Theories of Play

The Wood Children (1789), Joseph Wright of Derby. By the eighteenth century, the Puritan view that play was sinful had largely been abandoned. Play, like childhood itself, was now seen as something to be enjoyed. Used with permission of .

That children engage in PLAY seems to be a proposition that is universally true. Whatever historical period is examined, evidence can be found of children playing. The same holds across cultures too, although the content of children's play differs across time and space. Play may also transcend species; the young of many other animals also exhibit behaviors that are similar to the play of children. However, while play is apparently universal, a number of necessary conditions need to be present for children's play to occur and be sustained. Among these are time and space, which, in turn, are frequently related to poverty or its absence. If children are engaged in labor, whether in their homes or outside them, the opportunities for play are much curtailed. Space for play has been less of a constraint but as the growth of cities led to a diminution in the availability of space in general and secure or safe space, in particular, space for play became an issue. A further necessary condition, that by its absence has occasionally disrupted the universality of play, is adult consent. Children's lack of power in relation to adults has led to their play being curtailed when adults have disapproved of it.

These constraints aside, the recognition that play is strongly associated with childhood has given rise to an extensive literature devoted to its definition, explanation, and description. In addition, there is an equally extensive and rather different literature that has focused on how the propensity to play may be harnessed to educational purposes, pedagogy, and forms of schooling. This literature on play is rendered even more extensive by the fact that play has often given rise to controversy. Arguably, this is because whenever play is mentioned, its antithesis, work, is never far away.

Play has been defined in numerous ways but is perhaps best understood by knowing first of all what it is not. In this case the main thing it is not is work. Play and work are powerful binary oppositions that have attached to them a number of signifiers. Work, for example, is valued as a necessity that provides the material basis for life. It is also frequently seen as giving meaning to life. Play, in contrast, is often seen as frivolous and lacking the serious purpose of work. Play takes place in the time not given over to work and in some cultures, such time in school is called playtime to distinguish it from time devoted to lessons. These oppositions between play and work are organized not only in the present but also over the time of the life cycle as well. For example, in modern popular perception, childhood is a time for play, whereas adulthood is a time for work. This entry examines the history of these oppositions through a consideration of theories of children's play and methods of education that sought to utilize play. TOYS are central to many kinds of play and attention will be given to their use and the rise of the toy industry and how that has affected play. Finally, theories of play and the practice of play have had to contend with an attitude associated with Puritanism–but found in Christianity in general–that play was at best a distraction and at worst sinful. Any discussion of play needs to take account of this powerful and pervasive belief.

Play in Ancient Civilizations

Play is typically divided into a number of categories. Among them are sociable play, fantasy play, and play with toys. While evidence of the first two kinds are hard to find in the remains of ancient civilizations, artifacts interpreted by archaeologists as toys are widespread. Small clay and stone balls that are thought to have been toys dating back to the Yangshao Culture during the Neolithic Period (4800–4300 C.E.) have been found at Banpo village in Xi'an, in present-day China. Small carts, whistles shaped like birds, and toy monkeys have been recovered from Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, cities that existed in the Indus valley between 3000 to 1500 B.C.E. (There is some debate, however, about whether

Making a Train (1867), Seymour Guy. A little girl playing dress-up tries on the role of an adult woman through her imaginary play. © .

all these objects were toys or whether they were used in religious rituals.) In later periods, representations of play began to appear. Archaeological finds, such as Egyptian tomb paintings, show abundant evidence of children's games. Images of children playing games or children with toys appear on ancient Greek vases and plates of children playing with toys and playing games and ancient Greek playthings have also been recovered. These include swings, seesaws, kites, hoops with bells, model carts, whipping tops, and wheels that were attached to poles for pulling along. Evidence of toys can also be found among ancient writings. In The Clouds, a comedy by the ancient Greek dramatist, Aristophanes, a proud father tells how clever his son is and how, even when quite little he amused himself at home with making boats and chariots and frogs out of pomegranate rinds.

