The Power of Play: How spontaneous, imaginative activities lead to happier, healthier children by David Elkind, PhD (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2007, ISBN: 978-0-7382-1053-7)
This book was written by: David Elkind, professor emeritus of child development at Tufts University. Dr. Elkind grew up without a lot of the newfangled gadgetry surrounding today's children, and:
We were a working-class family and my parents had enough to do keeping a roof over our heads and food on the table to worry much about our daily ups and downs. They were pleased with our achievements but did not play favorites. And because they sacrificed so much to give us a better life, we had a different attitude than many children today. We were less concerned with what our parents could do for us and more with what we could do for our parents(p.70)
Rumors that Dr. Elkind was the inspiration for Dana Carvey's "A Grumpy Old Man" character are completely unfounded.
What is in this book: Dr. Elkind's challenge to modern parenting techniques. These days, "concern, on the surface at least, for children's physical well-being appears to outweigh worries about their innocence"(p.79). It's a problem because "children are not allowed to play on their own to the extent that they once were [....] This robs children of the opportunity to innovate and learn from their risk-taking behavior"(p.80), like the way that the innovative, unsupervised children in Lord of the Flies taught Piggy not to play near falling rocks.
Modern toys take a toll on the imagination of children. "Toys, about which children once spun elaborate personal fables, now engender little more than habits of passive consumerism"(p.ix), and children lose out if they neglect imagination-based forms of play like role playing. "In playacting, the child accepts the fact that she is playing a different role. Play becomes another way in which children further their understanding of rules and the concept that one thing can be two things at the same time" (p.134), like how LARP enthusiasts can simultaneously be pathetic in the real world and slightly less pathetic in their fantasy world.
What is not in this book: Baseless nostalgia. Dr. Elkind offers empirical proof that things were better back in the day because "the majority of toys are now made of plastic. These playthings generally lack the warmth of wood, the texture of natural fabrics such as cotton or wool, or the solidity of metal"(p.15). With the exception of Hot Wheels tracks, they are also less effective at dishing out a beating. "In my childhood a cannonball was made of slices of automobile inner tube tied together to make a huge rubber band. [....] believe me, when you got hit by one of those things, you knew about it"(p.78). The playthings of years past were also more closely connected to nature. This is important because "if young children spend too much of their waking time with playing with chip-embedded toys or computers or watching television programs, they will have less time to interact with the elements and learn the lessons the elements [earth, air, fire, and water] have to teach"(p.132), and that leaves them completely unprepared to discuss the four humours with Hippocrates at the Agora.
Would you recommend this book to fans of WWE wrestling? Sadly, no. Observe how the following sequence takes many of the action components enjoyed by WWE fans, such as flying chairs and trash talking, and ends up with a thoroughly unsatisfying conclusion:
One of the children in the school, Ron, was a bright young man but quick to anger. One day, when another child knocked over his toothpick sculpture, he picked up one of the child-size chairs and charged at the offending youngster. I intervened, put my arms around him and the chair, and said, "Shall we dance?" Ron had to smile, although now he was angry at me for grabbing him and stopping his attack. After we put down the chair I said, "It is okay to get angry, but we have to use words to tell people we are angry at them, not hit them with things." A few days later I stopped by Ron's desk and said, "Ron, I have some good news for you: I have to go to the dentist." Without raising his head, he replied, "I hope you have a thousand cavities." Ron had learned how to express his anger with words(p.181)
Ron may be quite the comedian, but he's no Ric Flair.
Would you recommend this book to fans of social networking and electronic entertainment? Probably not. Dr. Elkind's description of adolescence, where "each adolescent creates his or her own imaginary audience. Every adolescent assumes he or she is an actor, and is more concerned with being observed than with observing"(p.66), might sound uncomfortably familiar.
Meanwhile, "children who have spent a great deal of time watching television may not have the auditory discrimination skills necessary for decoding phonics. With television children follow the law of least effort—get the information as easily as possible"(p.127), which explains the rise of textspeak. Of course, on the other side of the coin, "parents and grandparents are often misled by a young child's verbal precocity and assume that it is an index of intellectual giftedness. Most often it is not"(p.121).
As to other electronic entertainment, "with the exception of computer games tied to curriculum content, there would seem to be little transfer of the skills acquired in playing these games to everyday practical or academic skills"(p.58).
What was interesting about this book? Dr. Elkind's insights into children's entertainment. It turns out that "what makes children laugh is anything that goes against their expectations, such as a mole wearing sunglasses or a grown-up taking a pratfall"(p.173), but if being an adult no longer means laughing at moles in sunglasses, I never want to grow up.
More importantly, cartoons these days provide children with terrible role models. "Fred Flintstone and George Jetson never let work get in the way of having fun. Bob the Builder and SpongeBob SquarePants, on the other hand, love their jobs. SpongeBob was even named Employee of the Month at the fast food restaurant where he works"(p.ix-x). Just what are they trying to teach our children?