Boredom vs Free Play


boredom cures

“The cure for boredom is curiosity.  There is no cure for curiosity.”  ~Dorothy Parker

Eight-year-old twins Caleb and Ella used to complain of boredom on a daily basis. “There’s nothing to do,” they’d whine. “I’m bored!”

Their father Mateo didn’t remember being bored when he was growing up. Back in the early 90’s he rode his bike wherever he needed to go. A favorite place he and other kids played was a small creek behind an apartment building. At home he liked to read comics or tinker with projects of his own devising (including a phase of making anti-burglar projects after watching Home Alone). He says he honed his daydreaming skills when he was bored in school. Being an inattentive student didn’t bring him the best grades, but he’s now an aspiring cartoonist who relies on daydreaming for ideas.

Their mother Camila said her childhood wasn’t boring either. She remembered lots of imaginative play with her sister while their mother worked a full-time job at home. The girls played for hours as spies, queens, and magicians. They also liked to play office, mimicking their mother’s phone calls and typing. Camila says her friends preferred playing at her house because they were allowed to hang sheets off a tree branch for an impromptu theater, bake cupcakes, even paint and repaint their old wooden play structure in the back yard.

“If I moped around my mother would say, ‘Go out and play.’ It wasn’t a suggestion, it was a command,” Mateo said.  “Maybe that’s what made me so self-reliant.”

When Caleb and Ella complained of boredom their parents gestured to all the toys they owned and reminded their kids about sports practice and other activities. They urged their kids to go outside. But the kids tended to say, “There’s nothing I want to do!” and off they’d go to play a game on the tablet, watch the same movie again, or look for a snack.

Mateo and Camila wondered if they were unwittingly raising their kids to be bored. They worried the kids weren’t getting enough of that all-important free play.  Let’s consider these possibilities.

Excessive Distractions

This may start early on. There are so many mobiles, play gyms, bouncy seats, swings, and toys marketed to new parents that we’re led to believe they’re necessary, even though babies need little more than loving connections with caregivers and a safe place to explore. Nature insures that the newest humans are perfectly cued to observe and interact with the world around them. A three-month-old lying near a window can amuse herself looking at patterns of sunlight, work on rolling over, and chew on a simple toy. She’s already busy learning exactly as she needs to learn. Few of us are raising infants in some tranquil Eden by any means.  But we can avoid overstimulating them, distracting them, and breaking their concentration as they play.

Within a child’s first few years many of us accumulate a staggering overload of items, each one meant to amuse and educate our kids. Camila, who repeatedly tried to reorganize her kids’ toys, reported they had bins and shelves packed with toys but everything was always a mess. “Just to see how bad it was, I thought I’d count all their stuffed animals, large and small,” she said. “I gave up when I got to 100.”

Like so many other purchasing choices we make, quality matters more than quantity. For example, when toys are tied to specific movies or shows, kids are likely to reenact storylines but less likely to play creatively. They also play more passively with toys that make sounds, move, or otherwise perform. ” In contrast, open-ended playthings like blocks, dolls, a wagon, a ball, art supplies, and yes, a few generic stuffed animals, are far more likely to inspire imagination. Engaging fun happens when kids create their own projects, come up with their own games, and drift into their own make-believe worlds. (Check out Little World’s post on ways to encourage loose parts play.)

Parents (well, those who can afford it) know it’s easy to placate bored kids with a treat, toy, or digital playtime. But we don’t need to overdo it. We don’t want to teach them to depend on external stimulation instead of building strength essential for resilience and happiness at any stage in life — the ability to amuse themselves.  Sure, every parent is going to distract and placate at times, but we need to keep from letting this become the go-to solution. We can build on a child’s capacity for self-directed play just by getting out of their way. This starts early on, in babyhood, as Janet Lansbury explains in “7 Myths That Discourage Independent Play”  and there are all sorts of ways to encourage self-directed play as kids get older.

Top-Down Activities

The more we structure children’s time, the more we interfere with their own drive to learn, explore, imagine, and simply be. The inner motivation we want for our kids can be supplanted by external rewards like constant validation, a fix for every frustration, and bribes for good behavior. It’s possible to focus so intently on what we believe will make our children happy and successful that we forget children look to us as guides. They feel most secure when adults are grounded, consistent, and caring authority figures who trust that kids they’re growing up just fine as they are.