The first known discussions of play and its relation to education also made their appearance in the work of the ancient Greek philosophers PLATO (427–348 B.C.E.) and ARISTOTLE (384–322 B.C.E.). Their references to play are important not so much because of what they said, which in Aristotle's case was not much, but for the use that was made of their ideas in later periods. Encouraging children to play in school was often controversial and the advocates of play methods frequently used the work and prestige of Plato to legitimize their approach. In his Laws and the Republic Plato provides not a theory of play but a justification for its use in education. In the Laws, for example, Plato views play as a form of anticipatory socialization. If children were to become builders, he suggested, they should play at building houses. The teacher's role in this was to try to direct the children's inclinations and pleasures through play towards their final aim in life.

This view of play as best when it is directed by the teacher is a recurrent one and has sometimes been seen as a way of manipulating and controlling children. This was wholly consistent with Plato's concern that education should serve the needs of the state by producing good citizens and with the distinction he drew between play that would lead to that goal and that which would not. Between the ages of three and six, however, this distinction between desirable and undesirable play did not apply; at this stage in their life, Plato wrote in the Laws, children had certain natural modes of play, which they discovered for themselves. This idea that children's play was natural is another persistent theme, as is Plato's fear that unless the play of older children was regulated and contained it threatened the stability of the state. His reasoning was not, as might have been expected, that unregulated play would lead to violence but that if children changed the rules of their games, they might, when adults, attempt to change institutions and laws.

This theme of free play leading to serious and detrimental consequences, as Plato put it, was to reappear often in subsequent discussions of play. So too was the philosopher Socrates' notion that children should not be compelled to learn. In Plato's Republic, Socrates argues that play, rather than force, should be used in training children. In the Laws, Plato described how play could be used as a method in education by noting that in Egypt, arithmetical games had been invented for the use of children so they found learning a pleasure and an amusement.

Play and Education in the Dark and Middle Ages

In the early Christian period, some of the misgivings that Plato expressed about play reappeared in the writings of Saint Augustine of Hippo (354–430 C.E.). In his autobiographical Confessions, Augustine related how he had neglected school work when a boy in order to satisfy his love of play and how he was beaten for it. Unlike Plato, he saw no educational value in play whatsoever, noting only its incompatibility with schoolwork. He expressed regret that he had, out of a love of play, not obeyed his teachers and parents and worked harder. Although Augustine goes out of his way to present his early life as sinful, this view of play in childhood as a temptation and a distraction from the work of preparation for adult life is a persistent theme in many variants of Christianity.

While the intellectual histories of play tend to be silent about the Middle Ages, one of the most famous paintings of children playing, Pieter Breughel the Elder's Children's Games, in which about eighty-four games are represented, was painted at the end of the Middle Ages in 1559–1560. Why the appearance at this time? The French historian PHILIPPE ARIÈS in his influential book, Centuries of Childhood, argued from evidence, including paintings, that a concept of childhood did not exist in the Middle Ages, which is one possible reason for the absence of theories of play during that period. Significantly, Ariès did not argue that children had ceased to play. On the contrary, he argued that children's play, except in infancy, did not become differentiated from that of adults until the eighteenth century. From then on, the growth of schools and changes in the structure of the family led to the modern emergence of childhood as a stage of life marked by its own distinctive characteristics. Perhaps this is why Brueghel's painting appears when it does; it is the sign of a new image of childhood in which play was newly important, but would soon become suspect. The role of schools was subsequently dominated by moralization and the moralizers who promoted them, like the medieval Church, tended to oppose the playing of games and play in general as a threat to order and authority.

