"The Power of Play" by David Elkind
There are few books that I would recommend "across the board" to parents. This one is one of them.
Parents in today's society are concerned with their child's ability to keep up with the fast-paced, hard road to success. "Will my child be a well adjusted, socially acceptable, athletic, smart, successful person so as to lead a happy life?" To find the desired answers to these questions in an attempt to self-fulfill them, they readily search out the fastest means to accomplishment - succumbing to the parental peer pressure of structured programs, scheduled athletics and, of course, the educational products on the store shelves sold to us by the brilliant experts known as marketers.
The Power of Play addresses our cultures tendency towards academics, competitive sports, and passive electronic learning games and suggests that parents look within their own family for the answers.
Elkind lays the foundation to a healthy learning environment in the combination of Love, Work, and Play: giving encouraging ways in which these can be balanced in a child's life. From the infant lying on the floor with his gaze fixed towards a distant object, to the preschooler using a piece of string as a tornado, to school children creating the rules to games in words such as "no tag backs" and "not it!" education is happening right before our eyes as they spontaneously discover science, math, and social structure.
While reading this book, it is difficult not to take on a more relaxed, unhurried attitude with children. Observing them absorbed at their own play, one can begin to catch glimpses of their perception of the world around them and see discovery in their faces.
Elkind does not, as you may be thinking, discourage organized sports teams or early academic training, he simply stresses a need for balance and suggests possible effects of too much structure. His encouragement is to simply let them play, let them discover their world at their own pace, and join them on their journey.
Elkind describes infants as living in a foreign world where everything is new and there are no set standards from which to learn. The child must create a reality and does this through natural curiosity and exploration. What seems to the adult as mundane, ordinary activity is to the infant an emerging discovery of What Is. The infant will use his curiosity to stare at one object, thus improving concentration, learning the aspect of movement and discovering spacial recognition. By understanding and observing our infants in their play, we are able to approach them and bring the object to them in a new way-enhancing their understanding.
An example of this was seen in our son Noah who is constantly engrossed in the trees above him. It is hard to ignore as he watches, gets excited, becomes still with intent concentration and then bursts into sporadic movement again.
One day when he was in his usual "tree gaze" state, I reached up and plucked a branch from his tree. As I brought it down to him he squealed with delight. I watched as his hands made contact with the branch, twisted it in his tiny hands and brought it to his mouth, only to pull it back in disgust and look intently at it again. When I took it from his grip, he objected as he has never done before with screaming and crying until I once again brought it into his sight.
Chapter 4 of The Power of Play addresses toys - seen as the gateway to play. He expresses a "generational switch" in which grandparents, while observing the abundance of toys, pull back from "spoiling" their grandchildren. The lavishing of gifts is now done by parents themselves. The grandparents are left to observe a general dissatisfaction with toys and a seeming lack of interest by the child when his toy does not do it's job of amusing him.
"It is probably a generational issue, but I find it hard to convince parents that, when it comes to toys, less is more.Only when a child spends time with a particular toy can she weave it into a story tapestry of her own invention."
He also describes a negative aspect of modern toy buying which every mother I am sure has experienced. "But so-n-so has it!" This is not an old phenomenon and Elkind himself recalls his mother's words of "I don't care what you want!" in simple direct honesty. The kid next door will always have a newer, better toy. The lesson learned will depend on the parent. Much to our surprise, children have no way of buying toys apart from parents.
"Purchasing fad toys has always been one of the ways parents try to ensure that their children do not feel different of left out. An unintended consequence of using toys to promote social acceptance and positive self-esteem is that it encourages conformity. Children come to see toys as vehicles of social acceptance rather than launching pads to imagination and fantasy."
He critiques "educational toys" as part of the consumer culture which will do anything to sell a toy; having no data to support their educational purpose. His conclusion with educational toys/games is that while they may teach something or other, there is no evidence that they will do any good; and feels like they only take away from valuable unstructured play and imagination.