Many adults seem determined to keep kids busy. Unintentionally, this teaches children that fallow time is undesirable. Yet daydreaming, contemplation, even the uncomfortable condition we call “boredom” are necessary to incorporate higher level learning and to generate new ideas.

As psychologists Dorothy Singer and Jerome Singer write in The House of Make-Believe, children who have plenty of time for free play are more imaginative and creative, have more advanced social skills, and are actually happier as they play. The Singers contrast two children who are given free-form playthings like dolls or building blocks. The child who has had plenty of experience with daydreaming and make-believe is comfortable coming up with pretend scenarios, and can easily find inventive ways to play with these toys. The child who has not had much experience with make-believe or daydreaming may find little engaging about the toys after a short time —- in other words, he gets bored quickly.  The imaginative “muscles” built by daydreaming, make-believe, and downtime simply haven’t developed.

Default Screens

Here we get to the dreaded “actions speak louder than words” thing. Kids see how we handle boredom. What are our go-to solutions? When we’re waiting in line do we take the opportunity to observe what’s around us, think our own thoughts, talk to each other? When we have a free evening do we do something that actually aligns with our interests —- test out a new recipe, read a book, practice the guitar, shoot hoops, relax on the porch doing nothing but relaxing? Or do we default to scrolling through our feeds, checking email, watching videos? I’m just as engaged with screens as the next person (and hey, there are a lot of important reasons to check our phones) so I’m not pointing fingers, but it helps to recognize that this is the first generation to grow up around such immersive technology and our example matters.

According to their parents, many days Caleb played online games for hours and Ella liked to watch the same movies over and over. There’s a great deal of variability in how screen time affects different children and there are enormous positives to be found in the offerings of today’s technology, but apparently not in a child’s earliest years.

Preliminary research indicates that exposure to more than two hours a day of screen time (even background screens) during infancy and toddlerhood is associated with a shorter attention span  and more difficulty with self-regulation (the ability control one’s own behavior) as they get older. Pediatrician Dimitri Christakis believes that rapidly changing images on the screen precondition a young child’s mind to expect high levels of stimulation, making lower levels of stimulation such as those found in everyday life somewhat boring. (Dr. Christakis’ viewpoint is, at this point, remains largely conjecture.)

Older kids often use screens in more challenging and stimulating ways. Today’s electronics are far from the passive entertainment Ella and Caleb’s parents and grandparents grew up with. It is, however, a problem when sitting for hours on end replaces other more active, hands-on ways of being. Sometimes kids simply get out of the habit of doing other things. One study even found that older kids are bored during screen time but feel they don’t have other play options. Perhaps that’s because kids don’t have permission to do a variety of other things like make a mess, make noise, and get out of sight of adults —- sure signs that fun is happening.

Makers of toys, games, and movies expect boredom. They counteract this by ramping up conflict and violence to more effectively sustain attention. Makers of children’s programming, even children’s building sets, have resorted to increasingly violent themes to boost sales.  Marketers certainly know how to use brain science to keep our kids’ dopamine levels surging.

We definitely get those dopamine hits when we play a video game or watch a movie. Nothing wrong with that. Our brains get the same rush of pleasure when we create, challenge ourselves, get active, socialize, figure out a problem.  Remember that role model thing? Let’s remember to demonstrate to our kids that we enjoy our screens and get a kick out of non-screen living too. Maybe learn some new dance movies, fix something broken, make up a story, invent a new sandwich, ask Grandma to teach you something, wave to garbage collectors, or whatever playful idea strikes your fancy. Playfulness is contagious.

Two Kinds of Boredom

There’s a difference between a shut-down, numb mind and a fertile, constructively bored mind. Numbing boredom can set in when kids are stuck in a situation where they have very little control over their own activities. This is common in structured, physically restrictive settings — think school, religious services, long trips in the car, sitting through a sibling’s sports event. When numbing boredom happens too often or goes on too long, kids may learn passivity or learn to make trouble.

