Play…the missing dimension.

Consider Jake (fictitious character), who is five months. Jake takes a piece of crumpled paper and brings it to his mouth. Is Jake playing or is he exploring? Now Jake is 15 and finds himself in the chemistry lab. He can be observed mixing and manipulating elements and chemicals in test tubes and beakers. Is Jake now playing? Is he exploring? Or is he in fact working?

What is play? Can you tell when a child is playing?

The relationship amid the above concepts is hazy, with various likenesses and discrepancies. In the case of young children, their behavior defies clear segmentation, as children can be observed playing, exploring and engaging in a variety of other actions simultaneously. Children’s behavior swings continuously in a flowing manner; back and forth, from one activity to another without clearly distinct segments. However, observation generally points to the fact that exploration quickly evolves into play, and play often leads to further exploration of the world (Hughes, 2010).

Before an activity can actually be described as play, it must comprise five fundamental features (Rubin, Fein & Vandenberg, 1983):

  1. The activity must be an end in itself and done for the satisfaction of doing it, i.e. the activity must be intrinsically motivated.
  2. The participant must freely choose the activity. Therefore, if a child is forced into play, the child may not perceive the activity as play.
  3. The activity must also be pleasant and must be the precursor of positive affect.
  4. The child must also be involved physically and/or psychologically in the activity, i.e. the child must be actively engaged.
  5. Play should have certain elements of make-believe and thus should be non-literal.

Whilst the first four features of play described above are difficult to dispute, the latter feature is a contentious. This criterion could imply that children could only ‘play’ at a certain age, when they are able to perform symbolic and imaginative mental operations.

The definition of “play” has evolved over the years. Spencer (1878), for example, through the Surplus Energy Theory of Play, put forward the idea that play occurs because children have excess energy. Hall’s (1920) Recapitulation Theory, on the other hand, proposed that play is a product of an evolutionary biological process through which primitive instincts are weakened. Such classical theories of play, which originated in the 19th and early 20th century, tried to explain purpose of play.

Subsequent to the 1920s, more “modern” theories were developed in attempt to explain how “play” could actually influence development. Freud (1961) and Erikson (1985) put forward the idea that play is a decisive contributing factor towards a child’s emotional development. Like always, psychoanalytic approaches provide us with fascinating perspectives. In the case of “play”, Freud and Erikson also do not disappoint.

freud play

Freud’s and Erikson’s Psychoanalytic approaches postulate that as young children recognize their helplessness, they become conscious of the fact that they must rely on other’s goodwill to fulfill their needs. This realization is generally accompanied by a fear of abandonment. With this respect, play with miniature toys can reduce the overwhelming world of adults to a manageable size, thus helping children moderate their feelings of vulnerability. Furthermore, Freud (1961) also argues that it is through play that children can act out wish fulfillment and consequently cope with challenging and traumatic events in their lives. He states that through play, children learn about their unconscious thoughts and actions, and learn to interpret their experiences.

Cognitive Developmental Theories of play developed by Piaget (1962) and Vygotsky (1966; 1997) went further and proposed that play is actually a process that contributes, in varying ways, towards cognitive development, problem solving, and creative thought. Piaget (1962) proposed a stage theory that describes different levels of cognitive developmental stages, which parallels the different developmental stages of play (Sarcho & Spodek, 1995). Notwithstanding this, in Piaget’s theory (1962), play is not synonymous with the formation of new cognitive structures. Piaget defined play as assimilation: i.e. the child’s attempt to make environmental stimuli match his/her individual schemas. Thus, he viewed play as a means by which the child combines existing skill with knowledge, resulting in learning (Johnsen & Christie, 1986). Different styles of play require different levels of cognitive sophistication, and that is why each different type of play is found at a specific stage of cognitive development (Diamond & Hestenes, 1997). Piaget (1962) identified three sequenced categorical stages in the development of a child’s play:

  1. Practice Play (6 months – 2 years)
  2. Symbolic play (2 years – 6 years)
  3. Games with rules (over 6 years)

Piaget’s theory has been central to the school of cognitive theory known as “cognitive constructivism” ever since its conception. Nevertheless, many academics and practitioners have criticized Piaget’s stance as being too rigid a scheme. Vygotsky criticized Piaget, and to a certain extent also Freud, for paying too little attention to the child’s cultural context.

Vygotsky’s (1966) social constructionist stance proposes that play assists the child’s mind by helping him/her master new behaviors.The function of play, according to Vygotsky, is to help children develop self-regulation, expand the separation between thoughts and actions, and develop the skills needed to obtain a higher level of cognitive functioning (Vygostcky, 1966). In discussing Vygotsky’s theory, Sayeed & Guerin (2001, p. 13) remark that “play can act as a facilitator for social interaction between the child’s peers and adults helping him/her to make sense and create meaning from experience within a shared cultural context”.


play 4


Play and child development

The role of play in the development of infants, and preschool children is of enormous interest and value to professionals concerned with early intervention policy and practice. The reason being that literature on play seems to highlight how play contributes to almost every human achievement and develops a foundation for human culture. Literature on play highlights the importance and utility of play in relation to the child’s cognitive, physical and psycho-social development. Thus, by eliciting, observing, and describing play, one is able to acquire valuable insight into the child’s overall development (Rosetti, 2001).

