values, is less likely to be swayed by flashy marketing techniques or add campaigns aimed at undermining their confidence as a parent.

What I enjoyed the most about Linn's writing was that she did not write a book strictly for academics and professionals; rather this is a book for us, the parents. Rather than blaming, or criticizing, parents for the decline of creative play amongst our children, Linn puts the blame squarely where it belongs, with the corporate profiteers. She empowers parents and educators to look within and trust themselves for the answers. Linn's book is engaging and thought-provoking. It should be required reading for any parent who wants to parent with intention and is a tool to navigate through an overwhelming, disempowering corporate culture. Perhaps the greatest motivation for nurturing creative play in our children is that it allows them to differentiate between their own internal motivation and the external stimulus of media messages. By fostering creative play, we are equipping our children with the tools that they themselves will need to maneuver the commercialized world in which they are growing up.

Erin O'Keefe holds a Masters Degree from the University of Connecticut and is currently enrolled in the Parent Coach Certification® Training Program at the Parent Coaching Institute. She lives in New York where she spends at least part of her day enthralled by the world of make believe play with her two wonderfully creative and imaginitive little boys. Contact Erin by phone at (631) 219-5353 or email at

Copyright © 2009 Erin O'Keefe, all rights reserved. Used with permission.