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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.

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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.

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."

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