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Elkind, David. (2007). The Power of Play: Learning What Comes Naturally. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press

Pp. 256         ISBN 978-0738211107

Reviewed by Punum Bhatia
University of Colorado, Denver

December 24, 2008

The Power of Play by David Elkind provides parents with an understanding and appreciation of the role of play in healthy emotional and academic development. It shows how creative, spontaneous play fosters mental and social growth as well as setting the stage for scholastic learning. David Elkind, Professor Emeritus at Tufts University and the author of a dozen books including The Hurried Child (1981) and All Grown up and No Place to Go (1998), urges parents to add more play to their children’s lives. While parents may worry that their children will be at a disadvantage if they are not engaged in constant learning, Elkind reassures them that imaginative play goes a long way in preparing a child for academic and social success.

Play is the young child’s most powerful tool for learning and yet in modern childhood, free unstructured play time is being replaced more and more by academics, electronics, competitive sports, formal lessons, and the like. Schools contribute to this with “suppression of curiosity, imagination and fantasy…elimination of recess in favor of academics…test driven curricula…learning methods preparing children for assessments” (p. xi). Parents are more concerned with their children’s successes in this fast-paced and competitive world; hence, leisurely play seems an almost unaffordable luxury. Elkind asks a poignant and pertinent question for our times: “When did life for a child get to be so hard?” (p. x).

In nine chapters, Elkind takes the reader from the changing world of play to the power of play in learning and development. The underlying theme through all the chapters is that play should be plentiful, pleasurable, self-motivated, non-goal directed, and spontaneous. Elkind claims that play, love, and work are three inborn drives that power human thought and action throughout the life cycle. They are the essentials for a full, happy, and productive life and function most effectively when used together. The author defines play as “our need to adapt the world to ourselves and create new learning experiences” (p. 3). Love is described as “our disposition to express our desires, feelings and emotions” (p. 3) and work is “our disposition to adapt to the demands of the physical and social worlds” (p.3).

Although it has been simple to compile a list of play activities and catalog the characteristics of play, child developmentalists have found it much harder to define play. Elkind’s definition of play is important because the emphasis is on the child, without imposing adult values, requirements, or motivations on children's activities which often change the very nature of play.

Children learn best when they create their own learning experiences and Elkind mentions Frederick Froebel (2003) as the creator of “gifts" and Maria Montessori (1964) as the inventor of “auto-didactic materials” as thinkers who allowed children to create their own realities and with trial and error come to their own conclusions. The development of play, love, and work takes place in four major periods which correspond closely to Jean Piaget’s stages of cognitive development: Infancy and Early Childhood (0-6 years); Elementary School Years (6-12 years); Adolescence (12-19 years) and Adulthood.

In these times of organized activities, academics and passive leisure pastimes such as watching television and playing computer games, Elkind wonders if we can give our children a balance between play, love, and work. The importance of play cannot be underestimated, as it is through play that children learn about cultural norms and expectations, and negotiate their way through their surroundings. “Children learn about themselves and their world through their play with toys” (p. 15). Even the toys have changed, laments Elkind: "toys once served to socialize children into social roles, vocations, and academic tool skills. Today, they are more likely to encourage brand loyalties, fashion consciousness, and group think" (p.28). Toys are mostly mass produced in plastic, available everywhere, given at all times of the year instead of just at Christmas and birthdays and now come with embedded computer chips that can recognize a child’s voice and follow directions. Speaking from personal experience with his grandchildren, Elkind says that the abundance of toys makes it hard for children to value them or to look to them for imaginative exploration. It is true that sometimes less is more and children can be overwhelmed with too many toys rather than be deeply involved with just a few.

Elkind argues that the profusion of toys is not necessarily a way for parents to cover their guilt for not spending enough time with their children. He has statistics to support the assertyion that parents are in fact spending more time with their children now than they did ten years ago (p. 16). A more likely explanation, then, is that childhood has become very heavily commercialized and as a result, having the latest toys has become necessary for social acceptance. So, "in a time when toys were few and far between, they gave flight to a child’s imagination” (p.19) but now they are purchased continuously and thus “fail to engage children’s creative fantasy” (p.18). The author makes a valid statement when he points out that toy manufacturers now appeal more to parents’ fears and anxieties rather than reflect parental beliefs and values.

Moving onto television and computers, the author acknowledges that technology has its place in the classroom, but advises against computer programs marketed toward babies and preschoolers whose young brains are not yet able to fully comprehend two-dimensional representations. Television and computer games can be very educational; therefore it makes little sense to prohibit them, but it is important for adults to be discriminating and to set limits. Equally important is to find a balance and ensure that children spend as much time out of doors as they do engaged in technology. Other educationists, including Maria Montessori, have mentioned the importance of outdoor play for children: “a child needs to live naturally and not simply have knowledge of nature. The most important thing to do is to free the child, if possible, from the ties which keep him isolated in the artificial life of a city” (Montessori, 1997, p. 69).

