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The 5 Best Books I Read in 2017 on Play, Parenting, and More

2017-12-13 by Melissa
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Reading is my favorite way to learn—although the only time I actually find to read is usually between the hours of 11:00 p.m. and 12:00 a.m. when my children are finally asleep! Some of the books I have read this past year have been so impactful that they have truly changed the way I think about creativity, parenting, and our Take Back Childhood mission.

As this year draws to a close, I thought I would take a few moments to highlight the five books that had the biggest impact on me and why they were so powerful and inspirational.

5 Must-Read Books

1. “Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life,” by Peter Gray

Dr. Gray, who has been a research professor at Boston College for 30 years, discusses the critical importance of play in the lives of children and how play has been present historically in all societies. He strongly makes the case for how instrumental play is in the lives of each and every individual in order to build the skills necessary to become healthy adults. But for that to happen, we need to parent differently and allow children the freedom to choose their own path.

My Takeaway: This book really shined the light on how critical it is that we allow our kids to play as much as they desire. They need time to play. It also exposed how, as parents, we are harming our children by overscheduling and structuring their childhoods. This becomes an impediment to the development of essential skills that will allow children to become independent adults and able to handle life on their own terms.

Quote I Underlined: “Nothing we do, no amount of toys we buy or quality time or special training we give our children can compensate for the freedom we take away. The things that children learn through their own initiatives, in free play, cannot be taught in other ways.”

Why It’s a Must-Read: It will force you to take a hard look at your parenting style and make adjustments if necessary. For example, I learned that I am a directive-protective parent (which is not a good thing) and need to stop enabling and start empowering my children!

Kids playing in the snow

2. “Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul,” by Stuart Brown

Dr. Brown powerfully articulates the importance of and need to play throughout our entire lives, not only in our childhoods. He details some very powerful examples of adults who became depressed because their inner child had been buried under many layers of obligation and responsibility. Dr. Brown writes about the importance of—and how to reconnect with—that inner child and bring joy back into our lives!

My Takeaway: This book truly changed my mind-set in realizing that play must never end with childhood. Play must be cherished as the essence of life and defined, nurtured, stoked, and practiced throughout one’s ENTIRE LIFE.

Quote I Underlined: “We are built to play and built through play. When we play, we are engaged in the purest expression of our humanity, the truest expression of our individuality. Is it any wonder that often the times we feel the most alive, those that make up our best memories, are moments of play?”

And another favorite quote . . .

“We don’t need play all the time to be fulfilled. The truth is that in most cases, play is a catalyst.  The beneficial effects of getting just a little true play can spread through our lives, actually making us more productive and happier in everything we do.”

Why It’s a Must-Read: It is critical to understand that play is ESSENTIAL in all our lives and without it, we are likely to end up unfulfilled and unhappy!  Honestly, I had never thought about play in this way!

The 5 Best Books I Read In 2017 On Play, Parenting, And More


3. “Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World,” by Adam Grant

This book was a fascinating look at creative and non-conformist individuals throughout history and what differentiated the ones who achieved success from those who did not. Grant shatters a number of common assumptions—that some of us are creative and others are not, that geniuses are continually creating masterpieces—and shares how we can all be nurtured to be more creative and original.

My Takeaway: There was one section of this book that was truly profound, and I find myself sharing the content of it frequently with those around me. It’s the idea that QUANTITY and TAKING MORE SWINGS wins out in the creative process over perfecting a small number of ideas. That was incredibly validating, as when it comes to toy creation, I fail more than I succeed. Over the last three decades, I have created nearly 10,000 products with fewer than 2,000 still in existence and between 150 and 200 new items each year. I need to take a whole lot of swings to get the hits, and according to Adam Grant, that is just fine!

Quote I Underlined: Grant highlights Dean Simonton, a psychologist, who studied creative productivity extensively and determined that creative geniuses weren’t qualitatively better in their fields than their peers—they simply produced a greater volume of work which gave them a higher chance at success. “The odds of producing a successful idea are a positive function of the total number of ideas generated,” he says. He uses Shakespeare as an example: “We’re most familiar with a small number of his classics—forgetting that in the span of two decades he produced 37 plays and 154 sonnets. In the same five-year window that Shakespeare produced three of his most popular works—MacBeth, King Lear, and Othello—he also churned out the comparatively average Timon of Athens and All’s Well That Ends Well, both slammed for unpolished prose and incomplete plot and character development.”

