The Power of a Healthy Play Diet

Of the two professors I respect the most, Dr. David Elkind (the other being Dr. Ralph Barocas), is the world’s leading expert on the importance of play in children’s lives. Dr. Elkind’s recent book, The Power of Play, encourages unstructured, free, and self-initiated play to support imagination and creativity. Dr Elkind clearly outlines the benefits of play in learning about oneself, one’s world, and one’s relationships. Having read many of Dr. Elkind’s previous work, I was concerned that he might consider digital play involving the use of video games, apps, and other technologies less effective or ‘worthy’ than more traditional unstructured play. However, I was happy to learn that this is not the case.

Like our team at LearningWorks for Kids, while Dr. Elkind believes that spontaneous, unstructured play is an essential component of how young children learn, he also acknowledges the potentially siginifcant value of today’s digital play. Dr. Elkind describes children’s involvement with computer and video games as a “mixed blessing.” He notes that many video games promote active thinking and problem solving. He also recognizes that one of the “powers” of digital play is the level of attention and engagement that children display while playing  video games and using other screen-based technologies.

Conversely, he speaks forcefully that these technologies have “no place in the crib.” I agree wholeheartedly that the benefits of technology don’t apply to very young children. He also supports our caution that video game use needs to be guided and directed when he argues that parents of preschoolers need to be in charge of their children’s digital play.

Dr. Elkind raises what may be the core issue of using digital play to promote learning: that game-based skills do not necessarily and inherently transfer to real world activities.  One might make the same observation about traditional play that occurs in isolation, without the intervention and involvement of parents, older siblings and educators. He correctly points out that we do not know the long-term impact of video and computer games on children’s cognition and development, while we are well aware of the importance of unstructured and creative play in children’s social, emotional, and cognitive growth. Reaching a conclusion in alignment with our view, Dr. Elkind talks about the need to find the “right balance between screen-play and actual play.”

Our approach at LearningWorks for Kids revolves around making digital play part of a healthy play diet.  Our recipe also also calls for unstructured, free, social, active, and creative play in abundant quantities. In our work to make digital play a more productive and creative part of children’s lives, we continue to recognize that computer and video games constitute only one part of a healthy play diet. Given the reality that these games and technologies are here to stay and are likely to continue to replace some of the ‘traditional’ play activities, it becomes even more important that we understand how they impact children and how we can use them most effectively.

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