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Monday, March 30, 2009

Undercover Mom in ClubPenguin, Part 6: Old-fashioned pretend play in a new-fangled world

by Sharon Duke Estroff

During my time on Club Penguin, I became a regular at the local pizzeria. I liked it because of the cliché Italian piano music, the cozy candle-lit tables, and the fiery brick oven; but mostly because of the friendly waiters and waitresses who never, ever delivered my pizza.

Sure, I was initially stumped over how I could have given my order to 16 separate penguins and not have as much as a slice to show for it, but then I realized that these avatars/kids were only pretending to be waiters and waitresses. And they thought I was pretending to be a customer. We were playing the old "let's pretend" game in a new sort of setting.

Mom Break: Charming? Yes. Strictly worry-free? No. After all, it may walk like a penguin and talk like a penguin, but that doesn’t mean it's a penguin. Unlike traditional imaginative play, kids didn’t dream up this bustling restaurant scene on Club Penguin; graphic designers did it for them. The storylines were fueled not by children’s imaginations but by the robotic clicks of a computer mouse.

I’ve learned during my years of studying child psychology that childhood is a learning process by design, and old-fashioned pretend play is an essential, integral part of the curriculum. Dress-up games and tea parties aren’t just remnants of the retro-childhood, they're the building blocks of imagination and the means by which children weave together all the elements of life as they experience it. As traditional low-tech playtime progressively gives way to high-tech virtual playtime, the concern over its impact on millennial children is real and far-reaching. It's up to us millennial parents to maintain a consistent balance for our kids between real and virtual fun.

That said, I want to end this one on a positive note: Unlike the cyberbullying and romancing I describe in earlier Undercover Mom installments, I ultimately found the pretend play in the pizzeria to be more refreshing than concerning. You see, while those cyber-waiters and -waitresses might not have delivered my pizza, they served up something far more delicious to me: precious glimmers of hope that in every age and every generation, in this world and the virtual one, childhood will prevail.

Note from editor Anne Collier: Here are views from another respected source, Izzy Neis, a long-time moderator of kids' virtual worlds and online communities....

  • How children use (and implement) their imaginations in ClubPenguin
  • How young CP users' own seemingly impossible idea - actually tipping the iceberg - compares to Izzy's amazing experience of children's imaginative play and storyline creation on the beach

    A conclusion Izzy posted last spring: "Basically, kids want to be included in the magic, they want to build empires from scratch, they want to emotionally invest themselves in seemingly-silliness, etc. It’s fun. It’s a release. It’s escapism – all the while feeling included and excited. I see this play pattern/behavior all the time on Club Penguin. From 'snowball' wars ... to parties in the igloo (much more fun in theory and planning and rounding up than the actual dancing part). Club Penguin provides tools… triggers… that allow the users to 'go to town' - making up their own rules & play. Club Penguin tries to support by facilitating pieces of storyline - just enough of a taste that the users will run away with the end."

    Here's an index to all issues of Undercover Mom to date.

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