February 08, 2007


The Power of Play: How Spontaneous, Imaginative Activities Lead to Happier, Healthier Children. By David Elkind, Ph.D. Da Capo. $24.

      It is not news that many of today’s middle-class children are over-scheduled, over-regimented, over-directed and right in line with their parents for being over-stressed. The drive to succeed starts early, as parents measure their own success by how well their children do in school – including what preschool they get into – and how many activities they participate in, and how well they can (when they get older) prepare a résumé for college (that’s essentially what an application is nowadays).

      What’s lost in all this rushing about, writes David Elkind, is an essential component of childhood. Elkind, professor of child development at Tufts University, is no turn-back-the-clock reactionary, urging parents to forgo modern conveniences and have their kids grow up with no more than empty boxes with which to play. But he understands the value of those boxes – and wooden blocks, and many other traditional but now-neglected toys – and wants families to know that what kids need for better social development is not more things but more time to play on their own and interact with their peers.

      Peer interaction in what Elkind calls “kinship play” is one of four types of play that Elkind believes all children should have the chance to experience. Kinship play involves self-initiated games (not playing board games or other prearranged ones) with other kids of similar age and skill level. There is also “mastery play,” which is what every parent encounters with a very young child who bangs on everything he or she can, using every object he or she can grab. Often maddening to parents, this is an essential form of play for helping kids learn differences among objects and the different effects that objects have – a wooden spoon banged on a high chair does not make the same sound as a wooden spoon banged on a metal pot. Stopping this sort of play and trying to “calm down” young children, especially with TV or videos, invites passivity and slows developmental awareness.

      “Innovative play,” writes Elkind, goes a step beyond “mastery play” and involves a child moving beyond what he or she has learned – for instance, mastering the ability to climb up the steps to a slide and then go down, then innovating by climbing the slide itself. And “therapeutic play” is crucial for coping with life’s stresses. A perfect example is peek-a-boo, which young children love – and which teaches them that a parent does not disappear forever simply by going out of sight.

      The key to all four types of play, writes Elkind, is that they are unstructured – or, more precisely, structured by children themselves, not by adults or by creators of TV shows, board games, dolls, etc. Elkind urges parents to reduce TV viewing time and encourage kids to make up their own plays and make-believe dramas; to make playdates with children of similar ages and let the kids decide on their own what to do; to take children to a park or lake, interact with them, and encourage them to explore the natural world. He also recommends not buying too many toys – a few are fine, but overwhelming kids with a huge variety of toys reduces the time they spend with any specific one, thus reducing the creativity of their play. And, not surprisingly, Elkind urges parents not to over-schedule kids: free time is not an unaffordable luxury, he argues, but a basic requirement for healthy development and children’s eventual ability to grow into creative, expressive and imaginative adults. The Power of Play is unlikely to make a big dent in many families’ frantic lives; but to the extent that its well-reasoned arguments make parents stop, think, and perhaps consider rebalancing their children’s hyperactive schedules, it will offer a worthy alternative to the all-too-crazed round of rushing hither and thither that defines so many childhoods today.

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