Thinking about play

Wednesday July 1, 2020

Mostly adults respond to playing children intuitively, and for the most part that serves us all well. Children are resilient and they forgive us our minor mistakes when we take over, misread their cues or redirect occasionally. They are kind like that. However, for those of us that have developed a bit more interest and are thinking about developing a play service or space for play, it is important to understand a little more about play.

By the middle of the 20th century studies of childhood development and play are centre stage, at least in the minority world. Broadly speaking these theories suggest play is the means by which children make sense of the world, that play is a tool for learning, that play enables children to try out various roles and to develop holistically for example.  However, misinterpretation and oversimplification of the way those things might come about has influenced practice and provision, i.e. play can be very purposeful and productive for children so long as it is well organised and structured by adults. It’s well documented now that play needs some very sensitive and nuanced interaction if adults aren’t actually to diminish its value for children. We have to go further back in time though to appreciate why so little regard is often held toward play.

A commonly held view of play is that it is a somewhat frivolous, nonsensical behaviour, a purposeless activity carried out by young children. The classical theories of play, (very early 20th century) ave given much to that view. The simplified understanding and application of these theories in the most part situates freely chosen play as purposeful for only one reasons, the regulation of energy. Play enables children to revitalise themselves ready for more purposeful pursuits ‘a change is as good as a rest’ or play helps children rid themselves of energy they haven’t yet used up in more purposeful pursuits ‘for burning off steam’.

This energy regulation perspective is what led to the majority of spaces designed for children’s play focusing almost exclusively on boisterous locomotor activity. However, anyone who has ever observed children playing will know that the spaces often provided for them rarely represent the ways we see them playing outside of those environments.

Dr David Whitebread (2012) proposes 5 types of play: physical play, play with objects, symbolic play, pretence/ socio-dramatic play, and games with rules. He suggests that each type of play may have a main developmental function or purpose whilst recognising that all work together in supporting physical, intellectual and socio-emotional growth and well-being.

Fraser Brown (2014) identifies 10 key factors present in play: fun, freedom, Flexibility; Social Interaction, Socialisation; Physical Activity; Environmental & Cognitive Stimulation; Creativity and Problem Solving; Emotional Equilibrium, Sickness and Health and Self Discovery, together supporting holistic development (Brown, 2014).

Bob Hughes (2001) outlines 16 play types, that support children self-determined exposure to or engagement in a range of experiences that serve to help them ‘test out,’ filter & re-present experiences. In playing children can try experiences out in different forms /contexts, practice and master them or come to understand what they wish to engage with further and what they may prefer to avoid, and to develop strategies accordingly.

Brian Sutton-Smith identified 308 different types of play, concluding that the function of play may best be considered as, ‘the potentiation of adaptive variability’ proposing, play creates experiences that engage the player, and that engagement involves all the players faculties, the engagement of those faculties with what can often appear purposeless activity develops, extends, retains and maintains potential and that potential can be adapted for purposeful pursuits down the line (1997, p. 231).

The number and range of studies into play is vast and comes from a variety of different academic disciplines, however throughout much of that research there is agreement that play (as a behavioural disposition) can be described as encompassing the following characteristics, which set it apart from other behaviours:

  • Personal Control – children control the content and intent of their play. The increased degree of personal or collective control in play, compared to other aspects of children’s lives (Meire, 2007), necessitates their active engagement (Burghardt, 2005).
  • Intrinsic Motivation – children are motivated to play by the pleasure and satisfaction they gain from playing rather than externally prescribed outcomes or rewards (Henricks, 2008; Sutton-Smith, 1997). In play there is a greater focus on the process of playing rather than any products that may be produced from play (Gray, 2013).
  • Flexibility and Variability – in play children display highly variable and diverse combinations of behaviour, where the narratives are often flexible if not completely unpredictable (Brown, 2003; Spinka et al, 2001; Sutton-Smith, 2003; Kalliala, 2006).
  • Pretence – in play children will take an ‘as if’ approach to action enabling them to be ‘other’ in important but non-serious ways. This approach simultaneously generates a psychological frame of safety, a virtual reality in which the constraints of the real world are suspended (Gayler & Evans, 2001; Vygotsky, 1978; Lester & Russell, 2010).
  • Creation of Uncertainty – children seek out “scary fun” (Sandsetter, 2010) – the physical and emotional pleasure that comes from playing with uncertainty and the mild anxiety associated with it.

When working in support of play adults should focus on the extent to which the design of spaces and the people within them can support these unique characteristics of play. It is also this understanding of play that we should use when monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of our play provision.

