views updated Jun 08 2018


PLAY . The idea of play may be embedded in the very metaphysics of certain cosmologies (Handelman and Shulman 1997), as well as in particular ritual contexts. Although the idea of play has widespread currency in religions with differing epistemologies, the profundity of its presence corresponds to the level of premises at which it is lodged in a given religious system. The more abstract and encompassing the premises of a religion imbued with the ideation of play, the more pervasive and fateful are its systematic expressions in religious life.

Attributes of the Idea of Play

The idea of play is universal among humankind, whether or not particular cultures have terms to denote such a conception. A first attribute of play is that its assumptions are preeminently conditional, for play is a medium through which the make-believe is brought into being and acquires the status of a reality.

Especially human is the capacity to imagine and, so, to create alternative realities. In question, however, are the truth values of such realities, that is, the extent to which, and under which conditions, they are accorded validity. In the logic of modern Western culture, the imaginary is not accorded any ultimate status of validity or truth. Gregory Bateson (1972) has argued that the messages that signify the existence of play are "untrue" in a sense, and that the reality that such messages denote is nonexistent. This, of course, holds in a culture whose religious cosmology is predicated in part upon a comparatively immutable boundary between the divine and the human, with the former accorded the status of absolute truth, while the latter is perceived in no small measure as sinful and as a profanation of the former. Given its imaginary character, the idea of play in much of modern Western thought often is rendered as pretense and is relegated to the domain of the culturally "unserious," like the world of fiction and that of leisure time activities, or to the realm of the "not yet fully human," like the play of little children. Yet to equate the imaginary universally with the frivolous is to render the essential powers of play impotent and to obscure their roles in religious thought and action, especially in cosmologies where a state of existence is also a condition of untruth.

A second attribute of play is the necessity of a form of reference that can be altered in systematic ways. Play changes the known signs of form into something else by altering the reified boundaries that define and characterize the phenomenon. What is changed still retains crucial similarities to its form of foundation and so remains intimately related to it. For example, the medieval European Feast of Fools, a rite of inversion, required the form of a traditional Christian Mass that could be altered. The play-mass would have no significance for participants were it not derived from and contrasted with its everyday analogue, the traditional Mass.

A third attribute of play is that any phenomenal form can be transformed through a sense of imagination that itself remains constrained to a degree by the composition of the "original" form. This attribute may be problematic for ontologies that strongly implicate the active presence of play in the acts of creation, as in Hinduism. For since the idea of play requires the existence of forms that can be differently modeled, how can this idea be present prior to the creation of form? Nonetheless, if the Hindu cosmos comes into being as the adumbrated dream of the all-encompassing universal principle, brahman, then this attribute of play is not obviated, since original form itself is imaginary and illusory.

A fourth attribute of play is that it brings into being something that had not existed before by changing the shape and positioning of boundaries that categorize phenomena and so altering their meaning. One may state simply that creation, destruction, and recreation occur and recur because those boundaries that demarcate the coherency of phenomena are altered. Therefore play is associated intimately with creativity and with creation, as Johan Huizinga (1938) and Arthur Koestler (1964) have maintained, as well as with its converse, destruction. In the most limited case of creation, that of the inversion of a phenomenally valid form, it is only the reflection of such form, still constrained by the original positioning of boundaries, that is brought into being. For example, the inversion of gender is constrained by finite permutations, as is the overturning of a clearly defined hierarchy, as long as gender and hierarchy remain the respective terms of reference of these inversions. On the other hand, cosmologies that strongly feature trickster figures also tend to be characterized by lengthier series of transformations of these types, so that it becomes difficult to state which form is the original and which the playful copy.

A fifth attribute of play is that it is an amoral medium, one that is marked by plasticity, by lability, and by flexibility in ideationqualities closely related to those of imagination and creativity. In play, these qualities have the potential to meddle with and to disturb any form of stability and any conception of order.

A sixth attribute of play is a penchant for questioning the phenomenal stability of any form that purports to exist as a valid proposition and as a representation of "truth." The idea of play is amoral in its capacities to subvert the boundaries of any and all phenomena and so to rock the foundations of a given reality.

Whether, and to what degree, these qualities of play are integral to the metaphysics of a given religious system should illustrate how that system works. For example, whether the boundaries that divide the paranatural and human realms are quite absolute or are matters of continuous gradation and whether the character of a cosmology's population (deities, spirits, demons, tricksters, and so forth) is one of positional stability or of ongoing transformation should be illuminated by the relative presence of the attributes of play in a particular religious system.

The Idea of Play and Premises of Cosmology

The embeddedness of the idea of play does not appear to be associated, in particular, either with great religious traditions or with local ones, either with so-called tribal societies or with more complex ones. Hence the examples adduced here are of a tribal people and of Hinduism.

The Iatmul of the Sepik River area in New Guinea are a tribal people whose culture values monistic and yet dualistic conceptions of the cosmos. Both coexist, each continuously transforming into the other. For the monism of the Iatmul view of cosmic order fragments into a multitude of competing principles that explain that order. In turn, these recombine into an elementary synthesis, only to multiply once again and to flow together once more.

Thus the character of the Iatmul cosmos is one of immanent transmutability, of plays upon phenomenal form. This reverberates throughout the institutions of Iatmul society and parallels a conduciveness to paradox in Iatmul thought. This proclivity of paradox highlights ongoing disjunctions among phenomenal forms. Therefore strong tendencies toward fragmentation lurk within numerous cultural traditions that declare the validity of a coherent synthesis of differing principles in Iatmul society. Thus Iatmul men, in the heat of argument, were to display their most sacred ceremonial objects before the profaning gaze of women and uninitiated boys, thereby completely destroying for years to come the ritual efficacy of these collective representations. Superficially this behavior could appear simply as uncontrolled and destructive. Yet further consideration would reveal that such behavior was quite consistent with those premises of an Iatmul worldview that denied to boundaries a fixedness of form for lengthy durations.

In such cosmologies, as of course in others, boundaries of form are brought into being through change. Yet in such cosmologies both phenomenal form and the agencies of change are, in a sense, illusory: though they persuade that the solidity of reification is their state, this masks the more profound observation that impermanence is their condition. Here play, as illusion in action, is crucial. The ideation of play is processual: it can bring into being forms that signify the existence of the cosmos. Yet these forms themselves must be transcended through their own negation in order to reveal those deeper truths that are masked by the very force of illusion. Therefore the processuality of play, of imagination, also effaces its own creation.

Aspects of Hindu cosmology exemplify this abstract sense of play as cosmic process. The Hindu concept of līla commonly is translated as the "play" of forces and energies that are continually in motion. These spontaneously create and destroy the possibility of a phenomenal world in an unending process. Līla, as play, is a metaphor of flux, of movement, from which the cosmos emerges and into which it will eventually disappear. Any reification of form, implying inherent solidity and stability, denies this basic premise. Yet the premise itself cannot be realized without the creation of form, which is then the opposite of nonform, of flux. Momentarily (in cosmic terms) the premise of līlā must create phenomena in order to revalidate itself by then subverting and destroying them. The creation of phenomena is activated through the use of māyā, commonly translated as the force of illusion, that is, as another aspect of the idea of play as it is used here. All phenomena rest and shift on the premise of illusion. Their most abstract of purposes is to cease to exist as phenomena.

Among the products of māyā is the cosmos that gods and humans inhabit. This can be rendered as sasāra, a gloss for all phenomena that exist in the cosmos. Sasāra, too, is understood as flux, as the processual flow that shapes all forms, and not as phenomena whose reification is absolute in any sense. Sasāra is also related to the idea of play and refers to the cycle of birth and rebirth of all beings. One can attain salvation, and so escape sasāra, only by dissipating the forces of illusion that render deep flux as superficial form. For gods and humans, for renouncers and antigods, aspects of the ideation of play are both their confinement, through illusion, in the bounded phenomenal trap and their escape from it through the dissolution of fixed forms. As named beings, deities are not ultimate forms in and of themselves. Rather they are signposts on the way to salvation, just as other figures point in contrary directions. Without beginning to overcome the forces of illusion, thereby gaining insight into both creation and destruction, one is caught endlessly in the paradoxes of a world that appears stable but is in flux. Yet perceptions that are paradoxical on one level of abstraction become merely ironical on a higher one.

The logic of these ideas permeates numerous aspects of Hindu cosmology. Ideally, the creative role of the sanyāsin, the renouncer, which is dedicated to the penetration of illusion, is also built into the Hindu life cycle as the final stage of living in this reality. Therefore, in a theoretical sense, the desirability of piercing the force of illusion that makes the world possible is integral to living in that world.

Like humans, Hindu gods and antigods are not constructed culturally as unitary and homogeneous figures. Instead they are self-transforming types whose logic of composition depends on the alteration of hierarchical and lateral boundaries within and around themselves. In their transformations these figures bear witness to the ultimate impermanence of illusion and also to the necessity of this force upon which they, like humankind, depend for existence. The only final stability in the Hindu cosmos is that of motility; the only final coherence in classification is its mutation.

Such paranatural types, like other facets of Hinduism, often seem paradoxical to Western thinking, in which stability is believed to be truly real and flux is both a secondary and a deficient reality. In the South Indian Śaiva Tamil tradition, for example, Śiva is composed as a self-transforming figure. He is creator, protector, and destroyer. He is, in Wendy O'Flaherty's felicitous phrasing, the erotic ascetic. He transcends and contains the cosmos, yet also appears within it through synecdoche, the relationship of part to whole. He is trickster and tricked. He creates the antigods, the asura s, and, by the terms of their compact, is helpless before them as they wreak havoc. But he also transcends himself in creating his son, Muruka, who destroys the antigods. There are hints that Muruka at once is greater than Śiva, is Śiva, and is reabsorbed into Śiva. In this example the power of imagination, intimately associated with illusion, has the capacity to expand upon, to extend, and to transform phenomenal reality beyond those boundaries that previously had contained it in an ongoing play of generative forces. This potential is actualized since reality and the fixedness that gives it definition are illusory.

Like the permutations of malleability in Iatmul cosmology, that of Hinduism, although operating in terms of a radically different epistemology, emphasizes the fragmentation of unitary principles that flow together in synthesis only to divide once again. In both of these cosmologies the idea of play would seem to inhere in their abstract conceptualizations of phenomenal reality that, on the one hand, perch and teeter precariously on the border between cosmos and chaos and, on the other, conceive of processuality as a condition of existence.

Premises of Play in Ritual Occasions

As the focus of play shifts to the positioning of this idea in religious or quasi-religious occasions, it becomes more constricted, since its presence threatens the validity and the stability of the occasion in which it is located. Nonetheless the idea of play does accomplish certain kinds of work in particular ritual contexts.

