The Power of Play

David Elkind

This book addresses the concerns that many of us have about ignoring child development and the ranges of development within a grade level and even within individuals when educational standards are set. David Elkind reminds us that most children are enthusiastic learners in the appropriate circumstances but may be anxiously unsuccessful in other conditions.


He addresses the misconception of equating faster with better and approaches what children do and how they feel from the integrated perspectives of love, play, and work. I will touch on his primary message through the following excerpts.

Children’s play – their inborn disposition for learning, curiosity, imagination, and fantasy – is being silenced in the high-tech, commercialized world we have created. Toys, about which children once spun elaborate personal fables, now engender little more than habits of passive consumerism. The spontaneous pickup games that once filled neighborhoods have largely been replaced by organized team sports and computer games. Television sitcoms and movie CDs have all but eliminated the self-initiated dramatic play that once mimicked (and mocked) the adult world. Parents, anxious for their children to succeed in an increasingly competitive global economy, regard play as a luxury that the contemporary child cannot afford.

            The health consequences for children resulting from the disappearance of play are already apparent. At the first ever Surgeon General’s Conference on Children’s Mental Health in 2000, it was reported that “growing numbers of children are suffering needlessly because their emotional, behavioral and developmental needs are not being met by the very institutions that were explicitly created to take care of them.” Over 20 percent of the child population now suffers from these problems. Moreover, the surgeon general also suggests that two-thirds of the children in this country suffers at least one health problem. Thirteen percent of our children are obese. We have more than 2 million children on Ritalin and other ADHD medications. This may be the first generation of American children who are less healthy than their parents.

            Our increasingly test-driven curricula have all but eliminated creative and playful teaching practices.


            All too often children’s spontaneous active play has been transformed into passive audience participation.


            I now appreciate that silencing children’s play is as harmful to healthy development (if not more so) as hurrying them to grow up too fast too soon.

            Like other human potentials, imagination and fantasy can only be fully developed through practice. Yet the sheer number of toys owned by contemporary children weakens the power of playthings to engage children in dramatic thinking.


            The complexity of electronic technology changes the child’s intellectual engagement with these toys. The mechanics of soapbox cars and windup toys are easy for children to understand. Toys with embedded microcontrollers, in contrast, work as if by magic.

            Parents who talk, play with, or sing to their young infants or toddlers give them much more than any DVD or television program ever could. The most important stimulus to healthy growth and development for infants and young children is affectionate human interaction. Readinggjw

            Parental angst leads to the overprotection, overscheduling, and overprogramming of contemporary children. It originates in pressures unique to contemporary family life…. Hyperparenting gets in the way of seeing our children as separate individuals and from supporting the healthy ways in which they are different from us. images (5)

            I have been working with children and families for almost fifty years, and children still develop in the same way and at the same pace.

            I have serious doubts that infants and toddlers learn anything beneficial from a computer program. Any possible benefits are more than offset by what the experience does to their inclination for self-directed learning.

            It is only after children have attained the age of reason that they can learn verbal rules – the basis of formal instruction. A summary of European research on early childhood education submitted to the British House of Commons is representative of the research on this issue:

Comparisons with other countries suggest that there is no benefit to starting formal instruction before the age of six. The majority of other European countries admit children to school at six or seven following a three year period of pre-school education which focuses on social and physical development. Yet standards of literacy and numeracy are generally higher in those countries than in the U. S., despite our earlier starting age.

            But it is not until the age of reason that they can break the phonics code and understand that letters are in fact units. To truly appreciate phonics the child has to understand that one and the same letter can be sounded in different ways and that different letters are sounded in the same way.

            A child’s verbal facility often gives a false impression of their level of mental development.

            We see many similarities between patterns of behavior bringing about successful socio-dramatic play experiences and patterns of behavior required for successful integration into the school situation. For example, problem solving in most school subjects requires a great deal of make-believe: visualizing how the Eskimos live, reading stories, imaging a story and writing it down, solving arithmetic problems and determining what will come next. History, geography, and literature are all make believe. All of these are conceptual constructions never directly experienced by the child.