Power of Play


Once upon a time …

There were no video games, no iPads, no iPods, no cable or satellite TV, no texting, no Facebook, no iPhones …

When children were at play, it was ‘play.’

Absorbing play. Enthusiastic play.

Sometimes with others, sometimes alone with a lot of ‘let’s pretend.’

Sometimes inside, but most of the times outside.

Sometimes quiet, but most of the times physical.

Sometimes simple, like hopscotch or dolls.

Sometimes ‘pick-up,’ like softball, stickball, or hoops – no parent coaches, referees, organizers, supervisors, criticizers or braggers. No uniforms. No sponsors.

The best of times, the unstructured free playtimes.

Play, real play.

The more we learn about the mind and its development, the more we understand the importance of play. In reality, play should be the fulltime ‘work’ of our children. Play is an absolute essential for neural development and learning.

In its 2007 report titled The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds, the American Academy of Pediatrics tells us that:

“Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being of children and youth. … Despite the benefits derived from play for both children and parents, time for free play has been markedly reduced … .”

Recess time and free playtime suffer because of today’s hurried and pressured lifestyles, changes in family structure, and increased attention to academics and ‘enrichment’ activities.

The Academy points out that play wires a child’s brain’s neural connectors as they were meant to be wired – developing imagination, dexterity, physical and emotional strength and confidence, as well as cognition, intuition and reasoning ability and the ability to interrelate with others.

When children play at their own pace, they learn their likes and dislikes and hone their passions and decision-making skills. In contrast, when adults control play, children warp their conduct to fit adult rules and lose the true benefits of play, particularly in regard to the development of creativity, group skills and leadership ability. When it comes to academic preparation, play, not “head-start programs,” provides a better course for future navigation. The No Child Left Behind federal effort has encouraged schools to omit recess and most unstructured free time and that appears to be a mistake.

But providing unstructured, free play is very difficult today. Children are essentially prisoners within our very troubled environment. Comfortable, small town America has given away to overcrowded America, and concerns about children’s unsupervised exploration of vacant lots, parks, streets and alleys of inner cities and much of suburbia are legitimate.

No wonder play has become virtual and retreated to the inner sanctum of children’s rooms and technology. But the safe, virtual environment provides less than a satisfactory result.

Recent ecopsychology and evolutionary psychology studies point out that we humans are programmed to enjoy the great outdoors. After all, we spent over 99% of human existence as hunters and gathers. On this basis, biologist Edward Wilson developed his “biophilia” theory about the innate, built-in attraction of humans to nature and living organisms. Biophilia, Wilson points out, is built deeply into our genetic code.

Unfortunately, today’s virtual play environment separates children from nature. The result can be “biophobia” — discomfort with or scorn for nature. Biophobia results more often than not in seeing the natural environment and other living things as nothing more than disposable and unimportant resources. In addition to all of its other shortcomings, the virtual environment denies the child an essential environmental education.

In November 2010, the New York Times published an article titled Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction. The article is one of the Times “Your Brain on Computers” series about our “plugged-in“ existence. Studies point out that our brains, particularly the brains of our children, are being rewired by technology. The young are becoming habituated with the necessity for constant stimulation. Thus, children are less able to maintain attention necessary for concentrated problem solving and creativity. As a Harvard Medical School professor puts it:

“Their brains are rewarded for not staying on task but for jumping to the next thing. The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.”

The children become addicted to their virtual world and lose touch with the real world. Video games, texting and cell phone communications provide escapes from the stresses and challenges of the non-virtual environment. Apparently, the problem is worse among lower income families.

Studies show that stuffing brains with video game time overrides the brain’s ability to absorb other information, like memories about the meanings of words. In part its because constant stimulation doesn’t permit enough “down time” for our minds to absorb all that we are being exposed to. Little wonder that Harvard’s Dr. Michael Rich gave a speech in November 2010 titled “Finding Huck Finn: Reclaiming Childhood from the River of Electronic Screens.”

The pressures of our time, our life style and technology are accelerating the evolutionary rewiring of children’s brains to crave a highly stimulating but virtual world. For those concerned parents looking for a children’s gift, consider The Dangerous Book for Boys, which begins, “In this age of video games and cell phones, there must still be a place for knots, tree houses, and stories of incredible courage.” For our daughters, there is also The Daring Book for Girls.

For parents looking for guidance and opportunities, consider the children & nature network and Richard Louv’s classic work, Last Child in the Woods.

How we inspire, educate and encourage future generations to grasp the reality and wonders of the world – how we convince the younger generations that our earth and our very lives require our careful, dedicated, concentrated, and inspired attention is the coming challenge of the ages.

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10 Comments on "Power of Play"

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At this time of year, I am reminded of a carefree childhood growing up in small town northern Indiana in the 1950’s…much like the children in “A Christmas Story”. Most of the town’s activities centered around the school and the church…it all seemed like “play”, but we were learning important lessons that have served us well into later life. My mother was a teacher..I became a teacher. Once again, you have captured the essence of an issue through a single photograph and your thoughtful commentary. Play IS the work of childhood…I urge readers to pass this commentary along to their… Read more »

Dear Dick,
The Power of Play needs to be read by all parents raising children in today’s “techie”world. The loss of balance between sitting in front of a screen and exploring our world is frightening to me.
Thanks for the message.

To my friends: Dick Jacobs is a 1949 graduate of Superior East High School and an all-state football player in 1948. Since retiring from a a successful career in law practice he has turned his efforts in the direction of his passion as a global naturalist. You may want to share this article with the parents of your grandchildren or with teachers.

How fondly I remember “play” — every day in some form. And how sad but true are the words you sent, especially for my grandchildren here in the East.

Hope you have a lovely Christmas and a very Happy New Year to you.


Another thoughtful, beautifully written and right-on commentary. Thank you
for all your research and willingness to compress and share. Lois

Worth the read. It confirms all we think and appreciate about our younger years compared to the electronic age that stifles ones ability to figure out things for themselves.

Thanks Dick, Most of the people I have sent this to are from my school years. They understand the message because they enjoyed the good times of growing up without supervision.


Love it, love it!!
Forwarding to some of my friends at Lakeview elementary.
Just finished reading Last Child in the Woods, and lent my copy to my sis
and her husband. Jean

Awesome – love it and that’s one of my favorite pictures.

Great comments Dick. This is becoming a big concern for all. No one is certain of the impact of constant , very intense and ever changing visual, auditory and the resulting emotional stimulation of video games on neural connections (brain rewiring). In a recent article published in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics they indicated a possible connection of video games and TV with late emergence (adolescence and early adulthood) of ADHD symptoms (these individuals did not diplay symptoms of ADHD early on). Someone once said that “Play is a child’s work” and I believe this is an… Read more »

Wonderful article, well written and oh so true and sad …. thanks,