The Power of Play: Elkind & Mason

Dear Reader,

I first encountered David Elkind through his book The Hurried Child which I was quite pleasantly surprised to like (see this post and this one). More recently I picked up his Power of Play (Da Capo Press, 2007) in which he tackles issues of child development and how learning happens in a more head-on fashion.

Elkind is a secular scholar and an expert in child development. He comes at the issues we will be looking at from a different place than I would, yet there are many similarities in where we end up that I find quite intriguing. Though I have my differences with her I largely follow the ideas of Charlotte Mason, a late 19th/early 20th-century educator. She was a teacher and her ideas of children and their natures come from her experience but also from her Christian faith.

As its name suggests, The Power of Play is a call for the return of play to the lives of children and especially the youngest children. Play, for Elkind, springs from the child’s “inborn disposition for learning, curiosity, imagination, and fantasy” (introduction). “Play is our need to adapt the world to ourselves and create new learning experiences” (p. 3). Though it is play Elkind stresses, he sees it as but one of a triad of drives that all people have. The others are love and work. These three work together. Play, without love and work, “is simply entertainment” (p. 4). There are times as the child grows when one or another of these drives dominates. From birth to age 6 or 7, play is the main thing. In childhood, work dominates and for teens love does. Yet education, at any age, is most effective when all three work together.

Because play is the driving force for infants and young children, their education should be largely self-directed. Elkind does not favor traditional, formal learning before age 6 or 7. From that age on, the child turns more toward work which he defines as adapting to the external world. Education as we know it is then more appropriate, though it should still not be rote memorization. Children, he tells us, want to understand (p. 7). In the teen years love becomes dominant until there is finally an equilibrium between the three in late adolescence (p. 10). For adults, play is still a part of life but tends to come in the form of hobbies.

On the surface, this may not sound much like Charlotte Mason’s philosophy but I do think there are some key connections here. Mason did not incorporate games in her curriculum and found it counter-productive in the long run to make schoolwork into entertainment. I would not call her methods playful. And yet as Elkind discusses play, I do feel there are some profound similarities. Play for Elkind is about creativity, interest, and imagination and all these Mason too incorporated.

Here are some points of connection which I see:

  • Mason would have said that learning does not happen without interest and relationship with the material. So Elkind says, “Formal instruction is work. For it to be effective, play [which includes interest] and love [relationship] need to be made part of the process” (p. 126).
  • A Charlotte Mason education is heavily reliant on books but they are books by people who love their subject matter and communicate their passion for it (aka living books). So Elkind urges parents to share their passions with children (p. 182) and says that teaching is more effective when the teacher shares his or her passions (p. 185).
  • Elkind talks about how children see the world and how they think. It is not in the same way adults do. Because of this “the child may be attending to something quite different than what the adult had in mind” (p. 102). This idea supports narration as it happens in a Charlotte Mason education. When we ask children reading comprehension questions, we ask them to tell us what we think is important. When we ask them to narrate, we let them decide what is important. As parents and educators, this often means that we have to bite our tongues and accept that these are two very different things.
  • And again, following Dewey, Elkind says that we only learn from our experiences when we represent them in some way. By doing so we make them our own (p. 191). This too calls to mind narration in which the child must tell back what he has heard or read, putting it in his own words, putting together his own thoughts, and making unique connections.
  • Elkind says that science begins with observation while experimentation is best introduced later. “Children are natural observers and classifiers” (p. 142). So too Mason kept science in the early years to nature study and used it to build observational skills and a love of creation.
  • Elkind says that rote learning is good for multiplication tables and for memorizing poetry but should not be the primary mode of education (p. 201). I think Mason would have agreed here too.
  • Quoting Smilansky, Elkind says that “‘History, geography and literature are all make-believe'” (p. 211). I love this idea. These subjects can be said to be make-believe because learning them requires imagination. We have to see in our minds what is being talked about. We form our own impressions and on some level again make the subject matter our own. Again, though I don’t have a specific quote to point to, I think Mason would have agreed.
  • Both emphasize the habit of attention. For Mason this is built through short lessons that do not tax the child. Elkind says that young children in particular should be allowed to complete the tasks they have set for themselves. When we interrupt their play, we teach them that their interests are not important and rob them of the power of attention. In the long run this leads to bored, unmotivated children. The emphasis is a little different here, but there is common ground in the value of building the habit of attention, and I think that Mason might have agreed that when children set a task for themselves it is better not to interrupt.
  • Though their brains are growing quickly, Elkind says, little children are not sponges. They take time to absorb information and throwing a lot of information at them will backfire. Mason did not throw facts at young children (as certain other approaches **cough, classical, cough** do). Having an interest in and relationship with the material was more important to her.
  • Both would delay formal education until around age 6 or 7. Elkind says that young children cannot learn to follow rules or complex verbal instructions until about age 6. Even though a younger child may learn their letters and some sight words eagerly, they may not be ready for formal reading lessons until later.
  • Elkind’s description of letting children play without adult interference but with some degree of oversight sounds a lot like Mason’s idea of “masterly inactivity.”

I have some other big thoughts that arose in my reading of The Power of Play but as they change the topic a bit I think I will save them for another post. My short take on Elkind’s book is that it is easy to read, enjoyable, and well worth the time. Though he comes to issues of child development from a different starting place, I am pleased to find that many of the techniques he ends up with are not so far apart from Mason’s (and mine as far as they echo hers).

Nebby

 

4 responses to this post.

  1. […] I recently discussed David Elkind’s Power of Play (Da Capo Press, 2007) with a particular eye to how his views on child development coincide with those of Charlotte Mason. Today I would like to return to the book but with a different emphasis. […]

    Reply

  2. […] [6] See this earlier post on Elkind’s theories. […]

    Reply

  3. […] a lot of what Elkind has to say and find some of his ideas reminiscent of Charlotte Mason’s. See this post for […]

    Reply

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