Within ritual contexts the notion of play has perhaps the most embracing mandate in that category of occasion termed festival. As the etymology of the English word denotes, a festival is an occasion of celebration, of joyous attitudes, and of rejoicing, marked by moods of cheer. In European tradition it has affinities with the carnivalesque and with certain liturgical periods in the Christian calendar. In the Hindu tradition it encompasses annual occasions that celebrate the powers of particular deities, and such times often are indistinguishable from pilgrimages to the deities in this culture.

Of especial significance here is that festival approximates a total collective performance, one that celebrates a holistic unity of cosmic and social order on the part of a relatively homogenized population of participants. This implies that many of the distinctions between social categories of personswhether based on hierarchy, status, occupation, or agemay be temporarily subverted and dissolved in a playful spirit. Thus people, ordinarily separated by moral edicts and social rules, are brought together to experience the rediscovery of the significance of sacra that apply to all of them as a comparatively undifferentiated community of believers.

In part this may be done through inversions of social identity that reverse the relationships among everyday social distinctions, so that the high are made low and more peripheral positions become more central. This is the case in the North Indian holiday Krsnalila, or Feast of Love. Or, as in the European tradition of Carnival, the spirit of festive license and the erasure of social boundaries prepare the way for the ascetic restrictions of the days of Lent. In either instance the ideation of play is crucial to establish a comparative degree of social homogeneity among participants, permitting them to receive and to experience the power of sacra, individually and collectively. During carnivalesque occasions the indeterminacy of play serves as a mediating prelude to the transcendence of a social collective, preparing it to be recast as a religious community.

Still, the heyday of the European Carnival was during the medieval period, when the metaphysics of Christianity may have been quite different from their present-day counterparts. Then, the boundaries between the divine and the human were more mutable and interpenetrable, and the themes of the effervescent grotesque, itself a likely product of the mingling of domains, were pervasive. This more transformative cosmology was more similar in certain general respects to that of Hinduism than to its modern offsprings. And it is this kind of cosmology that encourages the genre of the religious festival. Here the playful celebration of the dissolution of boundaries creates the grounds for their reconstitution with renewed vigor.

The idea of play within ritual occasions, the boundaries of which are strongly and unequivocally reified, has a much narrower scope. Such occasions, unlike numerous festivals, tend to be organized as a clear-cut sequence of phases that follow one another in cumulative progression. Hierarchy is prominent; there are social distinctions among those who take part and between participants and others. Order is prevalent throughout, as is the measured progression to messages of the sacred. Where play is present, it rarely questions either the external boundaries that circumscribe the occasion or its internal distinctions. Instead, the mutability of play is bent to more specific purposes.

Across cultures the most characteristic of these operations is found in inversions that are featured in the commonly termed "rituals of reversal." These are not usually rituals in their own right but more often occur in a particular phase in a ritual sequence. Inversions are marked frequently by the mockery, the mimicry, and the ridiculing of one category of person or theme by another, or of a category in relation to itself. This tends to occur in a spirit of play, that is, through the subversion of one form and its substitution by another. Here the validity of existing social categories or roles is not questioned. These remain the same; only their valences change, so that access to them is temporarily altered. Moreover, the inversion of form often seems to carry connotations of an unnatural condition so that the morally correct version of form lies in the converse of what is inverted. Therefore, inversions revert to the foundation-for-form, from which the inverted image was derived. Furthermore, an inverted form remains a refraction of its usual image, and this suggests that inversion maintains the very domain of discourse that is defined initially by the original form. This effectively restricts the transformative force of play and strictly limits the possible permutations of its plays-upon-form.

Nonetheless such constricted mutability may perform significant work within ritual occasions. In the Booger Dance of the Cherokee Indians of the southeastern United States, as this was practiced during the first decades of this century, an alternative reality that was experienced as threatening by the community of believers was proposed in play and destroyed through it. The Booger Dance itself was preceded and succeeded by dances associated with the dead and the defunct. The Cherokee who were disguised as Boogers inverted their everyday identities and took on those of strangers with obscene names, exaggerated features, and strange speech. They burst noisily into the dwelling where the ritual-dance series was performed. Their behavior was aggressive and boisterous, and they were perceived as malignant and menacing creatures. As each Booger danced he was mocked, mimicked, and laughed at by the onlookers. Furthermore by their moral demeanor the onlookers quieted and tamed the Boogers and eventually ejected them from the ritual space. Outside, they unmasked, and then, as Cherokee, they rejoined the others in further ritual dances.

The Boogers, familiar men inverted as fearsome strangers, represented all that was frightful and evil beyond the boundaries of the moral community. Their intrusion underlined and reinforced these boundaries rather than threatening them. By their mockery and laughter, members of the moral community queried the valid presence of these characters within the community, expelled these symbols of evil from within, and so reasserted the correctness of the moral and social orders. In this example the alternative order proposed by the Boogers does not appear to have been entertained seriously by the other participants. The reality of the Boogers was inauthentic from the outset, and therefore the make-believe of play was contrasted throughout with the verities of ritual, reaffirming them.

In other orchestrations of ritual occasions, play is used to falsify alternative realities that are proposed as authentic and that deny sacred verities. In the following example, of Sinhala Buddhist exorcisms on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, the alternative reality is adumbrated in seriousness and falsified through play. This permits the correct order to reemerge with a sense of revelation and in sharp contradistinction to the illusory character of play. In the Sinhala cosmology demons are inferior to humankind, as is humankind to deities and to the Buddha. A person possessed by a demon is understood to invert the hierarchical superiority of the human in relation to the demonic: the possessed is thought to perceive reality as one dominated by demons and not by deities. The problem of the exorcists is to destroy the superordinate demonic reality of the possessed and to reestablish the moral superiority of deities and humans. To accomplish this, exorcists first reify the validity of a superior demonic reality. The demons then appear in the human realm, confident of their superiority there. However their assertion of authentic ascendancy is subverted and destroyed through comic episodes that show this status to be illusory. The demons are proved to be laughable savages who are ignorant of the very rudiments of correct human action, etiquette, and morality. The assertions of demonic reality are dissolved through play, and the demons are ejected from the human realm to reassume their inferior cosmological position. These tests of the validity of demonic reality, through the medium of play, prepare the grounds for the revelation of the reemergence of correct cosmic order and free the possessed from the demonic grip.

This brief survey of certain of the relationships among the idea of play and aspects of the organization of religion and ritual leads to a final point that is of widespread concern to religious experience. The presence of play induces and encourages reflection on the part of believers upon the elementary premises of their religious systems. Playing with boundaries and therefore with the coherency and verity of ideation and form emphasizes that every taken-for-granted proposition also contains its own potential negation. In turn, the experience of such challenges deepens and strengthens belief in the truths of cosmology and ritual once their validity is reestablished.

See Also

Carnival; Chaos; Cosmology, overview article; Games; Līlā; Māyā; Performance and Ritual; Tricksters.


The classic work on the role of play in the evolution of society remains that of Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: Versuch einer Bestimmung des Spielelements der Kultur (Haarlem, 1938), translated by R. F. C. Hull as Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (London, 1949). The most comprehensive study of the role of play in modern philosophies is that of Mihai I. Spariosu, Dionysus Reborn: Play and the Aesthetic Dimension in Modern Philosophical and Scientific Discourse (Ithaca, 1989). Don Handelman and David Shulman, in God Inside Out: Siva's Game of Dice (New York, 1997) offer a radical perspective on the formative role of play in the constitution of Saiva cosmology. That play is integral to creativity is explored by, among others, Arthur Koestler in his The Act of Creation (London, 1964). Susanne Langer, in "The Great Dramatic Forms: The Comic Rhythm," included in her Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art (New York, 1953), argues for an intimate association of the spirit of comedy with that of life-renewing forces. In a contrasting vein, Henri Bergson's Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (New York, 1912), translated by Cloudesly Brereton and Fred Rothwell from three articles of Bergson's that appeared in Revue de Paris, persuades that the comic exposes the disjunction between the presumptions of rigidity of form and the vitality of human spirit. His work is best read in conjunction with a more semiological approach, like that of G. B. Milner, who, in "Homo Ridens: Towards a Semiotic Theory of Humour and Laughter," Semiotica 5 (1972): 130, discusses the shift to the ideation of play as a change in paradigm. Gilles Deleuze's Logique du Sens (Paris, 1969), translated by Mark Lester with Charles Stivale, as The Logic of Sense (New York, 1990), begins with an extended analysis of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and seeks the shifting locations where sense and nonsense collide. The seminal essay on the paradoxical character of such a cognitive shift, at least in Western thought, is Gregory Bateson's "A Theory of Play and Fantasy," in his Steps to an Ecology of Mind (New York, 1972). Mary Douglas, in "The Social Control of Cognition: Some Factors in Joke Perception," Man: The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, n. s. 3 (September 1968): 361376, brings to the fore the plasticity of indeterminacy that the ideation of play introduces into social reality. The most comprehensive cross-cultural overview of theories of play, among both children and adults, is Helen B. Schwartzman's Transformations: The Anthropology of Children's Play (New York, 1978). This volume contains an excellent bibliography. Game, Play, Literature, Yale French Studies, no. 41 (New Haven, 1968), a special issue edited by Jacques Ehrmann, contains provocative studies on the assumptions of playful ideation. Brian Sutton-Smith, in his The Ambiguity of Play (Cambridge, Mass., 1997), uses an original and insightful approach in discussing theories of play in terms of the different varieties of rhetoric through which these theories are constituted. An explicit comparison of the idea of play with that of ritual is my "Play and Ritual: Complementary Frames of Meta-Communication"; in It's a Funny Thing, Humour (Oxford, 1977), edited by Anthony J. Chapman and Hugh C. Foot. My, Models and Mirrors: Towards an Anthropology of Public Events (New York, 1998, 2d ed.), discusses the constituting roles of play in a variety of rituals and proto-rituals. Galina Lindquist discusses the role of play in neo-shamanic ritual in, Shamanic Performances on the Urban Scene: Neo-Shamanism in Contemporary Sweden (Stockholm, 1997). A diverse collection on the relationships between religion and playful ideation is Holy Laughter (New York, 1969), edited by M. Conrad Hyers. His Zen and the Comic Spirit (London, 1974) is an in-depth study of such relationships in one Eastern religious tradition. Useful general considerations of festival are found in Roger Caillois's Man and the Sacred (Glencoe, Ill., 1959), pp. 97127, and in René Girard's Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore, 1977). An insightful and varied collection on the relationships of play to power is the special issue of Focaal: European Journal of Anthropology 37 (2001): 7156, entitled Playful Power and Ludic Spaces: Studies in Games of Life, edited by Galina Lindquist and Don Handelman. The most intensive, subtle, and nuanced study of socialization through play in a non-Western culture is that of Jean Briggs, Inuit Morality Play: The Emotional Education of a Three-Year-Old (New Haven, Conn., 1998). The North Indian Ka Līla is described most evocatively by McKim Marriott in "The Feast of Love," in Krishna: Myths, Rites and Attitudes (Honolulu, 1966), edited by Milton Singer. Medieval European worldview and the tradition of Carnival is discussed with imagination and insight, if with a modicum of exaggeration, in Mikhail Bakhtin's Rabelais and His World (Cambridge, Mass., 1968). Iatmul cosmology is analyzed by Gregory Bateson in Naven, 2d ed. (Stanford, Calif., 1958). The Booger Dance of the Cherokee is described by Frank G. Speck and Leonard Broom, with the assistance of Will West Long, in Cherokee Dance and Drama (Berkeley, Calif., 1951). The elements of play in Sinhala exorcism are analyzed richly by Bruce Kapferer in A Celebration of Demons: Exorcism and the Aesthetics of Healing in Sri Lanka (Bloomington, Ind., 1983). Among modern Christian theologians, Harvey Cox argues for the value to Christianity of a renewed interest in the spirit of play, in The Feast of Fools: A Theological Essay on Festivity and Fantasy (Cambridge, Mass., 1969); and Josef Pieper maintains that festivity without religious celebration is artifice, in his In Tune with the World (1965; Chicago, 1973). Brenda Danet has done pioneering work on playfulness in internet communication in Cyberpl@y: Communicating Online (Oxford, 2001).