"What is clear is that these educational toys for young children are another example of how toys have become part of the consumer culture. Parents are encouraged to buy such toys to give their children and educational edge. And there is a subtle message that parents who do not but these toys for their children are really not doing a good job as parents. What I find troubling about these products is taht they are designed and marketed more for their appeal to parents than for what is really in the best interests of the child. In the past, toy manufacturers tried to make toys that reflected parental beliefs and values. Today they creat toys that speak to parental fears and anxieties."
My reasoning for reading this book was to attempt to solve the question of whether or not we should put Jake into soccer. Both of his cousins are participating in the sport and, despite my longstanding goal to keep my children away from organized activities before age 6, there was part of me questioning not my reasons, but my child's reaction to those around him. Would he suffer if he did not participate? Would he feel even more inferior? (Jake is the youngest of three five year old boy cousins). Should our ideals change to accommodate the culture around us? I found encouragement to these questions in my mind from the following excerpt.
"How do parents develop a strong sense of authenticity as a parent? I learned about one way parents do this during a promotion tour for my book The Hurried Child. At one of the venues I met a woman who was amused when I talked about parent peer pressure...Her husband was a missionary, and the family had just returned to the States from many years of traveling overseas. She said that she was amazed at how influenced parents were by the media and their peers. Moving around the world, her family had become very close and secure in their values and beliefs...she and her husband had learned to look to themselves in deciding what was best for their children."
That was it! Not simple right/wrong, do don'ts of child rearing, but an authenticity that shows the intimate knowledge of ones own children and family life. The ease and convenience with which this culture has created for itself allows much time in our parenting lives for outside activities. Meals cook themselves, dishes practically wash themselves, and we are allowed much more time as wives outside of the home. Thus we find ourselves in playgroups, internet chat groups and forums, mom's clubs, etc. Ideas are exchanged and moms come away with the newest ideas, the best books and the perfect, only way to raise your child. Because we spend more time around others and less time around our family, we look to The Group for the answers to life's day to day questions and not to the individual who we are raising.
Consider the following quote. I have never quite looked at it from this perspective.
"Our anxiety over protecting our children's physical well-being may, in part at least, be a compensation for our relative inability to protect their psychological innocence. Indeed, the period of childhood innocence, which once lasted through the preteen years, now ends at six or seven and even earlier. Barbie, once meant for school-age girls, in now owned by my two year old granddaughter. For her older cousin, going on five, Barbie is already passe...Because we have lost control over the information flow to our children, we are forced to accept their loss of innocence with the same resignation prewar parents expressed when they accepted the risks their children took in playing outdoors on their own. The reversal of the risk-innocence commitment has had a profound effect of children's play. When children played on their own, there were many opportunities for innovation and invention, including making their own guns. (I never bought guns for my sons, but I did not interfere if they made relatively harmless ones of their own.) When we played on our own, we also learned to relate to one another and resolve our own conflicts, even if this sometimes involved fights. Protecting children's innocence did not affect our outdoor play. In contrast, our contemporary fears about children's physical well-being does affect their play. Children are not allowed to play on their own to the extent that they once were. And much of the play the do engage in is organized and run by adults. This robe children of the opportunity to innovate and learn from their risk-taking behavior."
Elkind makes a strong point in this book on the necessity of unscheduled, uninterrupted play. It does have the risk of injury, fighting, and perhaps some sneaking in of dirty words, but it also allows for the child to discover risk taking, problem solving and personal conscience. With an adult always supervising their activities, they only learn of these things and do not actually discover the reality of them.
I remember these unscheduled play times with my siblings with fondness despite my rank as "littlest sister." I can see the great importance of the events of those play times in establishing our social skills. Looking back, my mother probably had no idea what was going on. If she had, she would have definitely put a stop to the childishness; rather, she left us to play and create on our own. There are still memories of ours that, when brought up in my mother's presence, causes her to shake her head saying "I had no idea you were doing that!"
May the day come when I look with amazement and slight horror at my grown sons recalling the memories of their play!