Constructive boredom is something else entirely. It’s a fertile state all its own. When kids sit on their nothing-to-do frustrations for a while, boredom can hatch into all sorts of possibilities. What kids invent when making their own fun invariably challenges them in myriad ways, often right to the edge of their next developmental milestones. What we don’t want to do is take over or supervise too closely, squashing boredom’s marvelous potential.

Boredom may feel uncomfortable, but it’s actually the tingle of imagination signaling of possibilities to explore. We can tell kids to say “yes” to boredom, letting it tug at them until they come up with an idea. When they do, we need to remember to say “yes” to as many of their ideas as we can, to accept the mess and uncertainty and noise that often accompanies kid-generated fun.

~~~~~

Camila and Mateo were frustrated by their children’s chronic boredom until a radical change was imposed on them. Mateo, who worked in building maintenance, lost his job when the company closed. His only income was a small cash flow from drawing comics and some side jobs as an illustrator. Camila taught several courses as an adjunct at a local college for low pay. Faced with a drastically reduced income, they talked to the kids and together prioritized holding on to their house and maintaining a close family.

This meant taking big steps to simplify. They stopped the kids’ lessons and sports. They dropped cable, leaving internet service with a data cap — which cut into Caleb’s gaming time and Ella’s movie time. They held a series of tag sales to raise money. The kids chose what toys to sell and kept the proceeds. (They turned their nearly empty closets into hideouts.)

Next they embarked on a project to bring in some income by converting their walk-out basement into a compact apartment to rent out. It was hard work, even harder to adjust to having another person living in their house at first, but the rent effectively paid most of their mortgage.

Mateo found another job three months later, yet they’re sticking with the changes made during the upheaval of unemployment. “No one wants to minimize because they’re forced to,” Mateo says, “but what we cut out helped.”

He sees all sorts of benefits. There’s no nagging about getting out the door for sports practice and games.  Honing down their possessions cooled the pressure on everyone to clean up clutter and almost magically made their home feel more welcoming.  Rehabbing the basement, Mateo believes, was the best thing of all. The kids felt good about helping out and still incorporate “fixing things” into their play. It’s like this was a reboot,” he says, “reminding us the four of us are in this together.”

Camila reports the kids are thriving. “They’re not perfect,” she says, “but there’s a lot less whining. I’m really impressed that they’re able to amuse themselves for hours on end.” That day while she graded papers, Caleb and Ella colored, pretended the stairs were a volcano, and made paper airplanes they threw off the porch. Then they conducted an ill-fated experiment to see if they could balance the recycling bin on their dad’s old skateboard. They could not, but they got an idea for another project as they cleaned up the spilled contents.  Painful as simplifying was, it helped bored kids find ways to make their own fun.

The big takeaway from Caleb and Ella’s story, to me, doesn’t center on fewer structured activities,  minimizing toys, or helping out around the house. It has to do with having time and freedom to play. Time? Hours each day. Freedom? Noise, mess, arguments, mistakes, space to play away from constant adult supervision.  As Robert Coles said, “We all need empty hours in our lives or we will have no time to create or dream.”

Resources

“The Play Deficit”

“6 Ways to Encourage Free Play, Create Stronger Communities, & Raise Safer Kids”

“How Kids Benefit From Real Responsibilities”

“Playful Cures for a Toy Overload” 

“Innovation Doesn’t Come in a Kit”

“The Boy With No Toys” 

bored kids,

 

 

Five Ways to Transcend the School Mindset

child

School-like instruction has been around less than a fraction of one percent of the time we humans have been on earth. Yet humanity has thrived. That’s because we’re all born to be free range learners. We are born motivated to explore, play, emulate role models, challenge ourselves, make mistakes and try again—continually gaining mastery. That’s how everyone learns to walk and talk. That’s how young people have become capable adults throughout history. And that’s how we have advanced the arts, sciences, and technology. In the long view, school is the experiment.

But it’s hard to see beyond the school mindset because most of us went to school in our formative years. So when we think of education, we tend to view school as the standard even if we simultaneously realize that many parts of that model (found also in daycare, preschool, kids’ clubs, and enrichment programs) aren’t necessarily beneficial. Narrowing the innate way we learn can interfere with the full development of our gifts.

Here are five ways to get past the school mindset.

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Welcome divergent thinking

In today’s test-heavy schools the emphasis is on coming up with the correct answer, but we know that the effort to avoid making mistakes steers children away from naturally innovative perspectives. Divergent thinking generates ideas. It’s associated with people who are persistent, curious, and nonconforming. Research going back to the 1970’s shows that this generation of children are less imaginative and less able to produce original ideas. An extra whammy may very well be coming from increased participation in organized sports: more than a few hours a week appears to lower a child’s creativity.