Don Handelman (1987 and 2005)


views updated May 29 2018


When considering the history of children's play, the very notion of when conceptions of childhood began must be considered.

Historian Philippe AriÈs, in his Centuries of Childhood (1962), contended that the idea of childhood did not exist in medieval society. Ariès also argued, however, that there was no clear separation of the world of adults and children prior to and during this period. He did not deny that children played among themselves or with adults. In fact, this entry examines play based on historical and contemporary studies from the fourteenth century through the late twentieth century. Although far from exhaustive, this work covers several distinct periods and highlights common themes in children's play over time.

Play in Medieval London

The best source on children's play in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries is Barbara Hanawalt's 1993 book Growing Up in Medieval London. Hanawalt maintained that during this period children played ball and tag, ran races, rolled hoops, and engaged in role playing in imaginary parades, Masses, and marriages. Support for Hanawalt's claims came from court and coroner's records of injuries and deaths. For example, one young boy fell to his death when he climbed from a window to retrieve a ball from a gutter. In another case, a seven-year-old boy was climbing and jumping from timbers of wood with two other boys when a timber fell on him and broke his right leg. In her book, Hanawalt dramatizes the story of eight-year-old Richard Le Mazon. Richard was on his way back to school after his midday meal when he joined his friends to play a popular but risky gamehanging by the hands from a beam that protruded out from the side of London Bridge. The boys competed to see who could swing out the farthest on the beam. Feeling brave, Richard swung far but, having forgotten to remove his school satchel from his back, he lost his grip due to the extra weight and fell to his death in the river.

Richard's death prevented him from participating in the boy-bishop celebration. This celebration was of special importance in the Middle Ages because it was reserved for children and coincided with St. Nicholas Day. St. Nicholas was considered the patron saint of children, and his feast day (December 6) marked the beginning of the Christmas season. The best or most favored scholar from each school would be elected to impersonate the bishop. The rest of the boys formed his clergy. The boys ousted the real bishop and took over for him, presiding over services and preaching the sermon. As Hanawalt notes: "It was one of those medieval, world-turned-topsy-turvy events. The boys, whose life seemed all discipline, were given a taste of power to discipline" (p. 79). The boy bishop and his clergy traveled in style, wearing ceremonial capes, rings, and crosses, and they

stopped at parish homes to receive offerings, meals, and gifts.

Hanawalt's work challenges notions that there was no clear conception of childhood at the time. It also shows that even though most children entered the world of adults and work at an early age, this did not mean there was no time for play. The study also, by its omission of specific references to the play of or special celebrations for girls, suggests that girls had far less autonomy and opportunities for play than boys. Girls were less likely to be educated, and their work inside and outside the home was probably more closely supervised.

Play in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century America

Reports on the lives of slave children in the pre-Civil War South provide us some idea of how children played at that time, even in very oppressive conditions. Based on a belief that slaves would be more productive workers if they were not brought to the fields until early adolescence, slave children (especially boys) lived rather autonomous lives on the plantation. Lester Alston (1992) and David Wiggins (1985) captured these children's lives in their respective analyses of narratives collected from former slaves as part of the 1936-1938 Federal Writers' Project. According to these accounts, older slave women who were too frail to continue to work in the fields cared for the very young children. At the age of two or three, however, children joined a group of older youth who cared for them while they performed daily chores such as hauling water, fetching wood, tending gardens, and feeding livestock.

There was, however, more to these children's lives than chores and caretaking. They had some freedom to explore the physical world and to play. Older children especially had a good deal of autonomy. Most boys (and some girls) who had more stringent caretaking responsibilities made good use of their time by hunting and fishing during the day with peers and with their fathers at night. Not only were hunting and fishing enjoyable, but those activities also generated feelings of self-worth in the children because of their contributions to the family table.

Slave children engaged in both traditional and improvised play and games. As did the children of medieval London, slave children enjoyed dramatic role-playing. These children especially liked to emulate social events like church services, funerals, and auctions. One former slave recounted the game of auction, where one child would become the auctioneer and conduct a simulated slave sale. The fact that slave children knew early on that they themselves could be sold and separated from their families displays the power of such play for dealing with fears and anxieties. In another game, "Hiding the Switch," several children would look for a switch hidden by another child. The one who found the switch ran after the others attempting to hit (and some cases actually hitting) them. The relation of this game to the often brutal treatment of adult slaves should be obvious.

Slave children played a number of organized games, such as jump rope and various chasing games. They did not typically play elimination games like dodge ball or tag, however; if they did, they altered the rules. In a 1985 book, American historian David Wiggins links this finding to real fears among these children that members of their families (and eventually they themselves) could be sold or hired out at any time.

Historical studies have also been conducted of children's play with toys (especially dolls) from the mid-1850s until the turn of the century. According to a 1992 article by Miriam Forman-Brunell, doll play before the Civil War was rare; it often was linked to domestic training, such as teaching girls to sew. In the decades after the Civil War, however, adults encouraged middle- and upper-class girls "to imbue their numerous dolls with affect, to indulge in fantasy, and to display their elaborately dressed dolls at ritual occasions such as tea parties and while visiting" (Forman-Brunell, p.108). Although girls adopted this attitude to some degree, they did not simply internalize adult values. To the contrary, girls often used their dolls for purposes other than practicing the skills of mothering. Contemporary autobiographical reports describe girls rebelling against holding sedate tea parties by sliding their dolls down banisters atop tea trays and turning tea parties into fights among their dolls. In addition, girls often physically punished their dolls for bad behavior.

Such behavior was seen by adults as the expression of repressed anger. In fact, adults encouraged a form of play that now might be considered horrific or at least in bad taste: the enactment of doll funerals. According to Forman-Brunell, doll funerals were more common than doll weddings among middle-class girls in the 1870s and 1880s. She notes that mourning clothes were packed in the trunks of French lady dolls, and that fathers constructed tiny coffins for their daughters' dolls. Such play was not seen as morbid; rather, it was viewed as helping to develop the comforting skills that often were needed at a time when many relatives and friends died young. The similarity of this type of play to the auctions of slave children is striking.

Girls often went further than enacting imaginary funerals, however; some created harrowing scenes of ritualized executions and gruesome fatal accidents. Again we see that the adult model for play was appropriated and embellished, not simply internalized.

David Nasaw's Children of the City, published in 1985, portrays the work and play of immigrant children in large cities from the late 1890s until about 1920. Nasaw's historical study (relying on records compiled by child reformers, oral histories, and autobiographies) shows that even poor children became active consumers in the booming economy of the period. Immigrant children engaged in many types of work (selling newspapers, candy, and personal items; making deliveries; scavenging; and caretaking) that contributed to the family's economic well-being. Despite this hard work, however, there was still time for play and for the development of a robust peer culture. Boys played ball, tag, and other games after school while they awaited the delivery of newspapers they would hustle for sale throughout the city. Children also took time out from scavenging in the dumps to forge make-believe battles and to play king-of-the-hill. Also children (mainly boys) held back from their parents small sums of their earnings to buy candy and watch movies, shown initially in nickelodeons and later in the first movie houses. Girls had less autonomy to play, since most of them assisted their mothers in the home with housework and the care of younger siblings. However, they were also given small allowances to purchase consumer items.

Play in Contemporary Times

Studies of children's play in the twentieth century moved from reliance on historical and indirect sources to direct observations and ethnographies of play from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. Much useful information was gleaned from anthropological and sociological studies of children's play and peer cultures. The most well-known observational studies are Iona and Peter Opie's The Lore and Languageof Schoolchildren (1959) and Children's Games in Street and Playground (1969). These works included exhaustive details, in the tradition of descriptive folklore. Later work moved from detailed descriptions to a focus on children's actual engagement in play from a cross-cultural perspective. Much of this work was reviewed and evaluated in Helen Schwartzman's 1978 groundbreaking book Transformations: The Anthropology of Children's Play.

More recently, research on children's play has been tied theoretically and empirically to the notion of children's peer culture. In his 1997 book The Sociology of Childhood William Corsaro defines peer culture as "a stable set of activities or routines, artifacts, values, and concerns that children produce and share in interaction with peers" (1997, p. 95). Play is at the heart of peer culture.

Recent technological advances have enabled researchers to acquire audiovisual recordings of the fantasy play of three- to five-year-old children for intensive microanalysis. In preschools, spontaneous fantasy often develops around sand-boxes or tables and in building and construction areas. The expectations children bring into these areas are not well defined. They know they will play with certain objects (toy animals, blocks, cars, and so on), but they seldom enter the areas with specific plans of action. The play emerges in the process of verbal negotiation; shared knowledge of the adult world, although referred to occasionally, is not relied upon continually to structure the activity.

In spontaneous fantasy, children use a number of identifiable communicative strategies which include: paralinguistic cues such as voice, intonation, and pitch; repetition; descriptions of actions; semantic linking of turns at talk; and gestures and movement of objects to structure the play as it unfolds. The play involves underlying themes important in children's lives and present in fairy tales and children's films: danger and rescue, lost and found, and death and rebirth. The children do not simply produce copies of fairy tales or films, however, but they embellish existing stories and create new ones through highly creative improvisation. In fact, three- to five-year-old children are more skilled at creating, sharing, and enjoying fantasy play than are most older children and adults.

Children continue to enjoy and engage in dramatic role play. Children frequently display power, discipline, and authority in these games, as they gain a sense of control compared to their everyday lives when they are continually in a subordinate position to adults. Comparative studies of role play across cultures and social class groups show that children project to their future lives as adults; in the process, they adopt orientations that contribute to social perpetuation of class, race, and gender inequalities.

