Let the Children Play

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Let the Children Play

Books That Explore the Importance of Play

In an age when increased amounts of academic work, standardized tests, adult-organized activities, and passive entertainment dominate children's lives, is there much time left to play? Drawing on evidence from anthropology, psychology, biology, neuroscience, and personal stories, the books below explore the nature of play and why it is essential.

Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life  by Peter Gray

Play is the natural mode of learning for children and contemporary schooling often interferes with it, argues psychologist Peter Gray in this provocative book.  He begins by looking at the decline of free play in children's lives over the past half century and the rise of child psychological disorders.  Children are not the problem, he asserts, but the coercive, adult-controlled environments they're trapped in that have squelched their playful instincts.  

Building his argument for learning through play, Gray examines anthropological research on childhood in hunter-gatherer societies, the form of societal organization universal during 99% of human history. Hunter-gatherer children spend much of their time freely playing and exploring in multi-age groups with little adult supervision, learning necessary cultural skills on their own initiative. Despite the very different cultural environment most modern humans now live in, biologically we are still hunter-gatherers.  Making a case that that this way of learning can work in contemporary times, he shares his own research on current non-coercive, democratic educational environments where children direct their own education. He concludes with a hopeful vision for the future, suggesting ways parents and communities can value free play.
The Case for Make Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World  by Susan Linn

Susan Linnpsychologist, play therapist, puppeteer, and co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhoodcompellingly explains why creative play is crucial to healthy child development and how unfettered commercialism hinders it.  Nurturing creative play, she argues, threatens the multi-billion dollar profits of toy and media corporations.  Linn investigates how toy and electronic media industries market their products (such as Baby Einstein videos and the LeapFrog Magic Moments Learning Seat) using dubious claims of their educational value.   Her discussion provides additional angles of analysis absent in Peter Gray's Free to Learn.

Linn makes the case for make-believe play by sharing several stories about children she's worked with in play therapy. Engaging in puppet play these children express their feelings and begin to cope with serious troubles, such as illness or family deaths, in ways that were impossible through regular conversation. Through play children find their inner voice and develop the ability to think independently. Linn concludes with suggestions on how to nurture creative play both on a family and societal level. 

A Child's Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play by Vivian Gussin Paley

Drawing from her 37 years of experience as a kindergarten and nursery school teacher, Vivian Gussin Paley explores the power of fantasy play. Instead of an abstract, theoretical discussion, she shares specific stories about children in the classroom to illustrate what they learn through fantasy play that would be hard to learn through didactic methods. The strength of her writing lies in her humble approach; her students teach her through their dramatic play why it is essential for their development. Paley's stories illuminate what is being sacrificed with the disappearance of unstructured creative time and the increasing emphasis on formal academic skills in once play-based early childhood settings.
The Power of Play: How Spontaneous, Imaginative Activities Lead to Happier, Healthier Children  by David Elkind, Ph.D.

Child psychologist David Elkind discusses how self-initiated play is essential for children's emotional, intellectual, and social growth. Through specific examples he demonstrates why over-scheduling has serious consequences for the lives of children and adults they become. He also examines different types of toys, screen media, and programs for young children and to what extent they foster play and exploration.  Many so-called educational toys and programs, he argues, reflect adult fears and desires, failing to appreciate the child's reality where all meaningful play emerges.

Looking at different kinds of play that occur at each developmental stage, he shows how it is the foundation for all learning. Math, literacy, scientific inquiry, and other skills that involve abstract reasoning require curiosity, motivation, imagination, and problem-solvingabilities developed primarily through play. Further developing his case, he shares studies that indicate that children in play-based early childhood settings do better academically later on than those in settings that emphasize formal instruction. Elkind ends with recommendations of how families, schools, and communities can restore play to its central role in children's lives. 

Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul  by Stuart L. Brown, M.D., with Christopher Vaughan

A physician, psychiatrist, and founder of the National Institute of Play, Stuart Brown has spent his career studying animal and human play. In this book he explores the biology and neuroscience behind play. During his career he has also conducted 6,000 play histories of humans from many walks of life, researching how play or lack of it has shaped their lives, and he shares his findings. For example, he found a connection between homicidal behavior and play deprivation in childhood. In contrast, he found that humans who had playful childhoods and continue to play as adults are more likely to successfully cope with stress, avoid depression, and live flexible, enriching lives.

Brown inspires us to bring a playful spirit back into work, home, and societal life.  For adults who want to rediscover play, he suggests reminiscing on their most memorable times, which is often reflected in positive play experiences in childhood, and to connect again to those passions that were repressed as they conformed to societal norms of success.  He concludes that play is anything but trivial; it's necessary for the survival of the human species, for "we start dying when we stop playing."