URBS 4/581—Selected Topics:  Growing Up in Cities

Play—the Work of the Child

a.       Play is the work of the child—it is the “typical” behavior of children, and it is central to understanding the “culture” of these exotic creatures, children. 


b.      The Psychology of Play (Millar, 1968):

The term “play” is usually applied to behavior which, to the observer, appears to be neither the result of a plan nor out of the person’s control.  Frequently, it is recognizable behavior occurring in the wrong context.


Over the years, a number of theories have been advanced to explain why human beings engage in play behavior.  They include:  Surplus energy (it’s a way of burning off excess energy).  Recapitulation (it’s going back over past lessons & skills, running variations on the theme).  Practice of skills (it’s an evolutionary strategy for keeping key skills honed).  Attitude (it’s not the behavior that makes it play, but the motivation behind the activity—with the right attitude, anything can be play).  More sophisticated theories, based on personality theory, include:  Instinct theory (play is ‘irrelevant’ behavior which is left over from the evolutionary process).  Vacuum activities (internal hormonal states trigger responses in the absence of the usual stimuli).  Displacement (occurs when an ongoing activity is checked; the remaining energy is displaced into playful behavior).  Learning (play is an exploratory response to novelty and change).  Piaget (play is assimilative behavior, repeating an action to consolidate the experience).


There are a number of types of play.  Sometimes it is general motor activity in response to environmental conditions (think of kids on the playground at recess).  Sometimes it is functional behavior occurring out of context (“practice play”—like practicing hitting a tennis ball against a wall).  A more complicated form of the same idea is social play (think of kids “playing house”).  And sometimes it is just exploration and manipulation of the environment for no discernable reason (like a kid lying on the grass watching ants go marching by).  General exploration play can take many sub-forms.  Practice play, for example, can be exploration in response to a novel stimulus, or it can be manipulative play to produce changes, or it can combine the two into repetition with variation (“ringing the changes”) of some response. 


A key element in play is determining what captures a child’s attention.  Novelty and change of all kinds attract attention, but puzzling objects sustain attention longer than simple novelty.  Complexity also compels attention.  Also, anything that is “significant” (reinforcing or expected) will be more likely to be noticed.


Another key element in play is often (but not necessarily) fantasy and imitation.  In make-believe play, a child explores feelings and emotions in much the same way that perceptions of the external world are explored.  Through repetition, the child can lessen the impact of even the strongest impression.  Imitation, on the other hand, is a sort of “practical fantasy.”  Children are more likely to imitate someone who is held in high prestige, perhaps because of individual characteristics or because of “status prestige,” such as gender or income.  Finally, “social play” appears to proceed through a series of developmental steps, from solitary play to parallel play (playing side by side, but not interacting) to associative play (playing “together,” although not particularly adjusting to each other’s actions) to cooperative play. 


There are, of course, individual differences in play which can be attributed to a number of influences:  Intellectual ability, for example, can have an effect on the status of the individuals when they participate in social play (although it appears that there are few other clear effects due to cognitive ability).  Boys tend to be more boisterous (or, “boy-sterous”) and play more complicated games (although the research demonstrating this is quite old, and gender roles may have been transformed since then); girls were found to play more with language and to rely more on their peers in play situations.  In terms of stimulation from early experience, children who were raised in institutions tend to be less advanced in social and language skills, but it does not appear to affect their motor development.  Parental attitudes also play a role.  Permissive parents produced children who were more outgoing, inquisitive, and original; and boys in father-absent homes were less aggressive.  Finally, cultural studies have shown that American children have more free time and more toys.  American parents feel responsible for making their children happy.  The Nyansongo, for example, have no toys and free time only after their chores are completed; play is not encouraged.  The Rajputs have ample free time, but few toys.  Okinawan children also have free time and few toys, but they make their own and engage in more imaginative play.  Some studies have demonstrated that fewer toys are correlated with more social contact.  On the other hand, children with more toys engage in less social contact, but they also show more exploratory behavior.


c.       Play as a Learning Medium (Sponseller, 1974).