Children also produce spontaneous games with rules in order to identify and avoid monsters or threatening agents. Such play is attractive to children because it creates tension and fear, but it allows them always to be in control and to escape to safety. In fact, in such play, threatening agents are taunted and mocked as children gain control of real ambiguities and underlying fears in their lives.

In these various types of play, much has been made of the gender separation that begins when children are around six years of age and reaches its peak in the early years of elementary school. Such separation surely does occur; it is likely a reflection of differences in play preferences by gender and the organizational structure of the social institutions (especially schools) where children spend a great deal of their time. Some scholars have gone so far as to argue that there is a separate peer culture for boys and girls leading to clear gender differences in personality and social interactive styles. Others, however, relying on comparative studies of children of various races and classes, as well as analysis of children's actual play, have found that the gender relations, personality, and interactive style are much more complex. In most cases, gender separation is not nearly as complete as was often depicted in the past.

Finally, it is clear that children's play has been affected by what has been termed the "institutionalization of childhood": children's lives are increasingly scheduled and structured with less time available for spontaneous play. Also, with fewer siblings, children's increased time spent playing alone with the computer or video games suggests that advanced technology and the media more generally discourage collective play and dilute the creativity of children's peer cultures. Studies are needed to examine these trends more closely to estimate their effects and the possible consequences on the nature of children's play.

See also: Indoor Games; Playground Movement; Street Games; Theories of Play.


Alston, Lester. 1992. "Children as Chattel." In Small Worlds, ed. Elliott West and Paula Petrik. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Ariès, Philippe. 1962. Centuries of Childhood. Trans. Robert Baldick. New York: Knopf.

Corsaro, William A. 1993. "Interpretive Reproduction in Children's Role Play." Childhood 1: 4-74.

Corsaro, William A. 1997. The Sociology of Childhood. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Evaldsson, Ann-Carita. 1993. Play, Disputes, and Social Order: Everyday Life in Two Swedish After-School Centers. Linköping, Sweden: Linköping University.

Forman-Brunell, Miriam. 1992. "Sugar and Spice: The Politics of Doll Play in Nineteenth-Century America." In Small Worlds, ed. Elliot West and Paula Petrik. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Gilligan, Carol. 1982. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Goldman, L. R. 1998. Child's Play: Myth, Mimesis, and Make-Believe. New York: Oxford University Press.

Goodwin, Marjorie H. 1998. "Games of Stance: Conflict and Footing in Hopscotch." In Kids Talk: Strategic Language Use in Later Childhood, ed. Susan Hoyle and Carolyn T. Adger. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hanawalt, Barbara. 1993. Growing Up in Medieval London. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nasaw, David. 1985. Children of the City. New York: Anchor Books.

Opie, Iona, and Peter Opie. 1959. The Lore and Language of School-children. New York: Oxford University Press.

Opie, Iona, and Peter Opie. 1969. Children's Games in Street and Playground. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.

Qvortrup, Jens. 1991. "Childhood as a Social Phenomenon: An Introduction to a Series of National Reports." Eurosocial Report No.36. Vienna, Austria: European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research.

Sawyer, C. Keith. 1997. Pretend Play as Improvisation: Conversation in the Preschool Classroom. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Schwartzman, Helen. 1978. Transformations: The Anthropology of Children's Play. New York: Plenum.

Seiter, Ellen. 1993. Sold Separately: Parents and Children in Consumer Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Sutton-Smith, Brian. 1976. The Dialectics of Play. Schorndoff, Germany: Verlag Hoffman.

Thorne, Barrie 1993. Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Wiggins, David. 1985. "The Play of Slave Children in the Plantation Communities of the Old South." In Growing Up in America:Children in Historical Perspective, ed. N. Ray Hiner and Joseph M. Hawes. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

William A. Corsaro


views updated May 23 2018



Play is the work of children. It consists of those activities performed for self-amusement that have behavioral, social, and psychomotor rewards. It is child-directed, and the rewards come from within the individual child; it is enjoyable and spontaneous.


Play is an important part of the childhood development. Through play children learn about shapes, colors, cause and effect, and themselves. Besides cognitive thinking, play helps the child learn social and psychomotor skills. It is a way of communicating joy, fear , sorrow, and anxiety .

In the early 2000s, children of all ages and from every socioeconomic background often prefer television, computers, and battery-operated toys to self-directed, imaginative, and creative play. This tendency leaves children developmentally deprived, because imaginative and fantasy play allows children to explore their world and express their innermost thoughts and feelings, hopes and fears, likes and dislikes. Through play, decisions are made without penalty or fear of failure. Play allows children to gain control of their thoughts, feelings, actions, and helps them achieve self-confidence.

Play takes different forms for different children, and its definition entails many aspects. Play is the direct opposite of work; it is frivolous. It provides freedom and invites the impulse to engage in foolishness. Yet it provides a means for ego development and a process by which social skills and physical skills develop as well.

Play with imagination and fantasy is the child's natural medium of self-expression and one that gives cues about the child's conscious and unconscious states. In play therapy, clinicians employ various techniques designed to reveal the child's psychological and social development. Clinician-directed play therapy is, therefore, not naturally self-directed play, but play designed by a professional to facilitate understanding of the child and the child's healing process.

Categories of play

Categories of play are not mutually exclusive; different forms or categories of play may overlap. Having choices is important since an action that appeals to one child may be of no interest to another, and the child's interest is likely to change throughout the play period. An understanding of play in many forms can help parents understand its importance for children of all ages. Some specific categories of play are as follows.

  • Physical play. When children run, jump, and play games such as chase, hide-and-seek, and tag, they engage in physical play. This play has a social nature because it involves other children. It also provides exercise , which is essential for normal development.
  • Expressive play. Certain forms of play give children opportunities to express feelings by engaging with materials. Materials used in expressive play include tempera paints, fingerpaints, watercolors, crayons, colored pencils and markers, and drawing paper; clay, water, and sponges; beanbags, pounding benches, punching bags, and rhythm instruments; and shaving cream, pudding, and gelatin. Parents can take an active role in expressive play by using the materials alongside the child.
  • Manipulative play. Children control or master their environment through manipulative play. They manipulate the environment and other people as much as possible. Manipulative play starts in infancy. Infants play with their parents; for example, they drop a toy, wait for the parent to pick it up, clean it, and return it, and then they drop it again. This interaction brings the infant and parent together in a game. Children move objects such as puzzle pieces and gadgets to better understand how they work.
  • Symbolic play. Certain games can symbolically express a child's problems. Because there are no rules in symbolic play, the child can use this play to reinforce, learn about, and imaginatively alter painful experiences. The child who is in an abusive family may pretend to be a mother who loves and cuddles her child rather than one who verbally or physically abuses her child. Or in play this same child might act out abusive experience by hitting or screaming at a doll that symbolizes the child. Parents can be surprised by their child's perception of family issues. Children mimic their parents in certain play; in other games they may pretend they are the heroes they read about in books or see on television. At certain developmental stages children believe they can fly or disappear. Symbolic play may be used by children to cope with fear of separation when they go to school or to the hospital.
  • Dramatic play. Children act out situations they suspect may happen to them, that they are fearful will happen, or that they have witnessed. Dramatic play can be either spontaneous or guided and may be therapeutic for children in the hospital.
  • Familiarization play. Children handle materials and explore experiences in reassuring, enjoyable ways. Familiarization prepares children for potentially fearful and painful experiences, such as surgery or parental separation.
  • Games. Some video and card games are played by one child alone. Games with rules are rarely played by children younger than four years of age. Board games, card games, and sports are enjoyed typically by school-age children. In these games children learn to play by the rules and to take turns. Older children enjoy games with specific rules; however, younger children tend to like games that allow them to change the rules.
  • Surrogate play. For children who are too ill or incapacitated to play, another child or a parent may serve as surrogate. Watching the surrogate who plays on behalf of the sick child is stimulating to the sick child. When parents engage in expressive art by painting or redecorating a room while the physically challenged child watches, they stimulate the child.

Functions of play

Play reinforces the child's growth and development. Some of the more common functions of play are to facilitate physical, emotional, cognitive, social, and moral development .

PHYSICAL DEVELOPMENT Play aids in developing both fine and gross motor skills . Children repeat certain body movements purely for pleasure, and these movements develop body control. For example, an infant will first hit at a toy, then will try to grasp it, and eventually will be able to pick it up. Next, the infant will shake the rattle or perhaps bring it to the mouth. In these ways, the infant moves from simple to more complex gestures.

EMOTIONAL DEVELOPMENT Children who are anxious may be helped by role playing. Role playing is a way of coping with emotional conflict. Children may escape through play into a fantasy world in order to make sense out of the real one. Also, a child's self-awareness deepens as he explores an event through role-playing or symbolic play.

When a parent or sibling plays a board game with a child, shares a bike ride, plays baseball, or reads a story, the child learns self-importance. The child's self-esteem gets a boost. Parents send positive messages to their child when they communicate pleasure in providing him or her with daily care. From these early interactions, children develop a vision of the world and gain a sense of their place in it.

COGNITIVE DEVELOPMENT Children gain knowledge through their play. They exercise their abilities to think, remember, and solve problems. They develop cognitively as they have a chance to test their beliefs about the world.

Children increase their problem-solving abilities through games and puzzles. Children involved in make-believe play can stimulate several types of learning. Language is strengthened as the children model others and organize their thoughts to communicate. Children playing house create elaborate narratives concerning their roles and the nature of daily living.

Children also increase their understanding of size, shape, and texture through play. They begin to understand relationships as they try to put a square object in a round opening or a large object in a small space. Books, videos, and educational toys that show pictures and matching words also increase a child's vocabulary while increasing the child's concept of the world.

SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT A newborn cannot distinguish itself from others and is completely self-absorbed. As the infant begins to play with others and with objects, a realization of self as separate from others begins to develop. The infant begins to experience joy from contact with others and engages in behavior that involves others. The infant discovers that when he coos or laughs, mother coos back. The child soon expects this response and repeats it for fun, playing with his mother.

As children grow, they enjoy playful interaction with other children. Children learn about boundaries, taking turns, teamwork, and competition. Children also learn to negotiate with different personalities and the feelings associated with winning and losing. They learn to share, wait, and be patient.

MORAL DEVELOPMENT When children engage in play with their peers and families, they begin to learn some behaviors are acceptable while others are unacceptable. Parents start these lessons early in the child's life by teaching the child to control aggressive behavior . Parents can develop morals while reading to children by stressing the moral implications in stories. Children can identify with the moral fictional characters without assuming their roles. With peers they quickly learn that taking turns is rewarding and cheating is not. Group play helps the child appreciate teamwork and share and respect others' feelings. The child learns how to be kind and charitable to others.