The importance of play is still not accepted universally. Play is viewed by some as the opposite of work and is often trivialized in sayings like “That is mere child’s play” or “He is only playing.” Elkind shows us that nothing is further from the truth. He helps us grasp the significance of play by emphasizing that young children learn by constructing and reconstructing the world through play-generated learning experiences. He makes his point by describing how fascinating it is to watch young children:

One moment the child is a naturalist busily examining a grasshopper, the next an artist putting impressions on paper, the next a writer describing an experience in highly original language, and always the sociologist exploring the potential of social interaction. These many roles are fulfilled with joyous excitement…Why intrude on a time when children are so primed to learn what they need to learn with joy and enthusiasm? (p. 117)

Not only does play nourish and support the child’s maturing mental abilities, but children also learn mutual respect and cooperation through role-playing and the negotiation of rules.

Jean Piaget (1962) wrote that it was during games that children came to understand the social rules which make cooperation with others possible (p.149). Mildred Parten (1932), too, believed that children developed through different stages of play: from onlooker play to cooperative play. She described the last stage as one in which children organize themselves into roles with specific goals in mind (for example, assigning the roles of doctor, nurse, and patient and play hospital). Elkind also mentions George Herbert Mead who wrote that when playing games “children learn social responsibility, to relate to others and to integrate themselves within the social collective” (p. 149).

Elkind concludes by observing that when we allow time for, and encourage, children’s self-initiated play, we insure the full development of their curiosity, imagination, and creativity. He takes the example of John Dewey’s (1938) project method, which combines creativity, self-motivation, and practical learning to explain play, love, and work (p. 196). This type of education is effective, because it addresses the child’s heart, mind and body:

Combining play, love and work is a means of successful academic achievement. It is when all three are brought together that children have the best chance of learning in the context of their unique personal circumstances. (p. 210)

In other words, play, love, and work are the three basic drives that power human thought and action and together allow individuals to lead full, productive lives.

The Power of Play inspires its readers to become believers in the importance of play. The book is an easy read and the anecdotes involving Elkind’s children and grandchildren keep it real and amusing. One of the major strengths of the book is that it has appeal for a wide audience. Parents will find the book useful for tips on raising children, as will educators because it is strongly backed with research. Citing the "grandmasters" of early childhood education, from philosophers like Jean Jacques Rousseau and John Dewey to practitioners like Frederick Froebel, Maria Montessori, and Rudolf Steiner, to theorists like Sigmund Freud and Jean Piaget, Elkind urges parents and teachers to allow children to grow at their own pace. A child’s world is filled with the magic of exploration, discovery, make-believe, and play: all vehicles for development. He makes it quite clear that we are all guilty of silencing children’s spontaneous play and taking childhood indoors.

As a passionate Montessorian, I found the references to the Montessori Method particularly interesting and illustrative of the author’s true understanding of the philosophy. For example, when talking about children learning best through “self-created experiences,” Elkind validates his statement by mentioning the Montessori apparatus “that children could master through trial and error, insight, and hypothesis testing” (p. 7). Indeed this is true as children in a Montessori preschool are shown how to work with the materials and then allowed to experiment on their own, often surprising the teacher with their discoveries. Elkind compliments the Montessori materials again when he uses them as examples to validate his theory that “we should not underestimate the comforting and stress-reducing qualities of natural materials” as opposed to the plastic toys available so freely (but not inexpensively) in the market. Speaking of the Montessori philosophy behind the materials, he writes that Maria Montessori “realized that young children take comfort and pleasure in the feel of wood, cotton or wool, and metal. She employed cotton yarns dyed with basic colors to stimulate children’s visual sense.” (p. 20)

It was sad, however, to see that a book had to be written to draw the attention of society to the importance of play and ways to restore it in children’s lives. It was also sad to see the author work so hard to make a point that should be quite obvious: children need more free time! However, the tone of the book is very positive and the author makes his point with conviction.

The Power of Play makes an important contribution with research and real-life examples to the literature on how children learn. It surveys modern toys and educational products, and makes a strong case that nothing beats unstructured, spontaneous play where children can come up with their own agenda. The book challenges the current hype about television programs and computer games that supposedly make children smarter. Perusing this volume will certainly make one think about the rich complexities and subtleties offered through play as the basis for ongoing development.

References

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education. New York: Collier

Froebel, F. (2003). Frederich Froebel’s Pedagogics of the Kindergarten; On His Ideas of Play and Playthings of the Child. California: University Press of the Pacific.

Montessori, M. (1997). The Discovery of the Child. Oxford, England: Clio Press

Montessori, M. (1964). The Montessori Method. New York: Schocken.

Parten, M. (1932). Social participation among preschool children. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 27, 243-269.

Piaget, J. (1962). Play, dreams, and imitation in childhood. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Piaget, J. (1950). The Moral Judgement of the Child. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

About the Reviewer

Punum Bhatia, Director and Teacher Educator at Montessori Centre International Denver. Ms. Bhatia is working towards her PhD in Educational Leadership and Innovation with an emphasis in Early Childhood Education at the University of Colorado Denver.

Copyright is retained by the first or sole author, who grants right of first publication to the Education Review.

Editors: Gene V Glass, Kate Corby, Gustavo Fischman

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