Dr. David Elkind Urges Parents to Add More Play to their Children's Lives

"The traditional summer camp recognizes that play is a powerful form of learning that contributes mightily to the child's healthy physical, emotional, social, and intellectual development."

American children seem to be in constant motion—their schedules packed with homework, chores, music lessons, and organized sports. With a lack of time for good, old-fashioned play for children, Tufts University child development expert Dr. David Elkind warns in his upcoming book, The Power of Play: How Spontaneous, Imaginative Activities Lead to Happier and Healthier Children, that there can be health and psychological consequences.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) concurs with Dr. Elkind. In a recent report written in defense of play and in response to forces threatening free play and unscheduled time, AAP concludes free and unstructured play is healthy and—in fact—essential for helping children reach important social, emotional, and cognitive developmental milestones as well as helping them manage stress and become resilient.

Dr. Elkind has researched the areas of perceptual, cognitive, and social development of young children, and it is this research that has fueled his groundbreaking books—The Hurried Child, All Grown Up and No Place to Go, and Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk. This much-loved author and psychologist is the past president of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, and a frequent contributor to television programs, including the Today Show, 20/20, Oprah, and the Lifetime series Kids These Days, which he cohosted.

"The silencing of children's play is as harmful to healthy development, if not more so, than is the hurrying of children to grow up too fast too soon," Elkind writes in the introduction to The Power of Play.

Elkind, the keynote speaker for the 2007 American Camp Association National Conference, states that traditional summer camp is an oasis for children who are so focused on preparing for the future and have no time for enjoying the moment. "Not only does summer camp provide children relief from the pressures to achieve, it reacquaints children with the natural world, with the importance of friendship, cooperation, and the fragility of the environment in which we live. The traditional summer camp recognizes that play is a powerful form of learning that contributes mightily to the child's healthy physical, emotional, social, and intellectual development."

Dr. Elkind recommends to all parents, "More play should be added to your child's life."

Make it your New Year's Resolution to accomplish this, and give your child an oasis from the day-to-day pressures—give your child the gift of camp.

Make it your New Year's resolution to add more play to your child's life.

Here's how…

  1. Cut TV time and replace it with playtime. Television sitcoms and movies have all but eliminated the self-initiated dramatic play that once mimicked the adult world. Give your child the time, the place, and the materials to engage in make-believe, express his or her individuality, and grow physically, emotionally, and mentally through play.
  2. Make play-dates with children of a similar age, and let them initiate the kind of play they wish to engage in. Children of the same age love to play together. These children are at the same skill level and create a relationship of mutual authority. It's important for children to engage in play with their peers so that they can establish a sense of alliance that will grow as they do.
  3. Avoid too many toys too often. Toy play is one way that children nurture their disposition for imagination and fantasy—and these human potentials can only be fully developed through practice. But the sheer number of toys owned by the contemporary child weakens the power of playthings to engage children in dramatic thinking. When it comes to toys, less is more. Children are easily overwhelmed by the multitude of their playthings and will end up going from toy to toy without spending time on any one of them. Make sure the toys you buy encourage imaginative inspiration, not momentary amusement or distraction.
  4. Watch out for over-scheduling. These days, parents are too anxious for their children to succeed in an increasingly competitive global economy. Many parents regard play as a luxury that the contemporary child cannot afford. Make sure to leave some unscheduled, free time for your child each day. Allow him or her to choose the activity to fill that time and provide materials, like hand-me-down clothes, that encourage creative expression and imaginative play.
  5. Explore the great outdoors. For adults and children alike, nature can provide endless inspiration and delight. Take your kids to a park or on a hike. Encourage them to ask questions and engage with the world around them. Climbing a tree and playing games with plants and dirt are simple, fun, and important ways for your child to become acquainted with the natural world. Interacting with the natural world teaches children about sameness and difference, and about constancy across change. These concepts are an important preparation for constructing the basic units of math, reading, and science.

Adapted from David Elkind's The Power of Play