While new research has found modern children aren't as active as children in the past, it has also revealed that make-believe play tops computers as their favourite activity. Lisa Salmon discusses the winners and losers of the games battlefield.

By Lisa Salmon

Many parents think traditional children's play, such as cowboys and Indians or doctors and nurses, comes a poor second to computer games for today's kids.

But new research has revealed that, surprisingly, modern children prefer make-believe play to spending time on the computer.

Less unexpectedly, the research by Sainsbury's Active Kids, which donates equipment and active experiences to children's organisations, also found that more than half of parents questioned said children spend less time on active play than they did during their own childhoods between 1950 and 2000.

The research asked adults, and children aged between eight and 15, what their favourite childhood activity was, and all generations chose pretend play more than any other activity.

And while nearly a third of adults (29%) thought their children preferred spending time playing on a computer, just 15% of kids chose computing as the best way to pass the time, compared to 22% who chose make-believe play.

Developmental psychologist Dr Nadja Reissland, a senior lecturer at Durham University, points out that while children do indeed love make-believe play, as the research asked what play adults and children remembered liking best, make-believe would probably have been more memorable than other activities, even for modern children.

"Today's kids may have played on computers more, but remember it less," she suggests.

While some make-believe play is active, such as cops and robbers, it doesn't necessarily have to be energetic, says Reissland, pointing out that kids might enjoy pretending they're a mushroom, for example, or a princess sitting on her throne.

But whatever they pretend to be, it can be of huge benefit for their development.

"Through imitation they learn about emotions - it's a way of learning about other people. By acting something out, you learn what it's like to be a different type of person, like a princess, a footballer or a ballerina.

"It's a natural way of learning."

However, Reissland points out that it's much easier for both parents and children to just switch on a TV or computer than for kids to think up make-believe games.

"Children are interested in being entertained, rather than going out and entertaining themselves, so it's sometimes easier for them, and their parents, to watch TV or play on a computer," she says.

"But it's more satisfying in the end to play make-believe, and they remember that they really enjoy it. But they have to make an effort to do it."

The benefits, though, are valuable because the role play is actually experienced, as opposed to games just being played and watched on a computer screen.

"On computers, what children are playing is abstract and not reality, but if they're playing a make-believe war game in a group with their friends, for example, they learn about organisation, rules, hierarchy, interaction, and dealing with conflict - the rules of society."

The research also found that fresh air is key for the kids of today, with two-thirds of children (64%) saying they enjoy playing outside, even in the rain.

Yet despite this, 53% of adults still feel their children spend less time getting active than they did in their own childhood.

More than a fifth of adults said they spent more than 20 hours playing each week when they were children, but just 7% thought their own children played for that long.

In fact, they said the largest proportion of today's kids (29%) spend between just one and five hours on active play each week.

"The importance of play is social development," explains Reissland, "but it's also important for children to be active and get outside and get to know nature.

"However, it's important to remember that children can be active inside as well as outside."

Active Kids ambassador David Beckham agrees that being active is vital for children, and says: "I know first-hand how important it is to get active from a young age and now as a father of four, it's more important to me than ever to help pass that message to children.

"Some of my happiest childhood memories involve the simplest activities, so I'm proud to be helping children - of all ages and abilities - to enjoy moving and getting active."

The Active Kids research suggests that many parents share Beckham's enthusiasm for getting kids more active and playing with them, as nearly half (45%) of those questioned said they spend more time playing with their children than their own parents or grandparents did.

Reissland says: "Parents seem to take a more active role than they did before.

"Children can achieve more when parents are really engaged to try to give them the best they can, but it's a matter of opinion whether you want a champion child, or you want your child to develop without these pressures."

She stresses that it depends on the parents, and whether they have the time to devote to their children's activities, and points out: "Micromanaging children gets results and parents feel good about it because they feel they're doing the best they can for their child.

"They don't have to micromanage them, but then children have to compete in today's competitive environment."

She adds: "The important thing is that both parent and child enjoy what they're doing, and that children have the time and space to develop by themselves as well."

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