The Enlightenment

This negative attitude was also present among the Puritans of New England among whom the Calvinistic work ethic was deeply rooted. According to the German sociologist Max Weber, such religious groups saw their most urgent task as the destruction of spontaneous, impulsive enjoyment. In pursuit of this, the New England Puritans tried to prevent children playing with toys unless they were related to Biblical stories and adjudged to be morally uplifting. Play was regarded as frivolous if not sinful; work was the road to salvation. But it was an English political philosopher who had been brought up as a Puritan, JOHN LOCKE (1632–1704), who made one of the earliest significant contributions to the modern conception of the place of play in education. Locke discussed play quite extensively in Thoughts Concerning Education. Like Plato, Locke thought the chief aim of education ought to be virtue. He was opposed to the use of corporal punishment to motivate children to learn Latin and Greek or any other form of school knowledge. For him, the acquisition of school knowledge was of less importance than producing people who were virtuous and wise. Locke believed that children learned best not by being coerced, but if learning was made a recreation. They then would develop a desire to be taught. As an example of how play could facilitate learning, he proposed that "contrivances" or apparatus might be made to teach children to read. Locke was interested in harnessing play to educational aims, but he also provided clues to a theory of play. By observing how girls spent hours becoming expert at a game called dibstones, Locke concluded that this was due to a natural tendency to be active.

Locke's empiricist theory of knowledge, which saw knowledge as being derived through the senses alone, held out the possibility that if the right experiences were presented to children through education then they could be molded by educators to whatever form was desired. In addition to contributing to a growing realization of the importance of childhood in human development, Locke's empiricism appealed to ENLIGHTENMENT radicals seeking to change the society they lived in. Among these, the most prominent was the Genevan-born political philosopher, JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU (1712–1778). In Émile (1762), Rousseau's famous treatise on education, Rousseau proposed the rather revolutionary theory that children went through distinct stages in their development and that education should primarily be tailored to those stages. Rousseau's comments on children's play were not in any way systematic but the text reveals that he held, albeit in sketch form, a theory of play. This consisted mainly in the view that play was instinctive and the means provided by nature for growth of the body as well as of the senses that were so important to Locke's empiricism.

Rousseau cited Locke, approvingly for the most part, throughout his book but when he came to consider the relation between play and education he turned only to Plato to support his belief that children should be taught through play. Rousseau thought that in all the games that children played, there could be found material for instruction. He held that what children learned from each other in play was worth far more than what they learned in the classroom. In contrast to the Puritan view, Rousseau did not hold that play was idleness or a waste of time because it contributed to what he believed to be the main object of childhood, that children should be happy.

Rousseau's thoughts on play were set within a position that was hostile to conventional schooling with its emphasis on books and telling pupils what to do. Rousseau believed instead that learning took place best when it was pleasurable and when pupils were hardly aware that they were learning.

Although Émile was a text marked by paradox and contradiction and not intended as a guide to practical education, a number of Rousseau's admirers in Europe tried to educate children in the way he outlined. Prominent adherents to Rousseau's advice about play were Maria Edgeworth (1768–1849) and her father Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744–1817). Their views and those of other members of their Anglo-Irish family appeared in a two-volume book entitled Practical Education (1798). In addition to Rousseau, this book drew heavily upon Locke and other sources. It was distinguished from much of the previous literature on play and education by being based upon observation and experience of a domestic education often of an experimental nature. A chapter in Practical Education was devoted to a consideration of toys, their nature, their suitability, and how best they might be used for educational purposes. Like Rousseau, the Edgeworths saw play as leading to science through the presence in play of observation, experimentation, and discovery.

The Romantic Movement

Rousseau's emphasis on education following nature and education as self-realization were themes taken up by the Romantic movement which stressed the varieties of experience available to children that were lost with the onset of adulthood. These notions about childhood innocence and the need to protect children from the world of adults were present in the work of the English poets William Blake and William Wordsworth as well as others, and were among those that informed the thinking of the German educationalist and founder of the KINDERGARTEN, FRIEDRICH FROEBEL (1782–1852). Together, Froebel's writing and educational practice constitute a qualitative shift in the conceptualization of children's play and its role in their education. Much of what Froebel advocated, such as the use of play objects or apparatus to provide learning experiences, was not novel. (As was discussed above, Plato had recorded that the ancient Egyptians had used games to teach arithmetic.) However, Froebel went further than any theorist before by placing play at the center of his conception of how young children should be educated. The games he devised and the play apparatus, what he called the gifts and occupations, were extensively described in his books such as Mother's Songs, Games and Stories, a manual for mothers on how to play with their children. In his Pedagogics of the Kindergarten Froebel detailed how his play apparatus, the gifts, and occupations should be played with. The persuasiveness of Froebel's theories owes much to the Romantic, sometimes, mystical language he used but his theories were innovative in that his conception of play is free from any warnings that unregulated play might be dangerous. In contrast to earlier traditions Froebel says of play in the early stage of childhood in his Education of Man (1826) that "play at this time is not trivial, it is highly serious and of deep significance" (p. 55). However, in Froebel's kindergarten there was no unregulated play as even the free play was planned and constrained. He intimated that play arose from an impulse to activity that in the next stage, a stage he calls boyhood, becomes expressed in work.