This is dire news, because creativity is actually much more closely linked to adult accomplishment than IQ. In fact, 1,500 CEO’s listed creativity as the leading indicator of “leadership competency.”

We don’t have to instruct kids in divergent thinking, just nurture it. Children are naturally inclined to question and explore. Remain open to their enthusiasms, encourage them to identify and solve problems no matter how unusual, and welcome the learning power of mistakes.

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Value full body learning

School-like learning emphasizes the brain over the body. It narrows from there, emphasizing one hemisphere of the brain over the other with its focuses on left-brain analytical thinking. But children don’t learn easily when they spend so much time sitting still, eyes focused on a teacher or lesson or screen, their curiosity silenced and their movements limited. Children ache for more active involvement.

Research shows us that the rules necessary to keep a classroom full of kids in order all day, like being quiet and sitting still, can overtax a child’s ability to resist other impulses. The mismatch between school-like expectations and normal childhood development has resulted in millions of children being diagnosed with ADHD. (One of those kids was my third child, whose “symptoms” disappeared once we took him out of school and figured out how to homeschool such an active child.) 

What we need to remember is that the mind and body are exquisitely tuned to work together. Movement allows sensory input to stimulate the brain as it absorbs a flood of information. This is the way the brain builds new neural pathways, locking learning into memory. (Check out A Moving Child Is a Learning Child by Gill Connell and Cheryl McCarthy as well as Spark by John J. Ratey for more on this.) Active, talkative, curious children aren’t “bad.” They’re normal.

If we look at movement we realize that even a very brain-y activity, reading, has to do with the body. Young children develop reading readiness in a variety of ways, including conversation and being read to, but also through physical activities that help their neurological pathways mature. These are activities children will do whenever given the opportunity, like swinging, skipping, climbing, walking, and swimming.

All the relentless activity of early childhood may very well be a sort of intrinsic wisdom built into them, because movement is key to keeping an active brain. Children who are more physically active actually increase the areas of their brains necessary for learning and memory. That doesn’t mean the antidote to the school mindset is a constant frenzy of activity. It does mean that children tend to self-regulate within loving safeguards. Every child needs to balance physical activity with other essentials like snuggling, daydreaming, and sufficient sleep. We simply need to remember that movement isn’t an enemy of education.

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Build on the “Goldilocks effect”

This term came from researchers who demonstrate that we are cued to ignore information that’s too simple or too complex. Instead we’re drawn to and best able learn from situations that are “just right.” Sort of like the educational equivalent of Goldilocks on a porridge-testing quest.

The Goldilocks effect means you are attracted to what holds just the right amount of challenge for you right now.  Usually that means something that sparks your interest and holds it close to the edge of your abilities, encouraging you to push yourself to greater mastery. That’s the principle used to hold a player’s attention in video games. That’s what inspires artists, musicians, and athletes to ever greater accomplishments. That’s how kids who follow a passion of their own tend to learn and retain more than any prepared lesson could teach them.

Our kids tell what they’re ready to learn. They tell us through what bores them and fascinates them, what they’re drawn to and what they resist. They’re telling us that, until they’re ready, learning doesn’t stick.

 too much adult-run learning, stubborn kids, child-led learning, natural learning,

Diminish the focus on instruction

The school mindset leads us to believe that children benefit from lessons, the newest educational toys and electronics, coached sports at an early age, and other adult-designed, adult-led endeavors. Well-intentioned parents work hard to provide their children with these pricey advantages. We do this because we believe that learning flows from instruction. By that logic the more avenues of adult-directed learning, the more kids will benefit. But there’s very limited evidence that all this effort, time, and money results in learning of any real value. In fact, it appears too many structured activities diminish a child’s ability to set and reach goals independently. 

When we interfere too much with natural learning, children show us with stubbornness or disinterest that real education has very little to do with instruction. Learning has much more to do with curiosity, exploration, problem solving, and innovation. For example, if baby encounters a toy she’s never seen before, she will investigate to figure out the best way or a number of different ways to use it. That is, unless an adult demonstrates how to use it. Then all those other potential avenues tend to close and the baby is less likely to find multiple creative ways to use that toy.