Play as a medium implies several key components:

·        A condition in which supports the growth and development  of cognitive structures

·        A means by which a child works out thoughts and feelings

·        A means for a child to communicate thoughts and feelings to others

·        A supportive environment for a young child’s activity

·        A technical means for actively expressing learning


Play can be defined, not as an activity but as the reason for an activity.  Any activity done for its own sake is play.  Eva Neumann (Elements of Play, 1971), for example, described a continuum from work to play, involving three factors:  Control (play uses internalized control, rather than the external controls of a work environment), Reality (play suspends reality), and Motivation (play is internally motivated, rather than, for example, being motivated by money or power—these things turn play serious).  Lieberman (1965) found that playfulness correlates with divergent thinking, and is marked by spontaneity (physical, social and cognitive), manifest joy, and a sense of humor.  Piaget argued that spontaneous play should predominate, to permit the child to take in reality in his/her own egocentric way.


Sponseller  also  identifies a number of theories which have been used to explain playful behavior.  Some of the oldest theories talk about it as releasing surplus energy, others as providing relaxation from strenuous exertion.  Some consider it “pre-exercise” (sort of a rehearsal, if you will), others as “recapitulation” (replaying the main event).  Psychoanalytic (Freudian) theory considers play to be a cathartic activity (an emotional release) which allows the child to express and master  difficult situations; Piaget considers it to be representation (an  intellectual activity) by which the child manipulates the world to see how it fits cognitive schemas (“ideas,” sort of).  Michael Ellis (Why People Play, 1973) argues that it is motivated by a desire to achieve competence or to seek arousal (“get a thrill”). 


Whatever the motivation, Krown (1974) argues that play can be shaped.  This is done, for example, by startling a person out of vagueness into purposeful activity.  Sometimes all  it takes is new material to stimulate play activity (add one refrigerator box and see what happens), or asking a question or two to stimulate more detailed observation and play (“How do you think the astronauts feel when they are in the shuttle?”).  Sponseller & Lowry (1974) categorize play into three categories—symbolic, practice,  and games. 


In any event, the ability to play with an object or concept is a prerequisite for discovery learning, and it is necessary if one is to use or invent strategies for problem solving.  In  fact, Sponseller argues that type of play and learning activity are paired along a continuum, depending on how much active guidance is given and whether the emphasis is on product or process:


Type of Play

Type of Learning

Free play


Guided play

Guided discovery

Directed  play





Drill/repetitive practice


d.      Folklore

As adults, we often delude ourselves that children learn everything of importance from us.  But in fact, they have a rich cultural life which continues beneath the recognition of the adult society in which it is embedded.  It is a rich cultural tradition, with a long and honored tradition.  Iona & Peter Opie (1959), in their classic study of children’s lore, identified a 4-line verse which children repeat almost exactly as it was recorded in 1818.  In 1956, Disney launched “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” on radio.  It begins with the lines, “Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee/Greenest State in the Land of the Free…”  While a number of parodies were recorded around the world by April, August, and September with lines like “Born on a table-top in Joe’s Café/Dirtiest Place in the USA”, the granddaddy of them appears to be the verse recorded in Sydney, Australia on January 3, 1956, “Reared on a paddle-pop in Joe’s Café/Dirtiest dump in the USA…”  As the Opies remark, “It seems that the schoolchild underground also employs trans-world couriers.”  The Opies collected children’s rhymes and riddles and games from all over England during the 1950s and discovered similar items recorded earlier—often much earlier—in literature, magazines, and personal correspondence.  They found satirical rhymes, puns, crooked answers, “Made you look,” riddles, parodies, nicknames & epithets, jeers, children’s lore about holidays and customs, oaths & assertions of truth, ways of showing friendship and partisanship, and pranks (did you know that door-knocking & bell-ringing have a long tradition—including a rhyme collected in 1925 “Me don’t know, me don’t tell/Me press button and run like hell.”) 




Franchi, A-M  (1974)  “From child to citizen:  The role of playing,” Building a World Community:  Humanism in the 21st Century

Sponseller, D  (1974)  “Designing a play environment for toddlers,” Play as a Learning Environment, pp. 81-106.  Washington, DC:  National Association for the Education of Young People.

Winn, M.  (1981) “Where did childhood innocence go?”  Minneapolis Tribune, 2/1/81

Lenhart, M.  (1981)  “Childhood isn’t what it used to be,” Christian Science Monitor, 1/21/81





© 2004 A.J.Filipovitch
Revised 2 May 2005