The Power of Play

The Power of Play

David Elkind, the author of The Hurried Child and Ties That Stress, has added a third book, The Power of Play, that encapsulates his belief that “a happy and productive life” must include playing, loving, and working.1 He believes they are the “three inborn drives that power human thought and action”2 While philosophers and researchers have championed play, David maintains they have done it at the exclusion of work, love, and child development factors. Meanwhile, educators have discussed development solely in terms of physical, emotional-social, and intellectual concepts. In contrast, David declares, “To fully appreciate the power of play, I believe we need to see how it develops in relation to love and work.”3

Recognizing four broad development stages – Infancy and Early Childhood, Elementary School Years, Adolescence, and Adulthood – The Power of Play explores how the proportion of play, love, and work vary in each stage.4 Dr. Thomas Armstrong summarized David's three earlier stage requirements: “play should be the focus of early childhood, work the central objective of middle childhood, and love the chief concern of adolescence, even as play needs to underpin them all.”5

David elaborates that in the first two years of life, an infant utilizes a seamless mix of all three drives in discovering his world and in developing the concept of “permanent object.” This mix begins to separate out more over the next four years during early childhood, with play directing children's self-created learning experiences. In fact, David believes that “learning is the product of play-generated experiences limited only by the child's level of intellectual development.”6

During the elementary school years, starting about six years of age, work is the main dynamic as children learn the skills of reading, writing, arithmetic, and computing. Even though work is driving the acquisition of knowledge, a playful approach and encouraging teachers facilitate the process. Accordingly, David maintains that “Children make the most progress when all three dispositions are involved in their learning and instruction” and parents and teachers “are most effective if they build on children's love of stories, contrasts, rhythm and rhyme, unexpected facts, and humor.”7

A key to beginning this formal skills instruction is the acquisition of the “age of reason,” the stage where children “understand that one thing can be two things at the same time.”8 Such reasoning allows, for example, the number nine to mean nine items or ninety items depending on its position or that the letter “a” can be short in “hat” or long as in “ate.” Making sure children have reached this developmental level is necessary “to ensure motivation and avoid frustration” in formal skill instruction.9

Jean Piaget has demonstrated that such intellectual maturity roughly occurs between ages five and seven.10 David believes that self-directed play experiences nourish this maturation process, especially through the four kinds of early play: mastery play, innovative play, kinship play, and therapeutic play.11 Play with elements such as earth, water, air, and fire; observing plants, animals, and the cosmos; playacting; and asking questions also facilitate achieving the age of reason.

After reaching reasoning maturity and gaining basic skills, by about eight years of age children are learning to make “the unfamiliar world familiar” as they broaden and deepen their focus in the sciences, world cultures, art, music, and sports.12 Games with rules (a major form of play during these years) and friends (love of peers) support children's work in discovering knowledge and forming social skills and values.

Concerning the development of social skills, Piaget points to play: “It is through game playing, that is, through the give and take of negotiating plans, settling disagreements, making and enforcing rules, and keeping and making promises that children come to understand the social rules which make cooperation with others possible. As a consequence of this understanding, peer groups can be self governing and their members capable of autonomous, democratic and moral thinking.”13

With the advent of puberty comes the dominance of love in young adolescents' lives, especially in the early years roughly between the ages of 12 and 15 years. By later adolescence an equilibrium between play, love, and work is re-established with the new focus on career paths and more institutionalized play forms such as performing or creative arts.

In adulthood, play, work, and love are “fully separated” though they can be combined at will. An adult example of combining these factors is discussed through Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's concept of “flow” and the nine elements he identified as necessary for achieving the joy of flow.14

The Power of Play also discusses the distractions, pressures, and misinformation that hamper learning developmentally through play, work, and love. Having too many unimaginative toys of inferior quality, utilizing toys for social acceptance instead of creative development, and creating child consumers while designing for adult concerns are some of David's issues with the current toy industry.15

As to electronic toys which David characterizes as “highly complex interaction(s),” he believes the standards of play, love, and work can assist families in deciding “When, how much, and at what pace should we introduce children to the many faces of electronic media?”16 While he sees little point in introducing very young children to the media, he feels the best of the genre comes when children take some initiative which brings a sense of play, can be emotionally involved and thus include love and social factors, and can learn something of the world which facilitates work.

Other pressures including parental fears, parental peer pressures, and changing roles for parents in society have led to reactions such as hyperparenting, overprotecting, and over programming their children. Additionally David speaks of three misconceptions of how children learn: that children learn by watching, that they are “sponges” who soak up everything, and that they just need to look harder to see the lesson. Instead he states that “During the early years of life the child does not learn by 'watching,' 'absorbing,' or 'looking harder.' The young child does learn by constructing and reconstructing the world through his play-generated learning experiences.”17

Lighthearted Parenting and Schooling with Heart, Mind, and Body are the concluding chapters which give solutions and suggestions. He maintains that lighthearted parents “have found ways to integrate play, love, and work in their everyday lives.”18 He suggests using humor to teach and discipline, sharing passions through direct involvement or by example, and making regular sharing time with the family. As to the schools, he concludes with a review of schooling approaches through the years, including the project approach of John Dewey, which is able to be more fully realized through today's new technology. He also includes ways parents can mitigate the tradition bound ineffectiveness of formal schooling.

Throughout The Power of Play, David Elkind has clarified “to parents, educators, and legislators the central role of play in healthy intellectual, social, and emotional development” and shared ways for “bringing spontaneous, self-initiated play back into children's lives.”19

  • 1. Elkind, David. The Power of Play. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2007. pp. xi, 3.
  • 2. Op.cit., Elkind. p. 3.
  • 3. Op.cit., Elkind. p. 4.
  • 4. Op.cit., Elkind. p. 5.
  • 5. Armstrong, Thomas. “The Power of Play: How Spontaneous, Imaginative Activities Lead to Happier, Healthier Children.” Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, 2008.
  • 6. Op.cit., Elkind. p. 103.
  • 7. Op.cit., Elkind. p. 121, 127.
  • 8. Op.cit., Elkind. p. 122. Emphasis in the original.
  • 9. Op.cit, Elkind, p. 126.
  • 10. Op.cit., Elkind. p. 122.
  • 11. Op.cit., Elkind. pp. 103-116.
  • 12. Op.cit., Elkind. p. 9.
  • 13. Piaget, J. The Moral Judgement of the Child. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950., cited in Elkind, p. 149.
  • 14. Op.cit., Elkind. pp. 12-13.
  • 15. Op.cit., Elkind. pp. 15-20, 26, 36.
  • 16. Op.cit., Elkind. pp. 37, 43.
  • 17. Op.cit., Elkind. pp. 102-103.
  • 18. Op.cit., Elkind. p. 171.
  • 19. Op.cit., Elkind. p. xii.