The best books about play and playing

11 authors have picked their favorite books about play and playing and why they recommend each book.

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Free to Learn

By Peter Gray,

Book cover of Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life

An evolutionary psychologist, Gray argues that human children, like all mammals, learn best through play. He advocates for a learning process that is kid- and play-driven. Using an innovative school as a model, Gray makes a compelling case for revolutionizing education by putting it in the hands of the kids themselves. Even if you can’t send your child to one of these schools, this book will give you many ideas on how to let your kids take charge of their own academic interests and pursuits which will ultimately help them grow up to take better charge of their own lives and happiness.

Who am I?

I am a writer who lived in Germany for more than six years with my family. That experience opened my eyes to a different way of parenting in a country that had learned hard lessons about too much authoritarian control. It also taught me that much of what we believe is “true” about raising kids is actually cultural—and therefore, can be changed. In addition to my book about raising kids in Germany, Achtung Baby, I’ve written extensively on raising self-reliant kids, including articles in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and among others.

I wrote...

Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children

By Sara Zaske,

Book cover of Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children

What is my book about?

When Sara Zaske moved from Oregon to Berlin with her husband and toddler, she knew the transition would be challenging, especially when she became pregnant with her second child. She was surprised to discover that German parents give their children a great deal of freedom--much more than Americans. In Berlin, kids walk to school by themselves, ride the subway alone, cut food with sharp knives, and even play with fire. German parents did not share her fears, and their children were thriving. Was she doing the opposite of what she intended, which was to raise capable children? Why was parenting culture so different in the States?

Playful Parenting

By Lawrence J. Cohen,

Book cover of Playful Parenting: An Exciting New Approach to Raising Children That Will Help You Nurture Close Connections, Solve Behavior Problems, and Encourage Confidence

This book is full of fun ideas for learning to play with your children at different ages, letting them lead the play. Play is a fundamental way to grow the brain at any age. So the approach is beneficial for parents as well as kids. Imagine playing as a way to solve behavior problems!

Who am I?

I am passionate about raising each human being for lifelong wellbeing and a full set of intelligences. High-income nations don’t do this so much anymore. I conduct empirical studies with children, parents, and other adults to examine how early experience affects capacities for getting along in life and with others. My book has won awards for its holistic view, integrating neuroscience, anthropology, and developmental science. This work led me to start the Evolved Nest website with lots of resources for parents and for all who care about human wellbeing. Humanity is facing many challenges and we need everyone’s gifts to be well grown to help us solve the problems we face.

I wrote...

Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture, and Wisdom

By Darcia Narváez,

Book cover of Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture, and Wisdom

What is my book about?

Moral development has traditionally been considered a matter of reasoning―of learning and acting in accordance with abstract rules. On this model, largely taken for granted in modern societies, acts of selfishness, aggression, and ecological mindlessness are failures of will, moral problems that can be solved by acting in accordance with a higher rationality. 

In this integrative book, Darcia Narvaez argues that morality goes “all the way down” into our neurobiological and emotional development and that a person’s moral architecture is largely established early on in life. Moral rationality and virtue emerge “bottom-up” from lived experience, so it matters what that experience is. Bringing together deep anthropological history, ethical philosophy, and contemporary neurobiological science, she demonstrates where modern industrialized societies have fallen away from the cultural practices that made us human in the first place.

Can I Play Too?

By Mo Willems,

Book cover of Can I Play Too?

This simple, sweet, picture book, like others in the Elephant and Piggy series, deals with different animals who are trying to solve a problem together. I liked the book because it portrays how differences don’t matter when you care about another. To show how differences can be overcome and not be reasons to divide is wonderful, especially when the concept is shown to the very young reader.

Who am I?

I am a psychotherapist working with individuals and couples since 1974 and have had over 57,000 sessions. How people relate to one another has been a fascination of mine since I was a youngster growing up in a suburb of Chicago. I believe that we are “wired” for relationships of all kinds and it takes a conscious effort to see the best in each other for them to thrive. Differences can be the spice of a relationship, not the division of them. My book, my practice, and my life focuses on those concepts. In 2012, I co-authored a popular book on relationships, Togetherness: Creating and Deepening Sustainable Love.

I wrote...

A Surprising Friendship

By Andrew Wald,

Book cover of A Surprising Friendship

What is my book about?

In a world filled with so many different people and animals, friendships come in all sizes, shapes, and colors. Because all people and animals are unique and special, no two friendships are the same.

A Surprising Friendship is a heartwarming story of Zoey the Canadian goose and Henry the Black bear that celebrates diversity. Their fun and shared adventures show how differences can be overcome with kindness, acceptance, and a willingness to discover what we have in common with others who are not like us. Also, unavoidable obstacles can be overcome with a strong desire to maintain the friendship.