Age-related play

As children develop, their play evolves, too. Certain types of play are associated with, but not restricted to, specific age groups.

  • Solitary play is independent. The child plays alone with toys that are different from those chosen by other children in the area. Solitary play begins in infancy and is common in toddlers because of their limited social, cognitive, and physical skills. However, it is important for all age groups to have some time to play by themselves.
  • Parallel play is usually associated with toddlers, although it happens in any age group. Children play side by side with similar toys, but there is a lack of group involvement.
  • Associative play involves a group of children who have similar goals. Children in associate play do not set rules, and although they all want to be playing with the same types of toys and may even trade toys, there is no formal organization. Associative play begins during toddlerhood and extends though preschool age.
  • Cooperative play begins in the late preschool period. The play is organized by group goals. There is at least one leader, and children are definitely in or out of the group.
  • Onlooker play is present when the child watches others playing. Although the child may ask questions of the players, there is no effort to join the play. This type of play usually starts during toddler years but can take place at any age.

Common problems

Promoting play for a sick child is a challenge when the child cannot voluntarily engage in play. Parents need to realize the importance of play to the well being of a sick child. Children can bring favorite books, games, and stuffed animals to the hospital. In hospitals young children need toys that they can manipulate independently, so that parents are free sometimes to focus on medical issues and the healthcare team.

Play activities vary depending on cultural and socioeconomic circumstances. When children do not speak the group's language, games such as stacking blocks or building with tinker toys are appealing. Playing tapes of well-loved children's songs can be effective too. The child does not need to be able to understand the words to enjoy the music or clap with the rhythm.

Assessing child health through play

Acutely ill children do not have the strength, the attention span, or the interest in play. They may enjoy being read to and the comfort of holding a favorite stuffed animal. Once the acute phase of an illness is over, the child's interest in playing returns. Spontaneous interest in play is a good index of health. The toys selected for play are good indicators of the child's recovery progress.

Play in a medical setting

When a child goes to see the doctor, the waiting room is likely to have other children in it. The arriving child may hear other children cry as they leave the examining room. The child may dread the examination. Parents should pack a favorite toy or book with which to distract the child. Having a parent sit with them is comforting, and they may venture a few feet away to examine toys in the toy box. Older children who go with the parent and the sick sibling to see the doctor should have toys and games for their entertainment, too, so the parent can focus on the sick child.

Hospitalized children can release fear, anger, or tension through effective play. Children in the hospital for a week or longer may enjoy playing school or socializing in the playroom with other children of their age. However, physical play for sick children must be supervised by a parent or healthcare provider.

Therapeutic play

When a child is ill or traumatized the care plan may include therapeutic play. Unlike normal play in design and intent, therapeutic play is guided by the health professional to meet the physical and psychological needs of the child. Because play is the language of children, children who have difficulty putting their thoughts in words can often speak clearly through play therapy. There are three divisions of therapeutic play, including:

  • Energy release. Children release anxiety by pounding, hitting, running, punching, or shouting. Toddlers pound pegs with a plastic hammer or pretend to cut wood with a toy saw. An anxious preschooler pounds a ball of modeling clay flat; a relaxed child may build the clay into shapes. Balloons tied over the bed of a school-age child or adolescent can be punched.
  • Dramatic play. Children act out or dramatize real-life situations. They act out anxiety and emotional stress from abuse, neglect, abandonment , and various painful physical experiences. Imaginative preschool children enjoy dramatic play. An abused or wounded child might not communicate the experience verbally but may be able to use an anatomically correct doll to show what happened. Therapeutic play can teach children about medical procedures or help them work through their feelings about what has happened to them in the medical setting.
  • Creative play. Some children are too angry or fearful to act out their feelings through dramatic play. However, they may be able to draw a picture that expresses their emotions or communicates what they know. To encourage this expression children can be given blank paper and crayons or markers and asked to draw a picture about how they feel. Some children are so concerned about a particular body part that instead of drawing a self portrait, they will draw only the body part that worries them.

Many children draw pictures that reflect punitive images to explain unhappy experiences. They need reassurance that they are not being punished. Health-care providers need to make sure that these children are not being abused. Other children may draw pictures that are symbolic of death (an airplane crashing, boats sinking, burning buildings, or children in graves). These children need assurances that they are not going to die. Some drawings express the child's fear of abandonment and loss of independence. Pictures may suggest the parent cannot find the little child who is in the hospital. The child needs to be reassured that their parents know where they are. They need to know when the parents will visit and the parents should appear when they say they will be there.

Older school-age children and adolescents may not be interested in drawing, but they can make a list of experiences they like and dislike.

Parental concerns

Parents express interest in age-related play that prepares children for group exercises in preschool. They want to know the right kind of play for an only child or sick child who may not be able to play with other children in their age group. The following age-related play and toys serve as a guide to parents with these concerns.

  • Infant. The infant enjoys watching other members of the family; the infant enjoys rocking, strolling, time spent in a swing, supervised time on a blanket on the floor, crawling , walking with help, and being sung and read to. Play is self-absorbed; it is difficult, if not impossible to direct play. Infants are engaged in the vigorous process of self-discovery, learning their world by looking, listening, chewing, smelling, and grasping. Most of their learning comes through play. They need safe toys that appeal to all of their senses and stimulate their interest and curiosity. Infants need toys and play that include oral movements. They like peek-a-boo; playing with the parent's fingers, hair, face, and the infant's own body parts; playing in water. Soft stuffed animals, crib mobiles, squeeze toys rattles, busy boxes, mirrors, and musical toys. Parents can give them water toys for the bath, safe kitchen utensils, and push toys (after they begin to walk), and large print books.
  • Toddler. Toddlers fill and empty containers and begin dramatic play. As they increase their motor skills, they enjoy feeling different textures, exploring the home environment, and mimicking others. They like to be read to and to look at books and television. Toddlers enjoy manipulating small objects such as toy people, cars, and animals. Favorite toys are mechanical; objects of different textures such as clay, sand, finger paints, and bubbles; push-pull toys; large balls; sand and water play; blocks; painting or coloring with large crayons; nesting toys; large puzzles; and trucks and dolls. Toddlers explore their bodies and those of others. Therapeutic play can begin at this age.
  • Preschooler. Dramatic play is prominent. This age group likes to run, jump, hop, and in general increase motor skills. The children like to build and create whether it is sand castles or mud pies. Play is simple and imaginative. Simple collections begin. Preschoolers enjoy riding toys, building materials such as sand and blocks, dolls, drawing materials, cars, puzzles, books, appropriate television and videos, nonsense rhymes, and singing games. Preschoolers love pretending to be something or somebody and playing dress up They enjoy finger paints, clay, cutting, pasting, and simple board and card games.
  • School-age child. Play becomes organized and has a direction. The early school-age child continues dramatic play with increased creativity but loses some spontaneity. The child gains awareness of rules when playing games and begins to compete in sports. Children in this age group enjoy collections (comic books, baseball cards, and stamps), dolls, pets, guessing games, board games, riddles, physical games, competitive play, reading, bike riding, hobbies, sewing, listening to the radio, television, and videos, and cooking.
  • Adolescent. Athletic sports are the most common form of play. Strict rules are in place, and competition is important. Adolescents also enjoy movies; telephone conversations and parties; listening to music; and experimenting with makeup, hairstyles, and fashion. They also begin developing an interest in peers of the opposite sex.

Play for the sick child

Children who are confined to a bed need to have play periods built into their day. The length of play and the toys will depend the individual child's age and physical and emotional states. Short-term school projects appeal to school-age children because these activities help the children feel industrious and think about their future wellness. Parents can help children with their baths; encourage them to drink enough fluids; and prompt them to do deep breathing and muscle strengthening exercises.

Safety issues

Toys and games should be screened for safety , especially those used by a sick child. The toys should be washable with no sharp edges and no small parts that could be swallowed or aspirated. Cylinder-shaped toys of 1-inch (2.5-cm) diameter (the size of a regular hot dog) are the most dangerous size because they can occlude the trachea (windpipe) if they are aspirated. As a rule, if a toy can fit through the center of a toilet tissue tube, it is too small.

Parents should be certain that toys do not lead children into danger. Tossing a ball to a toddler on bed rest may be safe, but if a child in a cast leans to catch the ball, he may fall. Chasing a ball may lead to falls and collisions. If children are bored with a toy because it is not stimulating enough or they have played with it too long, they may begin to use the toy in an unsafe way. For example, the child may throw blocks across the room for fun instead of stacking them.

Indoor toys

For home care of the sick child, parents may need to buy new toys suitable for indoor use. The ill child may need soft toys for bed play and sit-down toys such as magic markers, puzzles, books, or board games, for quiet out-of-bed play.

When to call the doctor

Parents and teachers who spend time observing and understanding childhood behaviors may want to report to the child's therapist what they see the child do.

Skin care is essential for children who are bedridden or in a cast or restraints. Children lose interest in playing if they are uncomfortable or in pain . Parents should look for pressure over the buttocks, elbows, heels, and other parts of the child's body. The skin should be inspected often and massaged with a moisturizing lotion to increase circulation. Redness, irritation, and sores should be reported immediately to the healthcare provider.

When children are ill, the rate of bladder and bowel elimination may slow down because of reduced physical action. School-age children and adolescents may hesitate to drink or eat a normal diet because toileting is uncomfortable or performed without privacy. Parents may need to seek medical advice about digestive and elimination aids and about adjusting the child's diet and fluid intake to promote normal elimination.


Accommodation The process in which a schema changes to accomodate new knowledge.

Assimilation The process of taking in new information by incorporating it into an existing schema.

Associative play Preschoolers play together in a similar activity with little organization or responsibility.

Cooperative play School-age children play in an organized structure or compete for goal or outcome.

Experimental play therapy Play therapy based on the belief that a child has the ability to solve his or her own problems within the context of a warm and caring therapeutic environment.

Observation Infants and children watch an object, although not actively engaged in it, as in watching a mobile.

Parallel play Toddlers play side by side but seldom try to interact with each other, playing separately with a similar toy.

Play therapy or therapeutic play A type of psychotherapy for young children involving the use of toys and games to build a therapeutic relationship and encourage the child's self-expression.

Play-based assessment A form of developmental assessment that involves observation of how a child plays alone, with peers, or with parents or other familiar caregivers, in free play or in special games.



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Cassou, Michelle. Kids' PlayIgniting Children's Creative Passion. East Rutherford, NJ: Penguin Group, 2004.

Drake, Jane. Organizing Play in the Early Years: Practical Ideas for Teachers and Assistants. Philadelphia: Taylor & Francis Inc., 2003.

Humphrey, James Harry. Learning the 3 Rs through Active Play. Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science Publishers Inc., 2001.

Scarlett, W. George. Children's Play. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2004.


Schulman, Lisa. "Good guys, bad guys: Pretend play." Parents Magazine. (June 2003): 16970.


