The following is a review by David Crowley of the book The Power of Play by David Elkind.

As a teenager, driving by empty ballparks would launch my Dad into childhood stories of playing daylong pick-up games. He’d complain about how “kids these days” only play baseball as part of an organized team. Well, that trend of children spending their time in scheduled activities has continued over the past twenty years, with the consequence that they spend little time enjoying unstructured play. David Elkind’s The Power of Play makes a compelling argument that this reduction of spontaneous play comes at a significant cost for children.

Elkind is a Professor of Child Development at Tufts University. This is his first book that I’ve read, but I gather that he has written influential books in the field for many years, notably The Hurried Child and All Grown Up and No Place to Go. This new book does a good job of blending practical advice with broader analysis of childrearing trends and their implications. If you’re looking for a how-to parenting book, this would disappoint; but if you’re interested in placing your parenting experience in a broader social context, I’d recommend giving this a read. Though Elkind is an academic, this book is written for a general audience and is a pretty quick read. His points are often supported by personal anecdotes from his family and practice, thus adding an easily accessible quality to the book.

Elkind’s central thesis is that spontaneous, unstructured play is crucial for children’s healthy development. He begins by noting that children have lost around twelve hours per week of free time over the past twenty years, including eight hours of outdoor play. Factors driving this trend include overzealous parents trying to push their children to achievement, rampant consumerism, and too much time spent in front of computers and televisions. Unstructured play allows children a chance to develop their imaginations. This important informal play with others, absent coaches and referees, helps children develop their social skills.

Throughout the book, Elkind relates the benefits of play to well-understood stages of development (well-understood for anyone who’s taken a psych course that mentioned Piaget or Erikson). He derides efforts to teach children academic and other skills for which they are not ready. For instance, according to Elkind, pushing academic skills like reading with a preschooler is likely to frustrate her. Moreover, such premature focus on reading both takes her away from developmentally appropriate activities that build confidence and reduces free playtime that builds imagination.

I found chapters on toys and media especially instructive. Elkind’s comments on the abundance of toys many kids have today resonates—our son has so many toys he can forget about something for a few weeks then discover it again like it’s a new toy. The author expresses concern that children aren’t called upon to use their creativity with the abundance of electronic toys today that don’t require the imagination like the simple toys of times past. Elkind reviews popular educational videos and computer games, finding the educational claims of most videos ranging from unproven to ludicrous. Our son isn’t yet of age to play computer games, but when he does get interested in them, I’ll certainly want to test them out first after reading how inappropriate many of them are.

Elkind’s final chapters suggest another direction we can go with our children, one that would encourage more play and its related benefits. “Lighthearted parenting” encourages parents to relax a bit, and focus on sharing our passions with our children. “Schooling with the Heart, Mind and Body” argues for educating the whole child rather than teaching to the test. According to Elkind, achievement and learning, as well as emotional development, would follow if parents and educators heeded this advice.

I generally agreed with most of Elkind’s views, and feel that his is an important voice, given the educational and parenting norms of the day. There were times, however, when I would have liked to have seen a little bit more of the research basis for his arguments, rather than just backing a point with an anecdote. My other critique of the book is that Elkind frequently referred to a framework of “play, love and work” as being critical to the development that can be fostered through play. While this concept makes sense, the repetition of this theme felt a bit forced to me at times.

These small critiques aside, The Power of Play is an important book for parents, educators and everyone else concerned about children in today’s society. If enough of us read this book and take it to heart, our children would be happier and healthier as the book’s subtitle suggests. And perhaps my dad will one day pass by a ballpark and see his grandson playing an unscheduled pickup game with some friends.

Review by David Crowley, President of Social Capital Inc. and father of an almost two-year old boy. David is a graduate of Harvard College. In his free time David enjoys playing ball, exploring the outdoors and reading with his son. (HT: Dadlabs)