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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.

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.

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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.

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"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.

Freeman took him aside. Using a stuffed cat, some blocks, and a cloth, she created a story that he could see, about a kitten looking for a friend to play with. The kitten met a mouse, but scared him away with his claws…. At first the story mirrored the boy's frustration, but it finished with a happy resolution. "I looked for opportunities every day, all day, to feed him stories that might prompt behavior modification rather than direct it," says Freeman. Eventually, the boy entered the world of imagination where everything dreamed becomes possible and – in his case, he became a good friend.

How play evolves

True play is self-initiated, says Elkind, such as the kindergarten children playing restaurant, described above.

Play takes different forms at different age levels. The babbling of infants, the dramatic play of preschoolers, and the simple games with rules (hopscotch, hide-and-seek, etc.). Through these activities, children learn about themselves, others, and about their world.

Freeman defines play in terms of emotional development, too: "Through imagination and interaction, children learn a passionate and compassionate respect for each other and the spiritual world around them."

One of her students insisted on putting Band-Aids on all the students. This boy rescuer was learning the importance of showing other kids that they could trust him – and building confidence that he really could help others. "Through imaginative play," Freeman says, "the children become empowered. They build self-confidence."

Role-playing is especially good for this. "Children are basically powerless," says Elkind. By pretending they are a train engineer or police officer, they can play the powerful adult and this provides a reprieve.

Lack of playfulness hurts academics

Fifteen major university teams from the United States recently competed in an international mathematics competition. Only one of the US teams won.

Elkind feels this is a consequence that students are not as playful as they once were.

"Fantasy, curiosity, and imagination are the mental tools required for success in higher-level math and science," says Elkind. "The failure to develop these tools [through play] is, in part at least, one of the reasons America is falling behind other countries in attracting young people into these fields."

Children also learn to socialize via play.

This past spring, when the pump-well was opened in the play yard of the Waldorf School here, the water gushed forth. Children were building dams, streams, ponds, and having a great time – except for one child.

"He is an only child, and he was feeling rejected … not knowing how to join the others," says Freeman. "So he ran after the others saying things like, 'That was my bucket! Now it's my turn!' "

But this wasn't getting him anywhere, so finally he stopped and thought. He looked at the wash bucket, and then called, "I have an idea … a great idea!" Everyone came running. They all filled little buckets and poured them into the river at the same time – everyone's effort was turned toward the same cause.

Instead of continuing to pester the others, this boy came up with his own idea, which included other children. In this creative, constructive way he became a part of the group.

"Epiphanies like this happen every day through play. And this is an experience that will build inner confidence and a sense of community in children that can serve them for a lifetime," says Freeman.

Opportunities for spontaneous play

There is certainly a place for organized sports, cultural activities like scouts or dance lessons, TV, and computers.

"It's not that those things aren't valuable," says Elkind. But things like soccer "shouldn't dominate a child's life, or else the fun sport becomes work, and by the time a child is 13 or 14, they are burned out."

Children need several hours each day to be kids, Elkind says. They need to let their imagination roam; they need to explore, and invent on their own, with other kids, with parents, or other caregivers.

Much more learning takes place outside the classroom than within it, Elkind maintains. And down time, even driving in a car provides wonderful opportunities for spontaneous play with our children, he adds. He was driving in the car with his 5-year-old granddaughter, who was getting bored. Elkind suggested that they count the number of "For Sale" signs. This became a game. When she asked, "What does 'For Sale' mean?" the game became an opportunity for her to practice counting and learn a new phrase.