The Power of Play

I started reading this a few weeks ago, or maybe a week ago and just finished it last night. The reason it took me so  long to finish it was because I didn’t feel like continuing to read it at the end of the first section: at Child Play and Parent Angst. My interest wasn’t really piqued. But, I forced myself to finish it, and I have to say I love it. The book is divided into three parts. The first part talks about how play has degenerated in today’s modern world, and how our society has succumbed to technology’s ‘toys’ thereby abandoning the natural environment that is our worldly playground. The second part expounds on the role of play in learning and development, and in the last section, Elkind ends the book with some lighthearted parenting tips.

According to David Elkind, a professor of Child Development in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development at Tufts University, and author of The Hurried Child, babies of today are bombarded by academic DVDs and computer programs and a race towards academic achievement. Older kids are home bound by choice due to the lure of computer and video games and television. Basically, our children’s playground has also been virtualized. With the increase of crimes against children, thus leading to increased fear of children’s physical safety, parents no  longer let their children play outside as they children of older generations used to. Elkind contrasted the long lost era of when children used to spend most of the day exploring nature to this new era where children are immersed in a virtual playground and lose out on interaction with actual physical people and the natural environment.

As I was reading that, I suddenly felt alarmed at what my 3 year old is going through right now. He’s always attached to the computer, and he doesn’t go out much because we live in the desert.

“We need to move,” I said to my older kids, voicing out the desire and yearning that has been burning in my heart for the past 2 years. (It has something to do with the desert but that’s just my public excuse.)

I could relate to the sub chapter of Parent Peer Pressure, especially in homeschooling, where I worry if my kids are at par with school-going kids their age (when in reality and honesty, I should not have been), though alhamdulillah, I firmly dislike testing, so I don’t put that kind of pressure on my children. That is not to say I don’t put any pressure on them. I do, unfortunately and fortunately. Alhamdulillah for homeschooling then, because I’m then sheltered from the culture of the parent rat race. I might be affected by it every now and again, but not to a point where that becomes my whole goal. However, his explanation of parent peer pressure intrigue me. Elkind gave an example of an adolescent’s self-consciousness. This adolescent’s (especially in early adolescence) self consciousness comes from an imaginary audience she herself creates. She imagines everyone to look at her at every public situation. This is also what happens in parent peer pressure where a parent imagines an audience judging her parenting techniques. In such situations, a parent’s action will rely more on what others’ think than what is best for her child. This audience, Elkind says, is imaginary. Only if parents under parent peer pressure allow this audience to disappear, will they be able to use their common sense and values in deciding what is best for their children.

He states that play contribute to the social and emotional development of children at every stage of their growing years. There are 3 aspects he called the essential trio; play, love, and work. How play, love, and work pan out changes over the course of a human lifetime. Initially, play, love, and work are very closely related and work together as one, but as a child grows older, this essential trio begin to separate and take on individual roles. It is when work and play are separated that things become torturous. Elkind argues that the power of play lies in these 3 drives working together. Play is not a luxury that can be separated from love and work, but actually is an integral part that together with love and work, only enhances learning and development of a human being.

I love the stories he shares to illustrate his points, and I find myself pausing every now and then to think if my children got enough play when they were younger. I felt a bit guilty for introducing reading to them at a very young age, as opposed by Elkind, who says that  academic pursuits should not be imposed on children younger than 7 because they’re not ready yet to cope with it at the time. However, as I read on, and understood more about the 3 aspects of play, love, and work, I developed my own theory cum almost finalized conclusion; the Glenn Doman method I used to teach my eldest to read at age 3 was not done through drill or rote. In fact, Doman’s warning in the program includes ‘no testing’, ‘stop when either you or your child is tired or stressed out’, ‘make it pleasant’. When people hear of a parent teaching a baby how to read with flash cards, it might sounds a little over the top, but I personally think (and this is still a theory cum almost finalized conclusion for me) that done the right way(according to Elkind’s definition) by incorporating play, love, and work, it should be ok. In the Doman method, play is making it like a game for the child, where each card is only supposed to be shown for not more than a second and one set of 5 cards for the first stage then takes only 5 seconds to do and there are 5 sets, each set done thrice a day. Love would be the hugs and kisses that come with the sessions as they would come at any other time of the day. Work is the child acquiring the ability to read eventually, but the way it’s supposed to be done appears to be more play and love than work.