Evolutionary Theories of Play

Because of the similarities between the play behavior of young children and the behavior of the young of some animal species, the behavior of the latter has also been described as play. Following the publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, it was almost inevitable that some of his followers would make the connection and attempt adaptive explanations of the play of all species in terms of Darwinian and other evolutionary theories. These theories gave rise to the first attempts to provide explanations for play, rather than observations of play or uses to which play could be put. Although hints as to how play arises are present in earlier texts, it is not until the nineteenth century that theories of play make their first appearance.

One of the most prominent theories arose from the work of the German philosopher J. C. Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805) in his Letters on Aesthetic Education and later the works of English philosopher and sociologist Herbert Spencer (1820–1903). They expounded what was called the surplus energy theory to explain animal play. Schiller, writing before Darwin, was principally concerned with the relation between play, art, and aesthetics. He believed that a concern with aesthetic appearance emerged in humans when they acted on an impulse "to extend enjoyment beyond necessity" and thereby stimulate their imagination. Necessity in this context meant the struggle for survival. In support of this argument, he cited the way in nature, a lion sometimes roared, not out of necessity but in order to release its "unemployed energy."

With Herbert Spencer, a break occurs in the history of theories of play as he, like most of the subsequent figures, adopted a scientific approach that was mainly empirical rather than speculative. Spencer, a prominent advocate of an evolutionary theory that preceded Darwin's, wrote, in his Principles of Psychology (1855) that once an animal no longer had to expend all its energy on survival, the surplus could be released in play. For Spencer, the release of surplus energy in play took the form of imitation of a "serious" activity.

In his book Education, Intellectual, Moral and Physical (1861), Spencer argued that learning should be made as pleasurable as play, although he makes no connection here to his general theories of play. Unusually for the time in which he wrote, Spencer drew attention to the fact that girls were often prevented by schools from engaging in noisy play even though it was thought desirable for the adequate development of boys.

A German contemporary of Spencer named Karl Groos (1861–1946) also presented a biological explanation for play in his books, The Play of Animals and The Play of Man. Groos argued that play was the expression of an instinct necessary to the survival of the species. The young child, due to its prolonged dependency on adults, did not need the instinct. Hence play is the practice and development of capacities, like sex and fighting, to be used later in life. Thus, for Groos, the purpose of play was a preparation for life. Famously he claimed that, "instead of saying, the animals play because they are young, we must say, the animals have a youth in order that they may play" and thereby they practice skills necessary for their survival. This theory, unlike that of surplus energy, could explain not only why play was most prominent in young animals but also why it occurred in isolated animals that were not able to imitate others. Spencer's theory, which relied on imitation, was unable to explain this.

The American psychologist James Mark Baldwin (1861–1934), who did much to popularize Groos in the United States, concluded that play is a function of high utility. Baldwin subscribed to race recapitulation, one of the most pervasive ideas among psychologists, biologists, and educationalists of the late nineteenth century. This view held that the development of the individual (ontogeny) recapitulates, or repeats the principal stages, the development of the human race (phylogeny). Race recapitulation appeared in many different areas of social life. It was present in Froebel's and Spencer's work but the American psychologist G. STANLEY HALL (1844–1924) did most to promote it in education. A variant of race recapitulation was that each individual mind passes through the evolutionary stages that the human race has previously been through. For Hall play was the recapitulation of an earlier evolutionary state. The great American educationalist and pragmatic philosopher JOHN DEWEY (1859–1952) developed a curriculum around the similar idea of cultural epochs that was propounded by the German educator and philosopher, J. F. HERBART (1776–1841) and his followers. In Dewey's scheme, the youngest children were given objects to play with that would have been necessary for survival, for example, in the Stone Age. Throwing sticks at an object was held to recapitulate the hunting of wild animals in the Stone Age and in Hall's view, because it was a reliving of a past evolutionary state it provided more pleasure than throwing sticks at nothing in particular.

