Free, self-initiated play is the child's own way of learning about self and world. An infant who drops a rattle out of the crib discovers gravity. But the baby also learns that he or she can hold something and let it go. Likewise, no one teaches infants to babble. Yet in so doing babies create all of the sounds they will need to speak the language of their parents. In the dramatic play of preschoolers they learn who are the leaders and who are the followers, who are outgoing and bossy and who are shy and retiring. When school age children play board games like checkers and Monopoly they learn to read their opponents' body language and speech intonations. And when children make up their own games, they learn mutual respect; to follow the rules that others make and to see others follow the rules that they themselves devise.
Play, therefore, is neither a luxury nor a waste of time. Through play children create new learning experiences that they would not have encountered otherwise. In addition, because self-initiated play is creative, it nourishes curiosity, imagination and innovation. These traits are very much like muscles: if you don't use them, you lose them. So play is both an important mode of learning and a way of nourishing out-of-the box thinking. Children will find ways to play because they have to: it is a basic mode of adaptation. I am always amused at Christmas time, for example, to see my grandchildren have more fun with the boxes the toys came in than with the toys themselves. If large, the boxes become forts to hide in; if small, they become building blocks. Yet all too many of today's toys are of the "watch me" variety and all too many of children's games are adult-organized with little opportunity for young people to make up their own rules of the game.
In today's hurried and hurrying society, we still need to recognize the value and importance of self-initiated play. When we limit children's opportunities and time to engage in play of their own devising, we are also putting limits on their healthy intellectual, social and emotional growth and development.
David Elkind, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development at Tufts University. He is the author of The Power of Play: Learning What Comes Naturally (Da Capo Lifelong Books). He lives on Cape Cod.