Games Kids Play. Available online at <> (accessed October 13, 2004).

Aliene S. Linwood, RN, DPA, FACHE


views updated May 29 2018

play / plā/ • v. 1. [intr.] engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose: the children were playing outside her friends were playing with their dolls. ∎  [tr.] engage in (a game or activity) for enjoyment: I want to play Monopoly. ∎  amuse oneself by engaging in imaginative pretense: the boys were playing cops and robbers. ∎  (play at) engage in without proper seriousness or understanding: you cannot play at being a Christian. ∎  (play with) treat inconsiderately for one's own amusement: she likes to play with people's emotions. ∎  (play with) handle without skill so as to damage or prevent from working: has somebody been playing with the thermostat?2. [tr.] take part in (a sport) on a regular basis: I play softball and tennis. ∎  participate in (an athletic match or contest): the Red Sox will play two games on Wednesday. ∎  compete against (another player or team) in an athletic match or contest: the team will play France on Wednesday. ∎  [intr.] fig. be cooperative: he needs financial backing, but the bank won't play. ∎  [intr.] be part of a team, esp. in a specified position, in a game: he played shortstop. ∎  strike (a ball) or execute (a stroke) in a game. ∎  assign to take part in an athletic contest, esp. in a specified position: the manager will want to play the right-handed Curtis. ∎  move (a piece) or display (a playing card) in one's turn in a game: he played his queen. ∎  bet or gamble at or on: he didn't play the ponies.3. [tr.] represent (a character) in a theatrical performance or on film: she played Ophelia. ∎  [intr.] perform in a theatrical production or on film: he was proud to be playing opposite a famous actor. ∎  put on or take part in (a theatrical performance or concert): the show was one of the best we ever played. ∎  give a dramatic performance at (a particular theater or place). ∎  behave as though one were (a specified type of person): the skipper played the innocent, but smuggled goods were found on his vessel. ∎  (play someone for) treat someone as being of (a specified type): don't imagine you can play me for a fool. ∎  (play a trick/joke on) behave in a deceptive or teasing way toward.4. [tr.] perform on (a musical instrument): we heard someone playing a harmonica | [intr.] a pianist who will play for us. ∎  possess the skill of performing upon (a musical instrument): he taught himself to play the violin. ∎  produce (notes) from a musical instrument; perform (a piece of music): they played a violin sonata. ∎  make (an audiotape, CD, radio, etc.) produce sounds. ∎  [intr.] (of a musical instrument, audiotape, CD, radio, etc.) produce sounds: somewhere within, a harp was playing. ∎  [tr.] accompany (someone) with music as they are moving in a specified direction: the bagpipes played them out of the dining room.5. [intr.] move lightly and quickly, so as to appear and disappear; flicker: a smile played about her lips. ∎  (of a fountain or similar source of water) emit a stream of gently moving water.6. [tr.] allow (a fish) to exhaust itself pulling against a line before reeling it in.• n. 1. activity engaged in for enjoyment and recreation, esp. by children: a child at play may use a stick as an airplane. ∎  behavior or speech that is not intended seriously: I flinched, but only in play. ∎  [as adj.] designed to be used in games of pretense; not real: play families are arranged in play houses.2. the conducting of an athletic match or contest: rain interrupted the second day's play. ∎  the action or manner of engaging in a sport or game: he maintained the same rhythm of play throughout the game. ∎  the status of the ball in a game as being available to be played according to the rules: the ball was put in play. ∎ fig. the state of being active, operative, or effective: luck comes into play. ∎  a move or maneuver in a sport or game: the best play is to lead the 3 of clubs. ∎ archaic gambling.3. a dramatic work for the stage or to be broadcast: the actors put on a new play.4. the space in or through which a mechanism can or does move: the steering rack was loose, and there was a little play. ∎ fig. scope or freedom to act or operate: our policy allows the market to have freer play. ∎  light and constantly changing movement: the artist exploits the play of light across the surface.PHRASES: make a play for inf. attempt to attract or attain.make (great) play of (or with) draw attention to in an ostentatious manner, typically to gain prestige or advantage: the company made great play of its recent growth in profits.not playing with a full decksee ball see ball1 .play both ends against the middle keep one's options open by supporting or favoring opposing something by ear perform music without having to read from a score. ∎  (play it by ear) inf. proceed instinctively according to results and circumstances rather than according to rules or a by the rules follow what is generally held to be the correct line of one's cards close to one's chestsee one's cards right (or well) see card1 .play ducks and drakes with see ducks and fair observe principles of justice; avoid someone false prove treacherous or deceitful toward fast and loose behave irresponsibly or favorites show favoritism toward someone or the field see for time use specious excuses or unnecessary maneuvers to gain the game see game1 .play God see havoc with see hell see hookey see a (or one's) hunch make an instinctive into someone's hands act in such a way as unintentionally to give someone an it cool inf. make an effort to be or appear to be calm and the market speculate in stocks.a play on words a (or play it) safe take precautions; avoid to the gallery see truantsee with oneself inf. with fire take foolish risks.PHRASAL VERBS: play around (or about) behave in a casual, foolish, or irresponsible way: you shouldn't play around with a child's future. ∎ inf. (of a married person) have a love along pretend to cooperate: she had to play along and be someone along inf. deceive or mislead someone over a period of something back play sounds that one has recently recorded, esp. to monitor recording something down represent something as being less important than it in fact is: he tried to play down the seriousness of his someone off bring people into conflict or competition for one's own advantage: China can no longer play one superpower off against the off (of two teams or competitors) play an extra game or match to decide a draw or on exploit (a weak or vulnerable point in someone): he played on his opponent's someone out (usu. be played out) drain someone of strength or something out act the whole of a drama; enact a scene or something up emphasize the extent or importance of something: the mystery surrounding his death was played up by the up to humor or flatter, esp. to win favor.DERIVATIVES: play·a·bil·i·ty / ˌplāəˈbilitē/·a·ble adj.


views updated May 29 2018


Play serves different purposes at different ages. Jean Piaget (1962) delineated play into three major periods: (1) imitation and practice play; (2) symbolic play, which is pure assimilation or distortion of reality and implies representation of an absent object; and (3) games with rules, such as board games or marbles.

Imitation and practice, the earliest form of play, occurs in the sensory-motor period from birth to approximately twenty-four months. The infant copies the sounds and actions of the persons or animals in the environment. Practice games leading to mastery are evidenced by the infant or toddler swatting a mobile in the crib to make it move, stacking cubes or blocks, or putting plastic sticks into a jar. Fine motor skills develop as the toddler explores the many objects in the crib or playroom. As the baby gets older, large motor skills are practiced through walking, climbing, and through play with push and pull toys.

Symbolic or pretend play emerges around age two, although researchers such as Greta Fein (1981) have found evidence of pretend play among eighteen-month-old toddlers.

Play is at peak during the preoperational stage, especially from ages three to six. Children move from solitary pretend play to social play, where they interact with other children. In simple solitary pretend play, a child may move a truck along the floor, imitate a cat or dog by crawling along the floor, put a teddy bear to sleep, or rock a doll in a cradle. Two toddlers may even play side by side (parallel play) without playing with each other. They may occasionally exchange a toy or a word, but their major focus is on their own play game.

At about age three, cooperative social pretend play begins and reaches its peak by ages four and five. Carolee Howes (1985) makes a distinction between social play and social pretend play. Social play involves turn-taking and sharing, but may not involve the make-believe elements found in symbolic play episodes.

The use of symbolic play continues even past the preschool years. When first, third, and fifth grade children played with representational objects such as cars and figures compared to children playing with tranformational objects (a vehicle changes into a robot), those children who played with the representational objects displayed more social play and symbolic play (Bagley and Chaille 1996). Low structured toys such as dress-up materials, toy doctor kits, blocks, stuffed animals, and puppets lead to more imaginative play than structured objects such as crayon, chalk, and puzzles that are more conducive to nonpretend play (Singer and Singer 1990, 2001).

Not only the kind of toy, but parental support and encouragement help to promote children's engagement in fantasy, imagination, and pretend play (Taylor and Carlson 2000). It is interesting to note that mood also affects the involvement in symbolic play. For example, researchers found differences between the play of depressed and nondepressed children (Lous et al. 2000). The depressed children played significantly less in general than the nondepressed children, and much less symbolic play was evident.

Games with rules is the last stage in Piaget's theory of play. Around age seven, the stage of concrete operations, children begin to move away from pretend play and involve themselves with board games. As children move from the preoperational stage to the stage of concrete operations, they begin to think more logically and can understand that rules are constant and cannot be modified. Observation of children in this stage, however, reveals that rules are sometimes changed by the leaders in the game to suit themselves. Only later, as children become older and move into Piaget's last developmental stage of formal operations, do children truly abide by rules and see them as inviolate.

Gender Differences in Play

The literature indicates that same-gender children prefer to play with each other during their toddler years. When play interactions between parents and children are studied, differences in styles emerge. Mother-child relationships revolve around social interactions; mothers are generally more responsive and facilitative, especially if there is a secure mother-child relationship. Father-child relationships appear to be at a higher level of play particularly when children are securely attached to their fathers (Kazura 2000).

In an interesting study examining the content and structure of children's play narratives, Kai von Klitzing and colleagues (2000) used a sample of 652 same-sex twins whose parents completed a Child Behavior Checklist when their children were aged five and seven years. Teachers also completed a report when the children were seven years old. Girls told more narratives with less aggression than boys. Aggressive themes, however, were related to behavior problems, and this correlation held for girls but not boys. Gender of the child as well as content and coherence of the story may be useful in identifying children who may be at risk for behavior problems.

Advertisers know that there are differences between boys and girls and the attitudes toward toys. This was borne out in a study of play themes of preschoolers by Dorothy Singer and Jerome Singer (1981). Adventure themes, fantasy characters, superheroes, and spacemen were the favored pretend play of boys. Girls indicated a clear preference for family pretend roles (mother, father, baby), playing "house," and dress-up clothes.

Children as young as eighteen months have shown preference for sex-stereotyped choices (Caldera, Huston, and O'Brien 1989), and as they get older, this preference for same-sex-typed toys continues (Eisenberg, Tryon, and Cameron 1984).

Rena Repetti (1984) found that children aged five and one-half to seven and one-half who chose more traditionally sex-linked toys were more likely to be those whose parents responded to gender-role questionnaires in a traditional way. The labeling of sex-typed toys was significantly related to a child's tendency to stereotype occupations. In an earlier study, Brian Sutton-Smith (1968) asked kindergartners to give alternative uses for male- and female-sex typed toys. The children were familiar with these toys, but their play experiences with them were different. If the toy was same-sex, the child ascribed more unique responses to the toy. It appears that toys manufactured for girls tend to be of a more passive nature—dolls, toy stoves, tea sets, carriages—whereas boys receive the cars, trucks, rocket ships, boats, mechanical sets, miniature tools, and toy weapons.