Studies show that “helpful” adults providing direct instruction actually impede a child’s innate drive to creatively solve problems. This experience is repeated thousands of times a year in a child’s life, teaching her to look to authorities for solutions, and is known to shape more linear, less creative thinking.

This isn’t to say that all instruction is bad, by any means. It does mean that six long hours of school-based instruction plus afterschool adult-organized activities in sports or recreation or screen time supplants the kind of direct, open-ended, hands-on activity that’s more closely associated with learning. Most of the time this kind of learning is called play.

free play benefits, play versus learning, chores, self-regulation,

Recognize free play is learning 

Before a young child enters any form of schooling, his approach to as much of life as possible is playful. A walk is play, looking at a bug is play, listening to books being read is play, helping with chores is play. The school mindset separates what is deemed “educational” from the rest of a child’s experience. It leads us to believe that learning is specific, measurable, and best managed by experts.

A divide appears where before there was a seamless whole. Playful absorption in any activity is on one side in opposition to work and learning on another. This sets the inherent joy and meaning in all these things adrift. The energy that formerly prompted a child to explore, ask questions, and eagerly leap ahead becomes a social liability in school. But play is essential for kids, for teens, for all of us. (For more check out these two marvelous and very different books: Free to Learn by Peter Gray and A Playful Path by Bernie DeKoven.)

Free play promotes self-regulation and this is a biggie. It means the ability to control behavior, resist impulse, and exert self-control  —all critical factors in maturity. Play fosters learning in realms such as language, social skills, and spatial relations. It teaches a child to adapt, innovate, handle stress, and think independently. Even attention span increases in direct correlation to play.

That doesn’t mean a child’s entire day must be devoted to free play. There’s also a great deal to be learned from meaningful involvement in household responsibilities as well as community service.

why homeschool, democratic schools, raise successful children,

I want to nurture my children in such a way that they define success on their own terms. I hope that means they craft a life based on integrity, one that brings their unique gifts to the world. Homeschooling, for my family, gives us the freedom to go beyond narrow roads to success. (Democratic schools can also provide that freedom.) This is the way young people have learned throughout time. I’ve come to trust the way it works for my family.

Portions of this post excerpted from Free Range Learning.

Educating Too Early

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Image CC by 2.0 emilygoodstein

My daughter started preschool a month before she turned three. She was too young. The facility was wonderful, the teachers kind, the activities entirely age-appropriate but she resisted the structure. It didn’t make sense to her that she was asked to learn color words she already knew. Or that she had to perform with her classmates at the annual holiday show after she’d already practiced the song and movement pieces well beyond her boredom tolerance. She did what she was told but she wasn’t happy.

I know why I was eager for her to start. Pregnant with her brother, I felt nauseated all the time and hoped preschool would feed her active mind. Or perhaps because she had been chronically ill nearly all of her first three years. Now she was finally better and I suspect, unconsciously, I signed her up to assure myself she was as healthy as any other little girl.

When I talked with her teachers about my child’s frustrations they emphasized how important it was to follow rules, even if she didn’t see the logic herself, because it prepared her to conform to many more rules in “real” school. That didn’t make sense to me either and we finally pulled her out of preschool.

Once she was a preschool dropout we went back to our ordinary, richly educational lives of chores and play. We played outside, hiked in the woods, made up songs, went to the library, visited friends and family, took trips to museums, snuggled, and read. She filled her free time with make-believe play as well as hours of drawing while listening to story tapes. If I had to do it over again, I’d have skipped preschool entirely. I’m not against the concept, just troubled by how much emphasis is placed on adult-led educational structure.

Take a look at promotional material for preschools in your area. Chances are they tout early math, pre-reading, and other academics. This approach sells.  Most people I know sign their children up at the age of two or three to attend specialized enrichment programs that claim to boost abilities in science, art, sports, music, or language. In addition, nearly everyone I know is sure their children benefit from playing with toys and electronics that “teach.”