Chirri & Chirra, the Rainy Day

By Kaya Doi, David Boyd (translator),

Book cover of Chirri & Chirra, the Rainy Day

These two girls’ everyday adventure series! I adore these twin books since I am a twin myself! Color penciled illustration is always beautiful but I like how Kaya draws the rain here. You can see a drizzle, a shower, a downpour, and even an upside-down rain here. Surely the rain hater like myself can become a rain person.

Who am I?

I hate rainy days, I check the weather forecast diligently to make sure I don’t have to go out on a rainy day. However I became a mother of two boys and with little kids, I had to go out rain or shine. My kids don’t get bothered by the rain, they rather love it, so I learned to enjoy the rainy days just like the grumpy old man from RainI And we enjoyed rainy day activities like drawing, reading about rainy day stories while cuddling on the sofa. These books remind me of those happy rainy days and they will certainly brighten up your rainy days.

I wrote...


By Hyewon Yum,

Book cover of Puddle

What is my book about?

One rainy day, a little boy is upset because he can't go out and play. His mom comes up with a way to keep him entertained--by drawing a picture of herself and him going outside, playing in the rain, and splashing in a giant puddle. They have so much fun drawing themselves that they decide to venture out and make the most of the rainy weather.

Paul and Antoinette

By Kerascoët (illustrator),

Book cover of Paul and Antoinette

Two siblings with very different personalities. The fun of following these two characters grows with every scene. A very skillful, beautiful depiction of the richness of life and creative collaboration. A funny and endearing book.

Who am I?

Unburdened with prejudice or beliefs, children are open to the world. I find great joy in books that reflect the child’s fresh perception and playful spirit. Such books have no intention to teach a moral lesson. They rejoice in freedom. In the non-stereotypical, not yet molded to conform reality of the child. Books beyond good or bad may shine with the light of freshness, the unfiltered seeing. In times of great political divisions, non-didactic books can be a window to the glorious amoral way of perceiving.

I wrote...

Beyond the Fence

By Maria Gulemetova,

Book cover of Beyond the Fence

What is my book about?

Piggy lives in a large house with Thomas. Thomas knows exactly what Piggy needs. But a chance meeting with a wild pig changes everything, and Piggy finds out what lies outside the four walls, beyond the fence. A gentle book about freedom and friendship.

I Don't Like Rain!

By Sarah Dillard,

Book cover of I Don't Like Rain!

I love this book. It brings back so many memories of growing up in the country for me. The illustrations in this book are very expressive and literally speak for themselves, no words necessary.

The day starts out pretty nice for a young bunny who is trying to get a game of kickball started.

He calls out to his neighboring animal friends to come out of their homes and play. They all step outside. There is the hedgehog, the skunk, the fox, the raccoon, and many more. All of a sudden, clouds roll in and everyone goes home except the bunny. He loves rain. This is a big book full of fun. I really enjoyed this book. For me, it's all about the illustrations. I do not like the rain. Getting caught in a rainstorm without an umbrella is no fun. But, this book reminded me of a time in…

Who am I?

My name is Susan Marie Chapman and I am an award-winning Children’s Book Author. I have written over fourteen children’s books. I grew up on a farm surrounded by animals and nature and my seven sisters and brothers. Wow!! My goal is to get as many books into the hands of children that I possibly can. You see, reading books, especially picture books, is a way for a child to see the world through the pictures and words of a book. It creates imagination and excitement and fun and questions which lead to answers which makes you smarter. So read, read, read, until you run out of books, which will never happen.

I wrote...

Grumpy the Iguana

By Susan Marie Chapman, Natalia Loseva (illustrator),

Book cover of Grumpy the Iguana

What is my book about?

Grumpy the Iguana was a happy iguana until something happened to him that changed his mood from happy to grumpy. Grumpy’s life was perfect. He had a daily routine that was perfect for him. He had a perfect little tree home and he had neighbors and friends that loved him. This was Grumpy’s perfect life until his world was turned upside down. No one could say anything to make Grumpy feel better. Until one day he met someone that changed his life.

Eat Pete

By Michael Rex,

Book cover of Eat Pete

A monster goes to Pete’s house with the intention to eat him. Pete asks the monster to play with various games and toys. The monster reluctantly does so, but each time the text goes, “He didn’t want to play...because he wanted to...EAT PETE!” Then something shocking happens – he eats Pete! Let me assure you, though, the ending is very sweet.  

Who am I?

Keiko Kasza is an award-winning author/illustrator of picture books. Though she uses animals as her book characters, the subjects are always related to issues that young children face. Humor and a surprise ending are the signatures of her work.   

I wrote...

My Lucky Day

By Keiko Kasza,

Book cover of My Lucky Day

What is my book about?

