What is Play?

When I used to lecture on aspects of child care, I wanted my students to understand the importance of play as a medium for learning and development for every child. I worked on the assumption that every child will play, no matter what their circumstances or health status. I have visited hospitals for sick children where play has been a vital aspect of the day and where, despite being in a weakened state, or tied up with tubes and IV lines, children and young people have occupied themselves with challenges and imagination within their capabilities and attention spans.

The importance of play

Play is an extension of the person. Piaget* theorised that to a child play is work. An action repeated for its own sake becomes part of a play sequence. Accidentally touching a sound-making toy often prompts a small child to repeat the action so that they take control of the sounds made. In this way the universe becomes less threatening and more familiar to a tiny person making their tentative mark on a huge, complicated and confusing world.

In the UK, the Early Years Foundation Stage* for children from birth to five years advocates that time is spent by practitioners, just watching the children they care for as they go about their daily business. Being able to legitimately take time to view is invaluable in planning appropriate experiences and next steps for each child so that they are more likely to achieve their potential as they grow and acquire skills and confidence and accept challenges.

I have written in previous articles about the importance of play in allowing children to develop their own personalities and understanding of such things as risk and danger. I have also compared cultural differences in how adults expect children to play. This time I want to look at how play has been viewed historically.

Understanding play in the past

In the 1920s GS Hall* put forward the ‘recapitulation’ theory of play. He suggested that children, through their play, re-enact the stages of Man. For example, when children splash in water or play at jumping over the waves at the seaside, they are in fact re-living the times when we were aquatic. When older children make dens or camps, they are living out Stone Age Man. This was a very popular theory of its time, coming on the back of the relatively new Evolutionary Theory. This theory was taken very seriously and was promoted especially in the boys’ groups that Hall was very interested in.

Earlier than this, Karl Groos*, in the late 1800s, had suggested that children’s play was linked to the surplus energy of being a higher animal. Humans don’t have to spend time foraging for food or avoiding being prey to larger animals. We are the hunters and have the more superior brains. Because of this, we have leisure time where our surplus energy can be discharged as play by the young.

This theory assumes that energy not spent is stored for use later. We can virtually disprove this idea immediately if we observe a small child who has survived a mammoth shopping expedition with their parents, visiting numerous shops and wandering in and out forests of adult legs and damaging feet especially those wearing stiletto heels. They come home exhausted and fretful. They complain of feeling tired and all they want to do is sit down. A few minutes after arriving home, a friend knocks on the door and invites them out to play in the garden on a home-made swing. Suddenly, their energy levels are high again and they are desperate to go.

There is, in my view, an energy for the different types of play which cannot be channelled into anything else. It is exclusive and almost inexhaustible. Energy for play is not forced, nor can it be stored. It is spontaneous and timely. Most children use only enough energy to match the play type.

Bite-sized learning

Through play, children discover their world in bite-sized portions. They learn about the weather – it can be hot, cold, windy and so on. They incidentally learn about adult attitudes to weather, especially if they live in temperate climates such as the UK. Children develop the skill of symbolising in play, so that even if they don’t have exactly what they need with regard to resources, they can improvise or make do and still gain pleasure from their activities.

They can learn about the properties of objects or substances. Soil can turn to mud when water is added. (Mud stains clothing and is difficult to remove). Sand, on the other hand can be dry or wet. When it is wet, but not soaking, then it can be moulded into shapes that complement the play. Sand tastes salty even when it has been washed many times. It is also gritty against one’s teeth.

Play is a means of self-discovery – what you like or don’t like to do, who you like or don’t like to include in your play. Play, offered in a natural way, i.e. as the child develops and grows, sets its own challenges and conundrums – how to fit a large stone into a small can; why the objects fit inside the tube really well, but then fall out on the floor when the tube is shaken. Through play, the child can act out scenes from real life that have confused or even frightened them.

The vigilant adult can support or reassure during this type of play, being mindful that this belongs to the child and should not be monopolised by a well-meaning but interfering grown-up. It is well-know that most abused children have acted out or relayed their experiences in at least one play sequence. It is not surprising, however that many clues are missed. Adults cannot always be mind-readers and are not always going to be present at the most critical moment in a child’s play. The most we can do is remain as vigilant as possible, and be prepared to be steady and constant when called upon by a child.

Games and gangs

We carry play throughout our lives. As it becomes more organised, such as team sports or games, then rules are introduced. Being a team member is vital for a winning combination. Non-team players are quickly dropped. Other aspects of play are called sport to ensure they are acceptable in the grown-up world. Football, baseball, darts, fishing – all of these can be associated with skills and expertise and hours of practice. Other play forms may lead to cognitive prowess- memory games, bridge, poker, sudoku.

Some play forms unfortunately become deviant and create serious danger and potential loss of life. Gangs – teams by any other word – compete for ‘ownership’ of patches of land or streets or to gain the reputation as the most violent soccer fans. Gangs by themselves are not the issue, it is more the emphasis on living outside of the law that brings about the most serious of consequences. Within a gang, there are strict rules and laws by which everyone must abide. If a member attempts to be different, they are very quickly put in their place. Bringing fear to communities becomes the new game.

I remember being part of a ‘gang’ in my youth. We thought we were fearless and daring. We knocked on doors and ran away to hide whilst watching for the reaction of the person whose house it was. That was the fun bit. We pushed newspaper up drainpipes and set light to them so that the burning paper raced up the pipe due to the suction created and the sound was fantastic – like a loud motor bike. The play that we indulged in had the potential to get out of control, but all of us knew there would be consequences if we were caught. These were the things that kept us in check. There wasn’t one parent whose rules would lapse and so we all understood the importance of consistency.

Play can be loud or quiet; it can be solitary or carried out in a group; it can be vigorous and active or peaceful and almost silent. It is the one thing everyone desires to be able to do and which most of us, at least during our early years, have managed to achieve to a greater or lesser degree. Play allows for creativity and invention. It inspires and motivates. Without play – what are we?


*G S Hall: http://www.infed.org/thinkers/gulick.htm

*Karl Groos:


*Early Years Foundation Stage: www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/eyfs

1 thought on “What is Play?”

  1. I am looking up articles on play for my Bphil in Autistic Spectrum Disorders. I am researching why children play and why children with ASDs find it hard. Thank you for this article.


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