John Dewey and Maria Montessori: "Scientific" Education and Play

These often conflicting theories of play encountered many problems, many of which were related to the inadequacy of the definitions of play that had been adopted. For the most part, none of the figures that have been discussed provided anything more than a cursory definition that typically contained the views that play was not a serious activity and that it gave pleasure. It fell to John Dewey to define play on several occasions in the course of his voluminous output. Dewey's attitude to education was scientific in that his views were formed by observation and experimentation. He often presented the world in his writing in terms of binary oppositions and so he defined play in relation to work. Thus, in How We Think (1909), Dewey wrote, in a formulation that paralleled Froebel's, that play was an activity not consciously performed for any sake beyond itself whereas work was an activity in which the interest lies in its outcome. In Dewey's conception, play is subordinated to work. He poses this almost as a developmental task. A time comes, he argued in a reversal of Schiller's notion, when children must extend their acquaintance with existing, as opposed to symbolic, things. Dewey did not consider work unpleasant; instead he distinguished it from labor, which was characterized by drudgery. As an antidote to labor, he suggested, adults engaged not in play but in amusement.

The consequences for education, in Dewey's view, were that play and the work into which it grows should give exercise in socially useful occupations. This, as has been seen, was not a novel prescription. Echoes of Rousseau and the Edgeworths may be detected in his contention in Democracyand Education (1916) that "[i]t is the business of the school to set up an environment in which play and work shall be conducted with reference to facilitating desirable mental and moral growth. It is not enough just to introduce plays and games, handwork and manual exercises. Everything depends upon the way in which they are employed" (p. 230). There are clear parallels in this statement with Rousseau's advocacy of the manipulation of the child's environment so that it was unaware that its work and play were completely under the control of the teacher. Similarities may also be observed between Dewey's view and that of the Italian educationalist MARIA MONTESSORI (1870–1952). Montessori's system, which blurs the distinction between play and work, was based on sense training by means of didactic apparatus. Montessori was also opposed to FAIRY TALES–the source of much of children's fantasy play before the advent of DISNEY and computer games–favored by Froebel's followers. She wanted children to encounter reality and not have imposed upon them the fantasies of others.

The Growth of the Toy Industry and Organized Play

The context in which the theories of play discussed above were formulated and attempts were made to utilize play in the emerging mass school systems was also one in which certain kinds of play were being exploited commercially on a mass scale by the manufacturers of toys for the first time. It was also a context marked by the codification of games such as football and BASEBALL, which were played by children and adults alike. In a previous era, Locke had recommended that children should make their own toys. The Edgeworths advised that toys be plain and useful and the play materials devised by Froebel and Montessori were just that. The current meanings of the word toy did not become widespread until the nineteenth century, when it coincided with an expansion in the mass production of toys.

The expansion of the toy industry during the nineteenth century signified a strengthening of the relation between a newly emergent conception of childhood and forms of play largely outside the direct control of adults. This kind of play was educative in the broadest sense but did not take place in the conditions advocated by Rousseau and Montessori. At the end of the nineteenth century, attempts were made in cities across the United States and Europe to retain or retake control of children's social play through the organized children's PLAYGROUND MOVEMENT. While some have seen these initiatives as an unambiguous attempt to impose adult control over the children of the urban poor, many of the reformers were motivated by another impulse, a Romantic critique of the city as a source of physical and moral degeneration that had violated children's natural right to play. A similar impulse also may be seen in the rise of uniformed youth movements, such as the BOY SCOUTS and GIRL SCOUTS/Girl Guides, during the early years of the twentieth century.