A piglet knocks on the fox’s door apparently by mistake. The fox is thrilled. He grabs the piglet and begins to cook his favorite dish, roast pork. You will give a sigh of relief when the piglet finally escapes. But it won’t end there. A huge surprise awaits you on the last page. 

Circle Round

By Anne Sibley O'Brien, Hanna Cha (illustrator),

Book cover of Circle Round

What can a circle be? It can be a ball, a bike tire, a bubble, a cookie, a balloon… A circle can also be people joined together in the spirit of love and acceptance. Circle Round has few words, but the illustrations pull readers into a world full of activity and fun. It’s a counting book that is both playful and profound. 

At the end of the book, I felt I was part of the circle myself.

Who am I?

I’ve published many books for children, but this one is truly special. The Everybody Club is a collaboration with my dear friend Linda Hayen in memory of her daughter, Carissa. As a child, Carissa started a real-life Everybody Club. The first members were toys, dolls, the family cat, and her brothers, one of whom had severe disabilities. Carissa died in a car accident at the age of 16, and this book is Linda’s way of sharing her daughter’s generous spirit with the world. A note for adults at the end of the book shares this backstory.

I wrote...

The Everybody Club

By Nancy Loewen, Linda Hayen, Yana Zybina (illustrator)

Book cover of The Everybody Club

What is my book about?

The Everybody Club is a feel-good rhyming read-aloud. It's a book with plenty of heart and a powerful message: We belong. Every one of us. Join in the fun and see what the Everybody Club is up to in this catchy, joyful romp for young readers!

Ruby's Sword

By Jacqueline Veissid, Paola Zakimi (illustrator),

Book cover of Ruby's Sword

Ruby’s Sword explores the type of imaginative play that can be had with natural world elements. Letting your kids explore nature in a tangible way does wonders for their learning and ingenuity. A simple stick turns into a sword, turning a little girl into a gallant knight. Our children do not need colourful plastic toys to have fun. All they need is a little fresh air and something as simple as a stick. Once my family moved out to the country, I saw my children transform before my eyes. Rocks have become treasures and bugs their newest friends. With the first signs of spring, socks are flung aside as their naked toes seek sand and grass. Let your kids fall in love with nature and it will be a love affair that lasts a lifetime. 

Who am I?

I live in my imagination. I never really grew out of seeing imaginary friends and fantastical elements in the world. Every budding flower or dancing sun shadow is a call to create. This is why I find children’s literature so thrilling and why my own writing often resides within the realm of make-believe. I love kids lit because it allows a grown-up like me to be a kid again – even if it’s just for a few pages.

I wrote...

If My Oak Tree Could Speak

By Rachel Greening,

Book cover of If My Oak Tree Could Speak

What is my book about?

Have you ever wondered what an oak tree would say? Or how a fork would sing? Or perhaps what a furnace would eat? These questions and many more are posed, pondered, and beautifully paraded across the page in this charming poetry book about childhood wonder. Read along in this world of whimsy as the seemingly ordinary objects around you turn into fascinating characters with just a little bit of curiosity and a whole lot of imagination.

What Is a Playhouse? England at Play, 1520-1620

By Callan Davies,

Book cover of What Is a Playhouse? England at Play, 1520-1620

Some of the most exciting discoveries in theatre history in recent years have been archaeological, not archival: the excavation of the Curtain theatre’s foundations in Shoreditch, for example, and the revelation that it was rectangular and much larger than previously thought. Davies’ new book capitalises on a series of such findings and complements them with his own rigorous archival work, putting pressure on the very concept of a ‘playhouse’ and what it can beor rather, what it meant to Shakespeare’s audiences.

Who am I?

I’m a Shakespeare scholar with a particular interest in theatre history and the repertories of the London commercial playing companies of the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries. I’m particularly fascinated by the hundreds of plays written during this period that have not survived, whether as the result of fire, vandalism, censorship, or more mundane causes like a lack of interest in or opportunity for publication. The surviving plays from the period are the distinct minority; yet the plays lost to us were known to Shakespeare and his contemporaries, who often wrote in response to what else was being performed across London.

I wrote...

Shakespeare and Lost Plays

By David McInnis,

Book cover of Shakespeare and Lost Plays

What is my book about?

My book returns Shakespeare’s dramatic work to its most immediate and (arguably) pivotal context; by situating it alongside the hundreds of plays known to Shakespeare’s original audiences, but lost to us. It reassesses the value of lost plays in relation to both the companies that originally performed them, and to contemporary scholars of early modern drama. I revisit key moments in Shakespeare’s career and, by prioritising the immense volume of information we now possess about lost plays, provide a richer, more accurate picture of dramatic activity than has hitherto been possible.

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