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

Pieter Brueghel the Elder depicts over ninety different games in Children's Games (1560), many of which would still be familiar to children in the twenty-first century, including hide-and-seek, leapfrog, and piggyback rides. ©

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 game–hanging 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

Children playing hopscotch at school, England, c. 1990s. Iona and Peter Opie chronicled the playground games and lore of mid-twentieth-century children in exhaustive detail. The Opies' studies showed that children possessed remarkably enduring traditions of games, stories, and expressions all their own.

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.


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

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