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The Power of Play by David Elkind

The Power of Play

How Spontaneous, Imaginative Activities Lead to Happier, Healthier Children
by David Elkind
Da Capo, 2007
Review by Richard Rodgerson, Ph.D. on Oct 23rd 2007
Volume: 11, Number: 43

I had a hard time getting into this book. I was looking for a primer on children's play and received something quite different; David Elkind's somewhat idiosyncratic take on play is the glue that holds the book together but one has to be prepared for some serious sidetracking into development, parenting, and educational issues. Once I got used to the author's conversational style of writing, I relaxed a bit and tried to enjoy what Elkind had to say. The Power of Play is divided into three sections of two to four chapters each. The first four chapters are generally about play, the following three chapters are about play, learning and development, while the last two are about play and parenting and schooling.

In the beginning, I was put off with Elkind's approach to play behavior. The author never really defines play and ignores the rich set of insights available from those that have studied play in human and non human animals on a more formal basis. For example, the author's attempt to pull play into a Freudian matrix with love and work was poorly described and unsupported with data or citations. Why, for example would the author assert that "Play when divorced from work can be painful" (p. 6)?  Or, what is one to make of the following assertion: "As for love, young children generally take great pleasure in creating and using new words, symbols, and drawings" (p.6). Statements such as these are plentiful but require a level of explanation and clarification that is not offered in this work.

Elkind's second chapter describes historical changes in the quantity and quality of toys available to our young. According to the author, today's children have too many toys. Toy's of the current era lack the "warmth of wood, the texture of natural fabrics such as cotton or wool, and the solidity of metal" (p 15). The author complains about battery operated toys, toys made from plastic, toys with microprocessors. From this perspective, the overabundance of toys and other entertainments has done little more than indoctrinate children to the "psychology of consumerism" (p 27). These points are well taken, even if over stated. The middle section of this chapter has a good discussion of what Elkind terms "Character Toys", toys such Barbie and GI Joe. Later in the chapter, the author forcefully argues for toys that allow children to build and tinker with things. The problem here again is that the case is overstated -- the popularity of Lego toys, to suggest just one example, is never mentioned.

Chapter three is a review of video games and computer use, what is now commonly called screen time. Although Elkind acknowledges the multifaceted nature of the interaction between children and screen media, his attempt to apply theoretical approaches associated with children and the media falls quite short. Elkind does not provide a coherent analysis in this section and the author could well be describing his own work when he writes that research on the effects of TV watching "is based on overly simplistic assumptions about the one-way effects of media on children"(p 43). Much of the chapter is devoted to short descriptions and reviews of various forms of video and interactive entertainment. If you are curious, Telletubbies gets a thumbs down (too "hot"), but Baby Einstein is a thumbs up (Elkind likes the classical music). I did appreciate his giving me a pass on using some video as a baby sitter for short periods of time.

Somewhere in here I began to get in tune with the nature of this book. If you are looking for scientifically developed descriptions of current play theory and a data driven discussion of play and children in the 21st century, you are not going to find it here. On the other hand, as I was somewhat late to realize, this is a self help book. This is a self help book addressed to those who are newly parenting. Taken this way, one can relax into the author's avuncular style. The prose is mostly clear, sort of warm and by all means friendly.  It is clear that Dr. Elkind has your child's best interest in mind. In the chapter on Child Play and Parent Angst, for example, he describes a conversation he had with a parent who was worried about her four -year-old's readiness for first grade. With respect to her child's desire to play, Elkind quotes himself as saying

"You know they are having a good time, enjoying themselves here and now, and    that is every bit as important and valuable as preparing for the future. Play is what   young children do and while we adults may be concerned only with an activity's long-term benefits, children are playing for the fun of it." (p. 63)

I liked that and although I could not entirely set aside my reservations, I could get on with the book.

The rest of chapter four discusses, among other things, the pressure parents feel to over-invest in their children; hence the current phenomena of overly protective parents and their overscheduled children. Modern parents, according to Elkind, assume that everyone is looking at their parenting behavior, the sort of an imaginary audience effect most usually associated with adolescent development. The author's sound advise: don't over schedule your children and limit extracurricular activities to three -- one social, one athletic, and one artistic. I may well put that little algorithm to use!

Unfortunately, at this point the book sort of jumped the track. Chapters 5, 6, and 7 are a hodgepodge of description and developmental theorizing. Elkind introduces a model of learning through play that is not well tied to the research literature and he has a tendency to make up his own terminology. For example, Elkind posits four dimensions of play. Two of these types of play are termed kinship play and therapeutic play. These are terms found, to my knowledge, no where else in the scientific play literature. Most every where else, what Elkind calls kinship play is defined as social play and as for therapeutic play -- I never could figure out how this was operationalized. Nevertheless, if this is the reader's first encounter with someone writing about play behavior, I doubt that much harm can come of it. The author does provide good advice. Some examples: encourage self-directed activities, follow the child's lead, and consider the importance of developmentally appropriate instruction.

In the last section of the book, Elkind turns his attention to what he terms "light hearted parenting" and child centered schooling. According to the author, one should make time for the family and, whilst doing so, engage in good humor. In the section on schools, Elkind gives us a history and endorsement of the Montessori school model. I find it hard to quibble with this but it might be useful to note that Montessori schools are not explicitly connected to a curriculum informed by what we know about play.

Although play is at its core, The Power of Play is really is an advice-to-parents book that endorses play for its own sake and encourages a play like approach to family life. The lack of a clear definition of play allows the author to go just about anywhere he chooses.  Much of what Elkind provides sounds like good common sense informed by his years of clinical experience. But assertion without empirical support, in spite of the author's obvious good will and concern, leaves this reviewer a bit cold.


© 2007 Richard Rodgerson

Richard Rodgerson, Ph.D., School of Kinesiology, College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota.

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