The Children’s Book Council’s annual meeting, held at the City College Graduate Center on September 17, was particularly notable this year, as it marked the final meeting of Robin Adelson’s tenure as executive director of the CBC. Betsy Groban, CBC board chair, thanked Adelson for her “hard, creative work” over the previous “eight transformative years” at the CBC, during which she raised national awareness of children’s books. Adelson, in turn, thanked the “amazing staff” at the CBC and the consistently “superior programming” that she has witnessed and been a part of for the better part of a decade. Adelson said that she wasn’t sure what she would be doing next, but mentioned that family obligations and being “ready for a change” contributed to her decision to step down from her position. “Thank you so much for the opportunity to work for and with you.... Onward and upward!” she said, before turning to the business at hand: highlighting the CBC’s accomplishments for the year 2013, and turning the stage over to the event’s guest speaker, Dr. Michael Yogman.

Yogman, a pediatrician, and assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, addressed the inherent value of play in early childhood development and beyond. Yogman addressed an ongoing debate within schools of pedagogic thought: whether early childhood education programs should promote “play-centered, imaginative learning,” or enforce more “academic” focused learning. As schools, in response to budget cuts and expectations brought on by education reform, are compelled to cut music, art, and physical education programs, Yogman is concerned that a critical component of childhood development may be sacrificed in favor of teaching more quantifiable skill sets. In Yogman’s professional opinion: “Play is fun, but not frivolous.”

Yogman defines play using a few criteria. In a nutshell: play is enjoyable; has no extrinsic goals; is voluntary; provides active engagement; is brain building; is the business of childhood; and leads to the development of executive function (working memory, inhibitive control, and cognitive flexibility).

Play provides the scaffolding for later development, strengthening what Yogman refers to as “fluid intelligence,” or a transferable ability to reason and think abstractly. Playing not only “facilitates normal development” and guides learners on a progression from “dependent to independent,” but has the potential to build critical skills that children will need as adults. “Rough and tumble play” is beneficial not only as a way for active kids to exercise and expunge excess energy, but it allows them to safely explore “risk-taking” and to develop skills of empathy. For example, a child may learn to gauge the limits of “roughness” during physical play with others. More organized forms of group play facilitate skills of collaboration and also promotes “listening, turn-taking, and collaborative skills” that can be carried into adulthood, Yogman suggested.

While play is often relegated to after-school, or regarded as trivial in the era of Baby Einstein and competitive preschool admissions, Yogman believes that it is not only important, but deeply essential. He cited an IBM study that surveyed the characteristics of successful CEOs. Those surveyed were found to have high competency in skills of creativity, innovation, and collaboration. And yet, questioned Yogman, “Are we nurturing these qualities?”

While Yogman believes that “all parents are eager to do the right thing,” he feels that misinformation can lead to caregivers overscheduling children, imposing on free-play or “hovering,” and relying too much on technology over more basic cognitive tools. “Media is best used interactively,” says Yogman. In fact, each hour that a child spends passively watching a television show, no matter how educational, results in “90% less interaction with a parent.” Much of the problem Yogman feels, is that we live in a culture that is “preoccupied with marketing products,” and that parents come to feel as though being a good parent means supplying their children with shiny and new products to aid development. In fact, “a child’s creativity is enhanced by the least expensive toys,” such as building blocks.

Creativity, Yogman feels, is a quality that is erroneously attributed to only a select number of people in our society. However, in childhood, all people possess the capacity to imagine and create. These abilities, he feels, should be nurtured from early childhood through adulthood. While interventions can be made in the development of older children, investments made from birth to age three are by far the most effective and far-reaching. Unfortunately, he reports that U.S. spending on early childhood education is some of the lowest among industrialized nations. According to a study conducted by economics professor James Heckman regarding the benefits of providing educational mediation in early childhood development, for every $1 spent on interventions for children up to age 3, there is a $9 return. Assigning a monetary value to something as holistic and complex as physical, psychological, emotional, and social development, may sound cold. But such studies provide the fodder to invest in these interventions.

And sometimes the best intervention means not intervening at all. Yogman advises parents to avoid the overuse of apps that can “bombard” a child with stimulation. Instead, he urges them to “find the appropriate balance” between technology and basic tools that promote problem-solving, innovation, and creativity.

To encourage caregivers to embrace playtime for kids, Yogman believes that programs like Reach Out and Read, in which pediatricians provide parents with books during their children’s pediatric visits, can and should be expanded to include a “prescription for play.” The appropriate dosage: “every day.”