When providing for play it is also essential that we focus on play as the outcome. There is sufficient evidence to justify the value of supporting play in its own right. Furthermore, it is only by focussing on the intrinsic value of play that we can bring about the other instrumental or institutional benefits adults may seek. When adult’s focus their attention on other specific outcomes they want to get from play they inevitably end up constraining the very characteristics of play that make it such a beneficial process.

That said, we know from experience, that when providing for play adults often have to justify how their work contributes to other policy agendas. Here we provide an overview of the importance of play across three broad public policy areas.

Learning and Development

Play, and access to quality opportunities for play, are linked with learning and development outcomes. Play has been identified as key to the development of cognition, executive functioning (Gayler & Evans, 2001), self-regulation (Pellis, 2013), a growth mindset (Wood, 2013), divergent thinking – a proxy for creativity (Bateson, 2013), self-identity and confidence (Brown, 2014), as well as social intelligence (Burghardt, 2005; Sutton-Smith, 2003).

In play, children operate under self-imposed rules and are most likely to try things out that they are not yet wholly capable of. They do this because they understand play to be free of the constraints of the real world and as such, free from the repercussions that may be exacted by the real world (Vygotsky, 1978). Sandra Russ (2013) suggests socio-dramatic play is important in supporting the development of (associative and combinatorial) transferable skills – what is an object or concept like and what might I be able to do with it? In respect of developmental effect, Howard Jones (2002) proposes a trickle-down effect of play, in that a child given opportunities for self-initiated play, without external goals or rewards and without adult constraint, will approach play creatively resulting in a greater likelihood of more creativity in other tasks.

Play Sufficiency

Extensive research has found a positive association between school breaks and teacher scores of classroom behaviour (Barros et al 2009), and positive associations between play time and indicators of cognitive skills, attitudes and academic behaviour (CDC, 2010).

Health and Physical Activity

In 2004 and again in 2008, Mackett reports that playing outside could be one of the most significant improvements public policy could make to children physical health and suggests: “a range of increasing health problems are associated with the decline in play opportunities” (Mackett, 2004).

Primary School age children’s play is typically ‘physically active’ and accompanied by a heart rate that is significantly above resting metabolic rate (Mackett, 2004). Children’s play at this age also consists of features such as inquisitiveness, flexibility, uncertainty and unpredictability. These features are aligned with the maintenance of physical activity but also higher executive functioning and intra-psychic capability (Burdette & Whitaker, 2005; Whitebread, 2012), whilst also remaining both motivating and rewarding (Burghardt, 2005).

Quality of and opportunity to play are therefore directly linked to increases in physical activity levels (Kriemler et al, 2011) and to the reduction of obesity (Mackett, 2004). When studied over comparable time periods children spend more time in moderate and vigorous-intensity physical activity during play than they often do in sport and physical education (Mackett and Paskins, 2008).

Health and Well-Being

Health and well-being outcomes are directly related to children’s opportunities for intrinsically motivated play. These include a reduction in the symptoms of ADHD (Panksepp, 2007; Bundy, 2009), improved attachments to people and place (Lester and Russell, 2010), therapeutic effect (Brown, 2014) and emotion regulation (Pellis, 2013). As well as this children rate access to play and quality opportunities for play as a high priority in self-reported quality of life studies (UNICEF, 2007).

Playing lends itself to the creation of experiences that filter and process conscious and unconscious ‘material/experience’ (Sutton- Smith, 2003; Hughes, 2013). In play, the adaptive systems of emotion regulation (Gayler & Evans, 2001), stress response (Pellis, 2010 & 2013), motivation and reward (Burghardt, 2005), attachment (Ginsburg, 2007), creativity (Bateson, 2013) and learning (Wood, 2013) are actively engaged. Masten and Obredovic (2006) identify that if these adaptive systems are functioning healthily, they will contribute to a sense of subjective well-being and resilience.

Playing enables children to create attachments with family, peers and places through their own self- initiated action, in turn supporting the development of emotion regulation capabilities (Gayler & Evans, 2001; Hoffmann & Russ, 2012). Play enables children to express and experience the full range of primary and secondary emotions and thus to develop empathy and sympathy and social intelligence (Sutton-Smith, 2003; Brown, 2009.) Playing also provides opportunity to pretend and to try out different roles and identities, enabling children to express novel behaviours (Brown, 2009), where the threat of reprisal or the weight of accountability are less so than they would be in non-play situations (Hoffmann & Russ, 2012). Play is described as characterised by an interest or predisposition toward the novel, to flexibility and change and to the creation of uncertainty (Pellis, 2013). Play enables children to create situations that have a sense of jeopardy and risk without over exposure to the serious likelihood of harm (Gordon & Esbjorn-Hargens, 2007; Pellis, 2013).


For a full list of references for this post, just drop us a line, happy to share but including it here would make this post scarily long and possibly put people off reading.

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