These well-intentioned parents operate on a mindset that’s hard to dismiss in today’s society. They are convinced that learning flows from instruction. Logically then, early instruction will help maximize their child’s potential. But learning in young children (and perhaps at all ages) has much more to do with curiosity, exploration, and body-based activities. It has very little to do with structured activities, which may actually impair a child’s ability to set and reach goals independently.

Recent studies with four-year-olds showed that, “Direct instruction really can limit young children’s learning.” Direct instruction also limits a child’s creativity, problem solving, and openness to ideas beyond the situation at hand. This is true when the instruction comes from parents as well as teachers.

As Wendy S. Grolnick explains in The Psychology of Parental Control: How Well-meant Parenting Backfires, research shows that rewards, praise, and evaluative comments actually undermine motivation and stifle learning in preschoolers as well as school-aged children. This is true when those actions come from parents or teachers.

Highly instructional preschool programs have been studied for years. Although they’re more popular than ever, the outcomes don’t hold up under scrutiny. 

Researcher Rebecca Marcon evaluated children in preschool and kindergarten programs falling within three categories: play based, academically oriented, and those that combined both approaches. Her study checked up on the students as they progressed through primary school. Students who had been in early academically oriented programs gradually declined, falling  behind their peers. Children who’d been in a combined approach program also showed achievement gaps. Who benefited the most? Children who’d been in play-based programs. Their academic success was greater than those in the other two types of programs and continued to gain. Marcon concluded,

Children’s later school success appears to be enhanced by more active, child-initiated learning experiences. Their long-term progress may be slowed by overly academic preschool experiences that introduce formalized learning experiences too early for most children’s developmental status. Pushing children too soon may actually backfire when children move into the later elementary school grades and are required to think more independently and take on greater responsibility for their own learning process.

Another study confirmed that future success has to do with the kinds of abilities gained  through child-initiated, exploratory play. Compared to children in non-play-based preschool programs, the play-based group of children exhibited greater self-control,working memory, flexible thinking, and relational ability. These traits have more to do with academic success than testable abilities in math and reading, even more than IQ.

And when researchers followed high-risk children who attended different preschool environments they found even more resounding results.  Some children were enrolled in an academic setting, others in a child-initiated play setting, and a third group in a preschool that balanced both approaches. By the middle grades, children from the play-oriented preschool were receiving the highest grades. They also showed the most social and emotional maturity.  Those who had attended the academic preschool lagged behind in a significant way— poorer social skills. The differences became more apparent as these children got older. By age fifteen, students from the academic preschool program showed twice as much delinquent activity as the other two groups. And in adulthood, former students of the play preschool and balanced preschool showed higher levels of success across a whole spectrum of variables. The academic group did not attain the same level of education as the play group and required more years of treatment for emotional impairment. They also faced more felony arrests than the other two groups.

Today’s test heavy schools are burdening five-year-olds with a heavy load of academics. A study comparing kindergarten teacher attitudes found that 31 percent of teachers in 1998 believed students should learn to read in kindergarten. By 2010 that number had jumped to 80 percent. Play time, the arts, and recess had decreased in favor of worksheet and computer instruction. The study’s co-author Daphna Bassok said, “We were surprised to see just how drastic the changes have been over a short period of time/ We expected to see changes on some of these dimensions but not nearly so systematically and not nearly of this magnitude.“

We know that free play, now so limited in the lives of most children, is actually essential for learning and character development. We also know that children learn more effectively when they’re the ones in charge of self-regulating, what is now called the “Goldilocks effect.”

My daughter mostly remembers the toy dinosaurs from preschool. I hope that pushing academics on toddlers itself becomes extinct.

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Image CC by 2.0 by Kevan

Additional resources

Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain, Much to Lose” summary of research by Alliance for Childhood

Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful?” by Lyn Nell Hancock  Smithsonian Magazine September 2011

Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by  Stuart Brown and Christopher Vaughan

Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn–and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less by Roberta Golinkoff, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, and Diane Eyer

The Power of Play: Learning What Comes Naturally by David Elkind