Cultural Differences in Play

When studying the various aspects of play it is essential to take cultural variations into account. Carolyn Edwards (2000) performed a qualitative and quantitative re-analysis of data derived from the Six Cultures Study of Beatrice Whiting (1963) on children's play that was collected in the 1950s when the sample communities were more isolated from mass markets and the media than they are today. Examination of the play of 140 children aged three to ten years was carried out looking at creative-constructive play, fantasy play, role play, and games with rules. Results indicated that children from Kenya and India were the lowest scoring in overall play. The children from the Philippines and Mexico scored on the intermediate level, whereas those from Japan and the United States scored highest. The cultural norms concerning work versus play, and the notion of freedom for exploration and motivation to practice adult roles through play are factors influencing the scores. In addition, if there are role models and access to materials there will be more creative and constructive play.

In another study comparing four communities in Guatemala, Turkey, India, and the United States, using fourteen children between the ages of twelve to twenty-four months, Artin Goencue, Jayanthi Mistry, and Christine Mosier (2000) found that social play occurred in all four communities, although the frequency and variation was influenced by the culture. In addition there were cultural variations in the numbers of children who engaged in the different kinds of play examined.

Interactions of 341 mothers and fathers in India were examined as they played with their one-yearold infants in their homes. Mothers were more likely to engage in object-mediated play than were fathers. The data do not support the contention that Indian fathers engage in rough play with their infants. The authors also state that parent-infant rough play in nonindustrialized countries may be culture-specific and not related to biological underpinnings (Roopnarine et al. 1992).

When we examine a sample of studies carried out with Asian children it is interesting to look at specific Asian groups. Two studies, for example, comparing thirty Korean-American children and thirty U.S. children (Farver, Kim, and Lee-Shinn 2000; Farver and Lee-Shin 2000 ) suggest that individual factors related to pretend play transcended the culture. However, there were similar patterns for pretend play between the two groups of mothers. In Jo Ann Farver and Yoolim Lee-Shin's study, the acculturation of immigrant Korean mothers played a part in the encouragement and acceptance of creativity and play. As mothers became more assimilated into U.S. culture, their children's play changed and became more creative. Jonathan Tudge, Soeun Lee, and Sarah Putnam (1995) also studied play of two- to four-year-olds using two samples in South Korea and two samples in North Carolina with middle-class and working-class parents represented in the samples. Children of working-class parents in Korea were less likely to initiate play than children in the other three groups. In the United States, middle-class and lower-class children did not differ in their initiation of play, but boys in the United States were more likely to initiate play themselves or in conjunction with another person. In all communities the mother was the single most likely partner in their children's play, particularly in middle-class Korea and in the middle-class U.S. community where the mother was not employed outside of the home. Mothers in Korea engaged more with their children than mothers in the United States, but the engagement was more of a passive nature than as a very active participant in play.

When we turn to play in China, we find that the beliefs of Chinese and U.S. early-childhood teachers relative to curriculum are similar in overall structure and organization (Wang et al. 2001). Teachers in both cultures emphasize child-initiated learning as well as teacher-directed learning. U.S. teachers are more supportive of child-initiated approaches and this may be reflected in their tolerance for play.

Using longitudinal data from five Irish-American families in the United States and nine Chinese families in Taiwan, Wendy Haight and her colleagues (1999) proposed that in studying groups from different cultures, it is important to consider such variables such as partner initiations, objects used in play, the extent of child initiations of pretend play, and the themes used in play.

Linda Sperry and Douglas Sperry (2000) found that among the African-American two-year-olds they studied, both nonverbal and verbal domains are functional during the third year of life. Pretend play objects are not always necessary for mental representations. Rhoda Redleaf and Audrey Robertson (1999) also suggest that children's play is often nonverbal and of a bodily character. These authors state that 70 percent of communicative interactions are nonverbal and that kind of communication is worthy of further sociological and linguistic concern.


Play, especially symbolic or pretend play, may be the training ground for the inventive mind and the attitude toward the possible. Parents or caregivers can foster play through their willingness to give a child space to play in, a few unstructured toys or props to play with, encouragement to use imagination and pretense, and most of all the sanction to enjoy the fantasies and fun of childhood without the threat of shame or embarrassment.

See also:Attachment: Parent-Child Relationships; Childhood; Childhood, Stages of: Infancy; Childhood, Stages of: Preschool; Childhood, Stages of: Toddlerhood; Development: Cognitive; Development: Moral; Gender; Gender Identity; Peer Influence; Television and Family; Time Use


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caldera, y.; huston, a.; and o'brien, m. (1989). "social interactions and play patterns of parents and toddlers with feminine, masculine, and neutral toys." child development 60:70–76.

edwards, c. p. (2000). "children's play in cross-cultural perspective: a new look at the six cultures study." cross-cultural research 34:318–338.

eisenberg, n.; tryon, k.; and cameron, e. (1984). "the relation of preschoolers' peer interaction to their sex-typed toy choices." child development 55:1044–1050.

farver, j. m.; kim, y. k.; lee-shin, y. (2000). "within cultural differences: examining individual differences in korean american and european american preschoolers' social pretend play." journal of cross-cultural psychology 31:583–602.

farver, j. m., and lee-shin, y. (2000). "acculturation and korean-american children's social and play behavior." social development 9:316–336.

fein, g. g. (1981). "pretend play in childhood: an integrative review." child development 52:1095–1118.

goencue, a.; mistry, j.; and mosier, c. (2000). "cultural variations in the play of toddlers." international journal of behavioral development 24:321–329.

golomb, c., and kuersten, r. (1996). "on the transition from pretense play to reality: what are the rules of the game?" british journal of developmental psychology 14:203–217.

haight, w. l.; wang, x.; fung, h. h.; williams, k.; and mintz, j. (1999). "universal, developmental, and variable aspects of young children's play: a cross-cultural comparison of pretending at home." child development 70:1477–1488.

howes, c. (1985). "sharing fantasy: social pretend play in toddlers." child development 56:1255–1258.

kazura, k. (2000). "father's qualitative and quantitative involvement: an investigation of attachment, play, and social interactions." journal of men's studies 9:41–57.

lewis, a. (1991). "developing social feelings in the young child through his play life." individual psychology: journal of adlerian theory, research, and practice 47:72–75.

lous, a. m.; de wit, c. a. m.; de bruyn, e. e. j.; riksen- walraven, j. m.; and rost, h. (2000). "depression and play in early childhood: play behavior of depressed and nondepressed 3- to 6-year-olds in various play situations." journal of emotional and behavioral disorders 8:249–260.

piaget, j. (1962). play, dreams, and imitation in childhood. new york: norton.

redleaf, r.; and robertson, a. (1999). learn and play therecycled way: homemade toys that teach. st. paul, mn: redleaf press.

repetti, r. (1984). "determinants of children's sex stereotyping: parental sex-role traits and television viewing." personality and social psychology bulletin 10:457–468.

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dorothy g. singer


views updated Jun 27 2018


All children play. From the infant squealing in delight during a game of peek-a-boo to the older child playing a game of basketball, children of all ages play and they play in all kinds of ways.

Play is recognized as an important part of a child's development. In fact, it is an important topic of study in many different disciplines. In the field of early childhood special education, play is valuable in assessing a child's level of development and in providing intervention. In psychology, therapists often watch children play to gain an understanding of children's problems and to help them deal with their emotions. The universal nature of play can also provide professionals working with children a basis for comparing typical and atypical development and behavior.

What Is Play?

In a preschool classroom, two four-year-old children pretend to go grocery shopping. One child methodically checks her grocery list and asks her friend what they need to buy. The other child places pretend groceries consisting of empty cans and boxes into his grocery sack. Once his sack is full, he asks his friend if she has any money in her purse to pay for the groceries. As she digs in her purse for the plastic coins and paper money, he approaches another child at the toy cash register to make his purchase.

As typical children grow and learn, they progress through stages of increasingly more complex levels of play. The above example illustrates a sophisticated level of play, where children pretend to be grocery shopping and take on the roles of shoppers, and employee. Jean Piaget, a well-known Swiss psychologist who extensively studied how children think, would have suggested that this example of play is reflective of the children's experiences and interactions with their environment. In his study of children and development, Piaget described play as a "child's work."

Holding views similar to Piaget's is Francis Wardle, an author and instructor at the University of Phoenix (Colorado), who defines play as "child-centered learning." Play then, is a natural, child-directed way for children to learn new concepts and to develop new skills that will provide the basis for success in future settings.

The Importance of Play

Through play, children learn the skills necessary to effectively participate in their world through play. Play provides children with natural opportunities to engage in concrete and meaningful activities that enhance physical, language, social, and cognitive development. During play, children increase their knowledge and understanding of self, others, and the physical world around them.

A child's motor development becomes increasingly more refined through the physical activity that play naturally provides. Through the manipulation of toys and materials, children develop small motor skills. Large motor skills are developed as a child runs, climbs, and throws a ball.

Play is also important for the development of children's language skills. Children experiment with language during play and use words to express their thoughts and ideas. As children become more sophisticated in their play skills, their language development becomes equally sophisticated. Children use language during play to solve problems and to communicate their desires.

During play, children are provided with opportunities for social interaction with peers. Children learn the importance of social rules and how to get along with others through play. It is during this social interaction that children learn to express and control their emotions and to resolve conflicts with others.

As children are encouraged to explore and manipulate objects and materials in their environment, cognitive skills are developed and challenged. Children gain confidence as they experience fun and success in play. This increased confidence encourages children to further explore their world and to seek out even more challenging activities. Ideas and concepts expressed by children during play increase and become more complex as their play skills increase and become more complex.

Elements of Children's Play

Depending upon the materials involved in play and the level of the child's development, individual experiences, and personality, children will demonstrate a variety of play skills. Children's play skills can be described as having social and cognitive elements. The social elements are identified as solitary, parallel, or social play. The cognitive elements of play are described as being sensorimotor, pretend, constructive, mastery, or games with rules. Table 1 provides a summary of the elements of play and the typical age at which they might be noted or observed.

The social elements of play describe the amount of social interaction that the child is engaged in, whereas the cognitive elements describe the complexity of the child's play skills. Social and cognitive play elements are interrelated and will often overlap. Children may demonstrate several social and cognitive elements during one play activity.

Social Elements of Play

Solitary play is simply that—play that a child engages in alone. The child is totally absorbed in the activity and is not reliant upon the actions or words of others. Examples of solitary play include an infant shaking a rattle in her crib and a preschooler quietly looking at a book by herself. Children of all ages engage in solitary play.

Parallel play differs from solitary play in that the child is observant of others. Children are engaged in parallel play when they play side-by-side, using the same toys and materials, but do not engage in social interaction. A child may notice what his peers are doing, but he will not directly attempt social contact. Parallel play is a common play pattern with children ages two to three.