Various studies (e.g. Whitebread & Jameson, 2005) supports the view that play, particularly pretend or symbolic play, is particularly significant in its contribution to the development of children as “meta-cognitively skillful”, self-regulated learners. Evidence from observational studies (e.g. Lander, 2007) indicate that child-initiated playful activities, in small groups without adult supervision, can support the development of a child’s self-regulatory behaviors. These studies also suggest that the experience of ‘play’ was particularly effective in preparing the children for effortful, problem-solving or creative tasks that require a high level of metacognitive and self-regulatory skill.

Research by Pellegrini that goes back to 1985, on the relationship between symbolic play and literacy, even suggests that children’s level of pretend play predicted their emergent writing abilities. In another related study, Pellegrini, Galda, Dresden and Cox, (1991) investigated the transfer of abstract, socially defined language uses between play and literacy. They found a positive and significant relationship between three-year-old children’s symbolic play and their use of meta-linguistic verbs. i.e., verbs that concern oral and written language activities (such as talk, write, speak and read).

In 2001, researchers Kathleen Roskos (from John Caroll University, USA) and James Christie (from Arizona State University, USA) performed a critical analysis of 20 studies on the relationship between play and literacy, with the aim of providing more clarity on this area. For each study, they examined the statement of the problem, methodology, analysis, results and conclusion. Their analysis indicated that 12 of the 20 studies that were analyses provided evidence of the link between play and literacy skills. They suggested that play can promote literacy by providing a setting that promote literacy activity, skills, and strategies; by serving as a language experience that can build connections between oral and written modes of expression; and by providing opportunities to teach and learn literacy.

So, what does all this mean?

In my experience, the “so what” question is at the heart of most professional and academic debates. In terms of the question; “how can play influence child development”, the studies referenced above are very relevant as they provide evidence of the potential play presents us with.

Contrary to the notion that play is a meaningless activity (in terms of learning and development), research indicates that play contributes positively towards meta-cognition, language development, literacy skills, cognitive development, problem solving, and creative thinking skills. Play is also a very useful “medium” which is used by various therapists to help child understand problems and emotions.

Thus, I want to challenge the notion that play is waste of time, or a meager frivolous activity used to alienate us from the more important things in life. Play is so much more! Play is a tool, an activity, a process, a journey, a medium, and a way to explore and learn about the world around us. Whilst we explore, we learn, we grow, we develop, and we become what we want to become.





Diamond, K. E., & Hestenes, L. L. (1997). Relationships between enrolment in an inclusive class and preschool children’s ideas about people with disabilities. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 17, 4, 520 – 537.

Erikson, E. H. (1985). Play and actuality. In J. S. Bruner, A. Jolly & K. Sylva (Eds.), Play: its role in development and evolution (pp. 688–704). New York: Penguin Books.

Freud, S. (1961). Beyond the pleasure principle. New York, NY: Norton.

Hall, G. S. (1920). Youth. New York, NY: A. Appleton.

Hughes, P. F. (2010). Children, Play, and Development. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Johnsen, E. P., & Christie, J. F. (1986). Pretend play and logical operations. In K. Blanchard (Ed.) The many faces of play (pp. 50-58). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Lander, R. (2007). Investigating the effects of play on children’s problem solving and creativity. Unpublished MPhil thesis, University of Cambridge.

Pellegrini A. D, Galda L, Dresden J, Cox, S. (1991). A longitudinal study of the predictive relations among symbolic play, linguistic verbs, and early literacy. Research in the Teaching of English, 25, 2, 215-235.

Piaget, J. (1962). Play, dreams and imitation in childhood. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Piaget, J. (1968). Six Psychological Studies. London: University of London Press.

Rosetti, L. (2001). Communication intervention: Birth to three (2nd ed.). San Diego, California: Singular.

Roskos, K. & Christie, J. (2001). Examining the play–literacy interface: a critical review and future directions. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 1(1), 59–89.

Rubin, D. N., Fein, G. C., & Vandenberg, B. (1983). Play. In P. H. Mussen (Ed.), Handbook of child psychology (pp. 693-774). New York: Wiley.

Sayeed, Z., & Guerin, E. (2000). Early Years Play: A happy medium for assessment and intervention. London: David Fulton Publishers.

Sarcho, O. N., & Spodek, B. (1995). Children’s play and early childhood education: Insights from history and theory. Journal of Education, 177, 3, 129 – 149.

Spencer, H. (Ed.). (1878). The principles of psychology (Vol. 2). New York, NY: A. Appleton.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1966). Play and its role in the mental development of the child. Voprosy Psikhologii, 12, 62–76.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in Society. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1997). Thought and language. Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Whitebread, D. & Jameson, H. (2005). Play, story- telling and creative writing. In J. Moyles (Ed.), The excellence of play (pp.59–71). Maidenhead: Open University Press.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s