Think About It

The Value of Play

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | April 10, 2010

"You can discover more about a person in an hour of play, than in a year of conversation."
Plato

"Never underestimate a goof-off." With those words Mark E. Dixon begins his article titled "The Value of Play" (Mainline Today: January 2010) on the fascinating story of Samuel Leeds Allen and his Flexible Flyer, the first steerable snow sled. 

This toy inventor was born in Philadelphia and according to Dixon, "From his earliest days, Allen preferred mischief, exploration, and tinkering over any assigned task." By the time he patented his sled in 1889, he had nearly 300 other inventions. He even wrote a short history in 1896 on the history of sledding. 

Although he did many things in his life and eventually became a trustee of Haverford College, Friends Hospital and Westtown, he never lost his enthusiasm for play. Raised in a Quaker home, his cousin, George, once said to him, "No, thee isn't lazy. If thee would just stop inventing all those queer things that run across the desk, thee could study as well as anyone else. It is not that thee can't, but thee don't." 

At first Allen had a hard time marketing his invention and it was only after the turn of the 20th century when he convinced Macy's and Wanamaker's department store to carry the sleds and invested in advertising. From there the sale of his toy invention took off. 

By 1915, Allen could write, "We are sending whole carloads of about 1,200 each to New York, New Haven and Pittsburgh by express; perhaps five full cars in all. There seems to be little doubt but that we will sell out clean, in all about 120,000." The Flexible Flyer would make Allen a very rich man. 

I remember the two Flexible Flyers my brother and I had. One of them was long enough to take two or three people on them. We loved getting ready at the top of the hill in our meadow and taking off toward the creek. If the quality of the snow was just right, we could make it all the way to the bank and only because the sled could turn, were we able to avoid the water. 

Children do not ponder the value of play. They just play. Whether they are building blocks on the floor of the living room or shooting hoops in the driveway or building sand castles at the shore or catching baseball in the back yard, play forms a critical part of maturation. Psychologists tell us that a child's cognitive skills, motor skills, language skills, as well as social and emotional skills are enhanced through play. 

But play is not merely for children. Some of our most meaningful social interaction occurs when we as adults play together. My two sons and I will always cherish our times of playing tennis together. Some of our most enjoyable family times are sitting around the kitchen table playing dominoes or "Take Two," a creative way of using the letters of Scrabble. 

"If you want to understand the future of play," according to Rick Bluhm, "start by looking at two things: movies and video games." Bluhm says that, unlike movie ticket sales which have been decreasing, video game sales have exploded with more than 100 million Americans playing video games on a regular basis. 

"People want to create their own experiences" and they can do that with the most popular system, the Nintendo Wii with its interactive capacity. Bluhm is accurate when he says, "They don't just want to watch the story; they want to be involved in the story..." 

Even our work can include play. Few of us would disagree with James Michener who said, "The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play...He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he's actually doing both." 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
Responses can be mailed to president@vfcc.edu
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