Social or group play is commonly first observed during the preschool years or around three to five years of age. Group play experiences provide young children with opportunities to learn social rules such as sharing, taking turns, and cooperation. Most activities provided in a nursery school or preschool setting support social or group play in young children. It is during this stage that children begin to develop friendships.

Cognitive Elements of Play

In sensorimotor play, children engage in motor movements beginning with early reflexes and moving toward more intentional actions. These early actions are initially the result of trial and error; children learn through their actions that their behavior has an effect on the environment. As children develop, their actions become more sophisticated and as a result more deliberate. For example, sensorimotor play includes the reflexive behavior of an infant grasping a rattle placed in her hand, as well as the intentional behavior of an older infant picking up and shaking a rattle to make sound. The sensorimotor stage typically occurs from infancy through age two.

Pretend play usually begins around eighteen months of age. Children at the pretend play level are able to act out adult roles, actions, and events that are familiar to them. At about the age of three or four, pretend play skills become more symbolic. This means that children are able to substitute one object for another. The younger child "feeds" a baby doll with a toy bottle, whereas the older child is able to "feed" the baby with a wooden block, pretending that the block is the baby bottle. It is during this level of play that the child's own experiences directly influence and provide a foundation for their play.

It is at about the age of three to four that children develop an interest in constructive play. Children at the constructive level manipulate objects and materials in their world resulting in an end product, such as a chalk picture, a block tower, or a sand mountain. Here children draw designs on a piece of paper, build with blocks, play and dig in the sand, and so forth. As children become skilled in manipulating objects and materials in their environment, they also become more skilled in expressing thoughts, ideas, and concepts.

The child at the mastery play level is able to demonstrate skilled motor movements and engage in forms of imaginative or pretend play simultaneously. Children at this level move about their environment with ease, confident in their actions. A child at the mastery level would be able to run and jump over obstacles on a playground while pretending to be a cartoon superhero. Mastery play typically emerges around four to five years of age and continues to develop as the child encounters new play experiences and challenges.

By the age of five, children become interested in formal games that have rules and, at times, have two or more sides. Games with rules play is predominant during the middle childhood years, a time during which children's thinking becomes more logical. It is at this level of play that children begin to realize that activities such as Red Rover, Simon Says, and card games will not work unless everyone follows the same set of rules. This level of cognitive play is much more organized than the earlier levels described and may involve competition and defining criteria that establishes a "winner."

Play is important to all aspects of a child's development. Children learn ideas and concepts and enhance language, social, and motor skills through play. As Piaget so simply stated it: Play is a child's work.



Bredekamp, Sue, and Carol Copple. Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1997.

Bronson, Martha R. The Right Stuff for Children Birth to Eight: Selecting Play Materials to Support Development. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1995.

Fernie, David. "The Nature of Children's Play." In the ERIC Clearing house on Elementary and Early Childhood Education [web site]. Champaign, Illinois, 1988. Available from; INTERNET.

The Nemours Foundation. "The Power of Play: How Play Helps Your Child's Development." In the Kids Health for Parents [web site]. 1999. Available from; INTERNET.

Janet W.Bates


views updated May 14 2018


Activity that is not required, but is enjoyed.

While the term "play" may refer to an extremely varied range of activities, certain broad, defining characteristics have been noted. Perhaps the most basic one is that play is something that is not required. Although the enjoyment derived from it may be needed emotionally, no single play activity itself is necessary for survival. Thus, play is referred to as "autotelic"it is engaged in for its own sake, with the reward inherent in the activity itself. Nevertheless, in spite of its detachment from survival and financial gain, play is engaged in wholeheartedly. During the time allotted to play, it commands a person's entire attention .

Play takes place in a realm divorced from ordinary reality and governed by its own rules, which may be more complex and absolute than those of many "serious" activities. It is also bound in terms of both time and space. The period during which one engages in play has time limits: it begins, proceeds, and inevitably ends when one returns to "real life." Play is also set apart in spacea person generally goes somewhere special (even if it is only the "play room" or the "playground") to engage in play. The relationship between play and tension has also been noted. While tension is not absent from play itself, the ultimate result is the reduction of tension and conflict. Based on this feature, play has often been viewed as a "safety valve" for the harmless discharge of tensions and conflicts.

In children, play is a necessary vehicle for normal physical, social, and cognitive development . The well known early 20th-century American psychologist G. Stanley Hall (1844-1924) viewed the evolution of children's play as recapitulating the evolution of the human species. Individually, play develops in stages that correspond to a child's social and cognitive development. Initially, a child's play is solitary in nature. Next comes parallel play, where children are in each others' company but playing independently. Socially, the final stage is cooperative play, which consists of organized activities characterized by social roles.

Jean Piaget formulated a series of developmental stages of play that corresponded to the successive stages in his influential theory of cognitive development in children. The sensorimotor stage (birth to approximately two years old), when children are focused on gaining mastery of their own bodies and external objects, is characterized by "practice play" consisting of repeated patterns of movement or sound, such as sucking, shaking, banging, babbling, and, eventually, "peekaboo" games in which objects are made to repeatedly disappear and reappear. As children learn more about the properties of objects and learn how to manipulate them, they begin to monitor the effects of play on their environment , and their relationship with that environment becomes increasingly systematic.

The preoperational stage (ages 2-7 years) is marked by the ability to master symbolic functions, including the association of objects with words, and the transition from an egocentric focus to an awareness that events have causes outside themselves. At this stage, children begin to engage in make-believe games marked by the use of objects for purposes other than their intended function. Between the ages of 4 and 7, when their thinking is still dominated by intuition rather than logic, children first become interested in games characterized by rules, structure, and social interaction. As they move through the concrete operational stage (ages 7-11), during which categorizing activities and the earliest logical operations occur, the types of rules governing their play and the reasons for following them change. At first, rules are centered on the sensorimotor aspects of play and largely provide structure and repetition. Gradually, they become more focused on the social aspects of play and are connected with acceptance by the group. By the fourth, or formal operations stage (ages 12 and higher), with the gradual emergence of a mature ability to reason, competitive games and games with codes of rules begin to predominate.

While other psychologists have proposed schemes that vary from this one theory, there is general agreement on its broad outlines. Some additional categorizations of children's play that have been proposed include diversive play, composed of aimless activities that serve as a diversion when a child is bored; mimetic play, which is repetitious, structured, and symbolic; and cathartic play, which is therapeutic in nature.

One of the first to use play in therapy with children was Hermine Hug-Hellmuth in 1921, following Freud's work with "Little Hans," a five-year-old boy with a phobia . British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein used play as a source to a child's unconscious from which she could make interpretations, starting in 1919. Just as adults used free association to communicate about their unconscious and talk to communicate about their feelings, theorists reasoned that children communicate through their natural play what they cannot yet verbalize. Play therapy was used by Anna Freud to help children develop a closer connection to the therapist. A more structured approach came about in the 1930s with David Levy using play therapy to help children work through and re-enact stressful situations to release them. In keeping with Carl Rogers' non-directive play work in the 1940s, Virginia

Axline used non-directive play to allow a child to freely be himself or herself, working toward self-realization. By the 1960s, schools had introduced guidance and counseling services. A number of counselors, including Garry Landreth urged in writings that school counselors incorporate play therapy to meet the developmental needs of all children. The International Association for Play Therapy formed in 1982 and now has 3,300 members worldwide. Play therapy has grown in its applications, expanding to include adults and families and into hospitals as well. The therapy usually occurs in a playroom, specially designed for children and furnished with toys and equipment to facilitate children's play.

See also Cognitive development

Further Reading

Dolinar, Kathleen J. Learning Through Play: Curriculum and Activities for the Inclusive Classroom. Albany, NY: Delmar, 1994.

Gil, Eliana Play in Family Therapy. New York: Guilford Press, 1994.

Landreth, Garry L. Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship Muncie, Indiana: Accelerated Development Inc., 1991.

Moyles, Janet R. The Excellence of Play. Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1994.

Hughes, Fergus P. Children, Play, and Development. Boston Allyn and Bacon, 1991.


views updated May 17 2018

play2 if you play with fire you'll get burnt proverbial saying, late 19th century, meaning that if you involve yourself with something potentially dangerous you are likely to be hurt. A similar thought is found the mid 17th century, in Henry Vaughan's Silex Scintillans (1655), ‘I played with fire, did counsel spurn…But never thought that fire could burn.’
play both ends against the middle keep one's options open by supporting or favouring opposing sides.
play it again, Sam popular misquotation of Humphrey Bogart's words ‘If she can stand it, I can. Play it!’ in the film Casablanca (1942), subsequently used as the title of a play (1969) and film (1972) by Woody Allen.
play the — card introduce a specified (advantageous) factor; the term derives from a comment made in 1886 by Lord Randolph Churchill on Gladstone's handling of the Irish Home Rule question, that ‘the Orange card would be the one to play’.
play the game behave in a fair or honourable way; abide by the rules or conventions. Recorded from the late 19th century, the phrase is particularly associated with the appeal to public-school values enshrined in Henry Newbolt's poem ‘Vita Lampada’ (1897).
play to the gallery act in an exaggerated or histrionic manner, especially in order to appeal to popular taste; the gallery here is the highest of the galleries in a theatre, containing the cheapest seats.
those who play at bowls must look out for rubbers proverbial saying, mid 18th century, meaning that one must beware of difficulties associated with a particular activity; a rubber here is an alteration of rub, an obstacle or impediment to the course of a bowl. Shakespeare in Richard II (1595) has, ‘Madam, we'll play at bowls.—'Twill make me think the world is full of rubs.’

See also when the cat's away, the mice will play, play chicken, play ducks and drakes, play second fiddle.


views updated May 29 2018

play1 play within a play a play acted as part of the action of another play; often with reference to Hamlet, in which Hamlet arranges for the Players to perform a play (‘the Mouse-trap’) which shows the circumstances of his father's murder.

See also fair play's a jewel, give and take is fair play, turn about is fair play, all work and no play.


views updated May 17 2018

play exercise oneself, spec. by way of diversion, engage in (a game); perform on (a musical instrument) OE.; move swiftly, briskly, freely; act the character of XIV. OE. pleg(i)an, plægian = MDu. pleien dance, leap for joy, rejoice; doubtfully rel. to OFris. plega be wont, OS. plegan (Du. plegen), OHG. pflegan (G. pflegen) have charge of, attend to, be in the habit of.
So play sb. OE. plega, plæga rapid movement, exercise, sport OE. (cessation of work, being idle XVII); dramatic performance, drama XIV; action, dealing, as in fair p., foul p. XVI; p. of, on, or upon words, after F. jeu de mots XVIII. playhouse XVI (not continuous with OE. pleghūs ‘theatrum’).