As he talked about how play is so essential throughout the growing years in helping develop social and emotional skills, I began to wonder if my children got enough of that too. I am pretty sure they got a lot of interaction with the natural environment for they were always going out, playing by the creek, bushes, and around the neighborhood, pretty much free to explore without fear for their physical safety. Where we lived, it was pretty safe. So I asked them who they played with throughout those years that we were there. Turned out that they did get a lot of social experience through play with the neighborhood kids. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Elkind’s chapters on Play, Learning, and Development presents anecdotes to illustrate his points in how play is essential in the development of social and emotional skills and how it actually enhances learning. He presents misunderstandings of how young children learn -‘ ‘Watch me’, “Little Sponge’, and “Look Harder”. I have to say I question the Little Sponge section because of my experience with the Glenn Doman method and my recent awareness albeit limited knowledge of the Shichida method. Maybe the knowledge of how young children learn as Elkind presented can still be contested.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Lighthearted parenting. In this chapter, Elkind recommends parents to use humor in discipline as part of integrating play (humor), love(reason behind using it) and work(lessons learned and outcome) in child-rearing. I truly enjoyed the anecdotes he shared, especially the one on Andrew, the boy who yelled, “Great news, Dad! No one slept with mom while you were away!” when he greeted his father at the airport. That had me gasping and chortling. Elkind also recommends parents to share their passions with their children. When parents share their passions, they are showing their human side to their children. Sharing passion allows the children to see their parents engaged in something that they enjoy doing (play, love, work) and the lesson they learn from this is invaluable. Sharing passion as a family is also a way to cement a strong bond in the family. Here Elkind suggests to teachers who are faced with a rigid curriculum to open up and share their passions with their students so as to reveal themselves as someone the students can warm up and possibly relate to. Indeed, it’s more interesting to be taught by Mr. Grommet the teacher and also part-time clown & magician than just Mr. Grommet the teacher.

I fervently found myself nodding in agreement with Elkind when he says that when children have a say in their learning, there is more self-motivation and enthusiasm in their learning. He wrote this book in response to public schools cutting down on play time and putting more emphasis on rote learning. Elkind says,

“Colonial powers once used rote learning methods to domesticate indigenous peoples and induce obedience to external authority. Rote learning is anathema to critical, innovative thinking.”

Coming from a continent that is predominated with rote learning, I couldn’t agree more.

Elkind seems to advocate Montessori and Waldorf for early childhood education because of the play-based method, but also gives alternative techniques parents can use to counteract rigid teaching practices in school to combat the harm of academic pursuit with absence of play in schools today.

Having grown up during the time when we were still able to freely explore our surroundings, I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to interact with my environment despite being glued to the TV when it comes on. During my childhood, the channels only come alive after 4 pm and ends at 12 am. Now, it’s 24/7 and more. Even though there were computers when I was a kid, it wasn’t as sophisticated and portable enough that every household owns at least one, and I’m not sure if they  had any yet in Malaysia at the time. Technology is not the death of play though, as Elkind states in his last chapter. John Dewey was opposed to classical Latin school which asserts that the mind would be strengthened by learning Latin, Greek and mathematics. Dewey was for progressive education in which it is supposed to be functional. He advocated the project method of learning where play, love, and work are combined through creativity, self-motivation, and practical learning. New technology make this project method a reality, which wasn’t the case back then. With the advent of the internet and resources at the tip of our fingers, the project method is being realized in a new educational reality. So in a way, Elkind wraps up his book on the subject of technology, by first mentioning how it kills play, but finally giving it merit for enabling play, love, and work to be integrated into education.

If you are one of those kiasu parents who emphasizes academic over play, or if you are one of those kiasu parents who firmly believe that play is essential in learning, you might benefit from reading The Power of Play. For the former, it will challenge your stance and either make you rethink or maybe, in indignance and disagreement, toss the book to a far-flung corner. For the latter, your heart will sing with the larks in joy and affirmation and boost your esteem in parenting. Being of the latter, reading this book brought me back to my childhood and my children’s recent childhood; a welcome walk down memory lane.


2 thoughts on “The Power of Play

  1. Assalaamu’alaykum dear sis Juli 🙂

    Jazzakillaahu khayr for taking time to write this one out.. 🙂

    Sigh. Every day is a challenge when it comes to parenting.. sometimes I feel so overwhelmed!

    I truly believe that children learn best at play.. but I don’t know if I am doing the right thing – perhaps I need to read this book!

    And this thing about technology.. ooh.. my son just loves the pc/handheld whatever/handphone etc.. it’s like this magnet for kids.. it is so worrying!

  2. Salam Nadia,

    Thanks for sharing. I am always choosy when it’s come down into reading parental skills theory. But, I think I might love this one. Probably will try to look for one in the shop.


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