Why children need to learn to play
Play is 'shorthand for imagination, curiosity, ... our creative dispositions,' says the author of 'The Hurried Child.' And it's in increasingly short supply.
Three-year-old Nicole carefully arranges beige, fringed cloth napkins at each place setting on a small wooden table. Five-year-old Maria totes a tiny colander and a child-sized pair of tongs, announcing, "Spaghetti for dinner and cherry pie for dessert!" Nicole pours mugs of pretend lemonade.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The two commence eating their pretend feast, passing bread, welcoming guests, and making salads, cookies, and cakes.
It's a typical kindergarten scene at the Pine Hill Waldorf School here: pretending … imagining … experimenting with arts and crafts. In a word: playing.
"Play is a basic human drive," says David Elkind, author of "The Power of Play." "It is simply a shorthand for imagination, curiosity, and fantasy – our creative dispositions." Dr. Elkind is perhaps best known for writing "The Hurried Child" in 1981.
This tall, thin, tanned man frowns when he thinks about the future of play in our society. "Play is currently in disrepute," he says. "The not-so-subtle message these days is that play is superfluous. And if you are going to play, you may as well learn something at the same time."
But this overlooks the vital role of play in human development, Elkind says. Through play, children create new learning experiences. These self-created moments enable children to acquire social, emotional, and intellectual skills and grasp concepts they can't acquire any other way, he maintains.
"If, for example infants did not engage in self-initiated playful babble, they would never learn to speak," Elkind says.
Yet the concept of "unstructured, self-initiated play" is vanishing from our culture.
Computers, TV, a plethora of organized activities, electronic toys, and mounting pressure to excel academically at a much earlier age are just some of the influences changing the way children interact with each other and the world around them.
"Over the past two decades, children have lost 12 hours of free time a week," Elkind writes in "The Power of Play." This includes "eight hours of unstructured play and outdoor activities."
This time has been supplanted by organized and more sedentary activities. "The time children spend in organized sports has doubled, and the number of minutes children devote to a passive spectator activity … not including television … has gone from 30 minutes to more than three hours a week," Elkind continues.
Even schools contribute to this scarcity of playtime: Some have eliminated recess in favor of more time in the classroom.
"The pressures on kids today also constrain their ability to play and use their imaginations," says Elkind. Kindergartens, which were once dedicated to children's learning through play, have become mini- first grades, focused upon academic learning, including testing and homework.
During his 50-year tenure as a professor of child development at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., Elkind has seen this change affect his students. "Many young people today don't know how to play," he says. Their time has been so programmed, so structured that they have had little time or opportunity to engage in self-initiated activities.
Some children must learn how to play
Lisa Freeman, a Waldorf kindergarten teacher for 17 years, agrees. "Not everyone who comes to our kindergarten can play at first," she says. "They cannot act out their own ideas." One of her first responsibilities at the beginning of each school year is to help develop the children's innate ability to do just that.
Ms. Freeman describes a typical experience: "Groups of children were deeply engaged in building a houseboat, draping big cloths over wooden play stands," she says. "A boy was roaming from one group to the other, and suddenly he pulled down the wall of the boat, creating great indignation." The children repaired it, but he kept doing it.
At story time, which is told without books or pictures, this same boy could not sit still or be quiet, perhaps because he was not able to create inner images from the words.