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When Harry Potter Met the Lord of the Rings…

“The truly creative changes and the big shifts occur right at the edge of chaos.” Dr Robert Bilder, a psychiatry and psychology professor at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.

We had an unwitting experiment in “free play” that brought about some rather interesting results. After a continuous string of misbehaviours, I got fed up and banned ALL screen time – no iPad, no TV, no computer – not even for homework. The ban was pretty painful for me as well because we had to endure visits to my grandfather’s and my in laws’ homes without any form of screen entertainment – which is usually my currency for securing their “good” behaviour.

There were initially numerous complaints of “I’m bored” which I silenced with the promise of a longer screen ban. Then there was a continuously spate of bickering between the brothers as they blamed each other for their “screen-ban” predicament so I told them that they were in this together and if I witnessed behaviours I liked, I might remove the extra days of screen ban, but if I saw behaviours I didn’t like, I would add more days on. I also added that blaming each other was not a behaviour I liked…

I can read upside-down

The screen-ban wasn’t quite as hard on G1 as it was for G2 because G1 can read for an entire day without getting bored. G2 eventually gets fidgety and then he starts to look for something else to do. That something else sometimes involves annoying his older brother which will start off another round of bickering. Occasionally, G2 digs out old toys to entertain himself and G1 decides that he must have the toy his brother is playing like right now! And we’re back to bickering – again.

Free play

It isn’t all bad, though. There are moments of harmony – like when they discovered a snail shell and were waiting for the snail to come out of its shell again – although these moments are rather infrequent and far too fleeting for me to derive any peace from them.

By the end of day two of their total screen ban, I witnessed something very satisfying – an emergence of creativity and imagination in their free play. They were at their grandparents’ house where I stubbornly held my ground against the “TV time” that they normally enjoyed. After a rocky start, the boys started re-enacting their own modified version of Gandalf the Grey vs the Balrog with some Harry Potter spells thrown into the mix. The only “toys” they had were the pillows and cushions that they used as their “weapons”.

It made me think of an article I read recently – “Free Play: Simple Items More Fun For Children” – and I wondered if, with all their easy access to toys in this age, we are somehow discouraging the development of true creative and imaginative play in our children. Have we made it too easy for them to find entertainment that they no longer have to come up with creative and imaginative ideas for play? I wonder…

Although it was nice to see that my boys are still in possession of the ability for imaginative free play, it was slightly troubling that it took them two whole days of screen detox to get there. Does it mean we need a sufficient duration of screen-deprivation in order to elicit this kind of uninhibited free play? What would that mean for the days when they are allowed to have their screen-time? More fodder for the mind…

G2: No! You’re Gandalf the White!
G1: Wait! Dad, who was Gandalf fighting in the mines?
DH: the Balrog and when Gandalf was fighting him, he was Gandalf the Grey. He didn’t become Gandalf the White until after he defeated the Balrog.
G1: *to G2* You see? I have to be Gandalf the Grey. And you’re the Balrog.

See Also: We’re ruining our kids with Minecraft: The case for unstructured play

“most kids today are unprepared to play with open-ended toys, and are largely unable to play without assistance from either their parents or the toy itself”

“children have to experience boredom before they will experience the instinct to play with a toy like blocks. If we want our kids to relearn how to play, we have to begin by exposing them to boredom.”


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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