Psychoanalytic Theories

The new concern with children, childhood, and play manifest at the end of the nineteenth century also provided the context for new theories. The revelation of INFANT SEXUALITY by the founder of psychoanalysis, SIGMUND FREUD (1856–1939), produced a view of childhood that conflicted sharply with the view of childhood promoted by Rousseau and the Romantics. The evolutionary biological basis of Freud's general theories meant that his was not an entirely new departure. Strong links may be found between Freud's view of childhood and those of Groos and Hall. Nevertheless, Freud's enormously influential theories countered the Enlightenment optimism visible in the play theories, and the belief that the application of reason to fields such as education would bring about progress towards perfectibility.

Freud's psychoanalytic theory of play was outlined in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920). In this work, he explicitly conceptualized play as the repetition compulsion whereby a child wishes to constantly repeat or re-enact an experience. This he saw as the working out of his pleasure principle; the reduction of tension produced by the life instincts; and, when the experience was unpleasant, of the death instinct. The replacement of the pleasure principle, of which play is part, by the reality principle takes place phylogenetically in Freudian theory as well as ontogentically within the individual child when its instinctual drives give way to reason.

Psychoanalytic theories of play, which focused on the value of play for emotional development, gave rise to two developments. First, the use of play as psychotherapy was pioneered by the Austrian psychoanalyst MELANIE KLEIN (1882–1960) and described in her book The Psychoanalysis of Children (1932). Second, a small number of experimental schools were founded on psychoanalytic principles in the early twentieth century. Among these was the Children's Home opened in Moscow by Vera Schmidt in 1921. The school ran until its closure in 1926. In the United States, Margaret Naumburg (1890–1983) began in 1914 what became known as the Walden School and in England, A. S. NEILL (1883–1973) founded a school named Summerhill. Although different in some respects, the schools were united in a belief that adults should not channel spontaneous, natural play into a learning experience for children. At Summerhill, for example, children were able to play freely without constraint, something Plato feared would lead to dire social and political consequences.

Twentieth-Century Psychological Theories

Discussion of play in the twentieth century tended to be dominated by psychologists, a consequence of psychology having become the dominant discourse of nearly all aspects of childhood and education. Three figures stand out in the debates and discussions around children's play: Swiss psychologist JEAN PIAGET (1896–1980), Russian psychologist LEV VYGOTSKY (1896–1934), and American psychologist Jerome Bruner (b. 1915). Their theories differed from earlier explanatory theories in stressing cognitive rather than biological functions performed by play. Piaget emphasized the importance of play in symbolic representation and its contribution to socialization. Vygotsky described play as a "leading activity" and believed that play allows children opportunities to use language and to learn through role playing, as Plato believed, to "self-regulate" their behavior by following rules. By these means they raise their own learning above the level they had attained previously. Bruner and his associates stressed the role of play in language acquisition and problem solving.

While these psychologists emphasized the cognitive benefits of play, some observers like Neil Postman argued that childhood is under threat and with it the conditions for play. In The Disappearance of Childhood, Postman argued that the electronic media, especially TELEVISION, was destroying childhood. Others, like the psychologist ERIK ERIKSON, contributed to the view that as childhood vanishes, so does adulthood as adults become infantilized by a commercialized popular culture.


One of the regularly repeated themes in the history of theories of play and the relation between play and education is the persistence of the binary opposition of play to work. This binary could be rewritten in Freudian terms as the conflict between the pleasure and the reality principles. Those educationalists who advocated the use of play in education generally did so as a means to induct children into the structures of the reality principle. At the start of the twenty-first century, within many education systems (except perhaps in early childhood education), play has lost ground to the perceived demands for a competitive advantage in a global economy.

Paradoxically, since the 1960s, which saw a rise in living standards across the Western world, the boundaries between play and work have become more blurred and the notion that play is the work of the child has been disrupted by the realization, found in the work of the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga (1872–1945), that adults continue to play too. To this is added the growing convergence of children and adults by virtue of both sharing the same mediatized, cultural space. Finally, if the history of theories of children's play illustrates anything, it is that play has far too many social ramifications to be left to children and that the theories are as much about a conception of adulthood–and what the child should become–as they are about childhood.

See also: Child Development, History of the Concept of; Child Psychology; Media, Childhood and the; Theories of Childhood.


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