09/24/2014 12:00 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2014

Child's Play Is No Joke: A Mother and Toymaker's Mission to Unplug Playtime

Mary Beth Minton

When I was a young mother, I began to notice how my kids looked when they zoned out in front of the TV on the odd Saturday afternoon. As another beautiful sunny day was hastily snuffed out by the whipping of heavy drapes across the window to avoid the glare in the screen, I became fascinated -- and horrified -- by the power this screen held over my normally adventurous and outdoorsy kids.

This was 1994, and 'screen time' was limited to one clunky, immoveable device: the television set. Screen time wasn't even a term yet, because the amount of time children spent in front of it wasn't a concern. Yet. When I spoke to mothers of my children's friends about my observations, I was met with shrugs and half-hearted rationalizations like, "Well, at least they're not getting into real trouble." Most parents told me that they knew it probably wasn't great for their children, but it was the easiest way to occupy them after a long day or when they needed to get something done without a bunch of commotion going on in the background.

But as I continued taking note of this phenomenon, I noticed that my kids, while they did sit down and shut up in front of the screen, became more irritable and cranky after it was turned off than when they had started. It was like watching someone who is hungry eat a bag of potato chips; they end up wanting more potato chips and their hunger problem still remains unsolved.

As we've entered the device revolution over the past decade, screens have become a part of everything we do and, in some cases, even an extension of ourselves. When it was just limited to the TV, screen time was easier to regulate because it could only happen in one room of the house. Now, screens consist of the most entertaining devices ever imagined, they go wherever you go, and their content and user interfaces are designed largely to keep users -- i.e. kids -- engaged longer (more attention equals more advertising revenue, in-app purchases or valuable usage data).

The crazy thing is, the very people who invent these devices and run the companies that make them or the content that is available on them often don't let their own children use screens much at all. Nick Bilton had an eye-opening article in The New York Times entitled "Steve Jobs Was A Low-Tech Parent," and it examined the technology habits of top tech entrepreneurs and CEO's in their own households with their own young children. Despite being the creators of the very devices in question, they tended to have pretty strict guidelines for low or no screen time around the house. Reading that article, I was reminded of the famous Scarface line, "Don't get high on your own supply." These titans of technology are publicly encouraging all children to use their devices and consume their content, but privately closing their front doors and applying strict rules to their own family's usage of the very same devices and content. Do they know something the rest of us don't?

Screen time and technology in general are not bad, of course. Running a startup, I would never have been able to get off the ground without the wonders of technology and the Internet. I wouldn't be able to connect with families around the world about the importance of play without social media and you wouldn't even be able to read this post without the magic of digital distribution -- whether it's on your laptop, mobile device, or Oculus Rift. Even for kids there are some unbelievable apps that can teach kids programming, like Scratch Jr and Hopscotch, or basic shapes and pattern-recognition, like Osmo. But research shows that less than half the time kids are spending in front of screens is spent consuming "educational" material.

I'm more concerned with what we're losing as screens become more commonly used as entertainment devices, social interaction tools and even babysitters for young children. When a child is grasping a tablet, they're typically seated, not interacting with other kids, and not outside. That scenario is the antithesis to one of the most important activities children can engage in: free, unstructured play. To Jean Piaget, the famous developmental psychologist, "play is the work of childhood." To me, play is an adventure. Anything that can inspire kids to get off the couch and explore the world around them -- whether it's learning how something works by taking it apart, discovering a new place or culture, or making something new with nothing but curiosity and creativity to work with -- is worthwhile. Unfortunately, play has declined by 9-12 hours/week over the past two decades, leading to a national Play Deficit. This is while screen time has increased from 4 hours per day to 7.5 hours per day, at the same time that creativity scores in young kids have declined sharply, leading some researchers to conclude that we are in a Creativity Crisis. Given that 1,500 CEOs, polled in a recent IBM study, said creativity is the single most important leadership characteristic, keeping kids playing is essential to our economic future.

Part of the problem is people don't know what free, unstructured play means anymore. These days, most people hear the word "play" and they think of children engaging in sports or playing a video game with a friend. But that type of play is "structured" play, and doesn't have the same benefits of building the skills necessary for decision-making, creative problem-solving, negotiation or emotional control. Free play is how children learn to take control of their lives. But with so many distractions, it's essential to provide kids with alternatives to screens and structured activities that inspire this type of play, because you can't force it.

When I first noticed this problem 20 years ago, I tried to make an impact by raising awareness as an activist. But I've realized that the only way to truly make a difference in changing behaviors is by offering real, concrete solutions. My small part of the solution was to create a line of toys that offers an appealing alternative to kids that gets them off the couch and playing again. But more importantly I hope to open the door to a real discussion about this important issue.

To me, play truly is an adventure. And I believe we as a society can have a very real impact if we recognize the importance of real play, if we introduce moderation when it comes to screens and kids, and if we focus on kickstarting our future generation's ability to invent, innovate, create and succeed.