Why It’s a Must-Read: It dispels the myth that everything creative people touches turns to gold, validating instead the mind-set that the more we stick our necks out there and try, the more chance we have of success!


4. “Most Likely To Succeed: Preparing our Kids for the Innovation Era,” by Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith

These two noted educational and entrepreneurial experts call for a complete transformation of our educational system that was formed a century ago primarily to produce workers effective on assembly lines. They make it clear that in today’s society where technology will replace all rote, mechanized roles, students need to be equipped with different skills and competencies to thrive and be able to provide innovative solutions to society’s difficult challenges.

My Takeaway: It is no longer about memorization, regurgitation, performing well on standardized tests, and getting good grades. It is all about building skills that make one an innovative thinker—learning how to collaborate, communicate, be creative, and critically think while being civic-minded and focused on community building and engagement.

Quote I Underlined: “Does anyone, besides high stakes test designers, really think our kids should be spending all of their time memorizing the placement of accent marks in French vocabulary? Memorizing the definition of an isosceles triangle? Studying the definition of covalent bonds? And on and on. But when you fill up every waking hour of a teenager’s life with these drills, you don’t have time for what really counts. And you produce disengaged kids doing the most mind-numbing of tasks rather than developing the skills they’ll need to take on life’s biggest challenges.”

Why It’s a Must-Read: As parents, we must fight for change and push our teachers and administrators to allow out-of-the-box thinking, creativity, and experiential learning to be prevalent in today’s classroom rather than teaching to standardized tests and churning out robots!

Children building and expressing creativity

5. “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success,” by Julie Lythcott-Haims

As dean of freshman and undergraduate advising at Stanford University, Haims saw her share of stressed-out students and parents.  In her fascinating book, she discusses how overparenting and embarking on a “checklisted childhood” path robs our children of a true childhood and denies them the ability to develop the fortitude and confidence necessary to achieve fulfillment and personal success.

My Takeaway: HEART PALPITATIONS AND ALL OUT PANIC ATTACK! This book was a tough read for me in that I saw all the ways in which I had hampered my children by not allowing them to dust themselves off when they fell, solve their own problems and find their own paths—not the path I envisioned for them. It made me realize that I need to change the way I parent.

Quote I Underlined: “Humans need some degree of weathering in order to survive the larger challenges life will throw our way. Without experiencing the rougher spots of life, our kids become exquisite, like orchids, yet are incapable, sometimes terribly incapable, of thriving in the real world on their own. Why did parenting change from preparing our kids FOR life to protecting them FROM life, which means they’re not prepared to live life on their own?”

Why It’s a Must-Read: Because it paints a picture of exactly where our society is today . . . and unless we change the way in which we parent and allow our kids to take more risks and fail, we are impeding them from discovering who they truly are and achieving fulfillment and independence.

It was a real challenge to cull my list down to only five books, and I’m eagerly looking forward to adding more to my reading list in 2018. Please share with me some of YOUR favorite books about parenting, play, child development, education, and creativity! We will be reaching out on our Facebook and LinkedIn pages to invite you to share some of your picks.

To read more about the books mentioned above, check out these sites:
“Free to Learn,” by Peter Gray
“Play,” by Stuart Brown
Originals,” by Adam Grant
“Most Likely to Succeed,” by Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith
How to Raise an Adult,” by Julie Lythcott-Haims



Melissa is the co-founder of Melissa & Doug. She credits her creativity to a childhood of boredom, relying on only her imagination to fill the blank canvas — with magic. Concerned this generation of children is missing out on the kind of unstructured downtime that enables them to find their passions and purpose through exploration, Melissa is leading a movement to Take Back Childhood. She dreams of a day when kids are free from over-scheduling, undue pressure, and digital distractions so they may discover themselves, develop into free thinkers, and realize their full potential.

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