#2. What Exactly Is Play?
The defining characteristics of play hold clues to play's value in children's development.
A REASON sometimes given for the relative paucity of scientific research on play is that the concept is difficult or impossible to define. That’s a poor excuse, in my opinion, but I agree that a scientific investigation of anything must start with a shared understanding of just what it is we are investigating.
Like many English words, “play” can have various meanings. The question here is not “what is the proper definition of play,” but “what do I and most other play researchers mean by play?” How do we identify the category of activity we wish to study?
I have defined play previously in several publications, including in an invited Scholarpedia article, an academic article on why play is such a powerful vehicle for children’s learning, and my book Free to Learn. Here I will repeat some of what I’ve previously written, now oriented toward laying the groundwork for our future in-depth discussions of the roles of play in human evolution, child development, culture, and daily life.
In the Scholarpedia article I began with a brief review of how play was defined in some classic works by play scholars, and I explained that I derived my own definition by bringing together the common elements of those definitions along with my own observations and thoughts. Here, I’ll proceed directly to the definition.
Definition of Play
Play is not defined by any single identifying characteristic, but by a confluence of four characteristics. An activity is play to the degree that it contains these characteristics:
1. Play is self-chosen and self-directed.
Play is always voluntary. It is what one wants to do as opposed to what one is obliged to do. Players choose not only to play, but also what to play and how. They direct their own actions. If a coach, teacher, or anyone other than the players themselves is directing the action it is not play, or at least not fully play. Play is, among other things, how people learn to initiate and direct their own activities.
Research with young children supports the idea that this characteristic (self-chosen and self-directed) is an integral aspect of their understanding of play. A review of 12 studies in which young children were interviewed about what is or isn’t play, concluded that children understood play to be an activity “that took place with other children with little or no involvement from adults” (Goodhall & Atkinson, 2019). In one study, for example, kindergarteners who were shown pictures of children engaged in activities that looked fun generally identified the activity as play only if no adult appeared in the picture (Howard, Jenvey, & Hill, 2006). They apparently assumed that if an adult was present, the adult was controlling the activity, so it wasn’t play.
Play is self-chosen and self-directed, but, at the same time, much if not most play is social. Children want to play with other children. In social play, the players must choose together what and how they will play, so play is often preceded by a good deal of negotiation. Social play requires consensual decision-making, compromise, and cooperation, and as we go forth in this series of letters, I will discuss its value in counteracting our tendency toward aggression and domination.
2. Play is intrinsically motivated; means are more valued than ends.
Play is activity that, from the conscious perspective of the player, is done for its own sake more than for some reward outside of itself. When people are not playing, what they value most are the results of their actions. They opt, then, for the least effortful way of achieving their goal. In play, however, all this is reversed. In play, attention is focused on the means more than the ends, and players do not necessarily look for the easiest routes to achieving the ends. They may experiment with various routes and may deliberately try the most challenging ones.
Play often has goals, but the goals are experienced as part and parcel of the activity, not as the primary reason for it. Goals in play are subordinate to the means for achieving them. For example, constructive play (the playful building of things) is always directed toward the goal of creating the object that the players have in mind, but the primary objective is the creation of the object, not the having of it. Children may play intently at building a beautiful sandcastle, even though they know that when the tide rises it will be washed away. Similarly, competitive play is directed toward the goal of scoring points and winning, but if the activity is truly play, then it is the process of scoring and winning that matters to the player, not some subsequent consequence of scoring and winning, such as a trophy or increase in status.
Superficially, the statement that play is activity done for its own sake may seem to contradict evolutionary theories about play’s functions, which posit that play promotes long-term physical, intellectual, social, and emotional gains. The contradiction is resolved by appeal to the players’ conscious motives. To the degree that a person engages in an activity deliberately for its long-term benefits as opposed to its immediate enjoyment or attraction, the activity is not fully play.
People often think of play as frivolous or trivial, and, in a way, they are right. Play is not directed toward achieving serious real-world goals such as food, money, praise, or an addition to one’s résumé, so in that sense it is trivial. In a future letter, however, I will argue that this “triviality” provides the basis for play’s enormous educative power. Play is the ideal context for practicing new skills or trying out new ways of doing things precisely because it has no real-world consequence. Nobody is judging, no trophy is on the line, no teammates will be let down, and so the player is free to fail. With freedom to fail comes freedom to experiment. The play world is a simulation world; a safe and fun place to practice for the real world.
Players may exert great effort to move skillfully and create a beautiful product, but the reward comes from the doing and not from the product. Attention is focused on the activity itself, which is where it should be when learning a new skill or trying out modifications of an old one. Play is often highly repetitive, especially among children, which fits with the idea of attention to means. Children at play do the same things again and again, perhaps making small changes each time. Repetition and systematic variation are part and parcel of practice.
3. Play is guided by mental rules.
Play is freely chosen activity, but not freeform activity, not random. Play always has structure, and that structure derives from rules in the player’s mind. There is no such thing as “unstructured play.” Play is always structured by mental rules or concepts that the players either invent or freely adopt.
In social play, the rules must be shared, or at least partially shared, by all the players. The rule-based nature of play is the characteristic that the famous Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1933/1978) emphasized most strongly in an essay about the roles of play in children’s development. He argued that play is the primary means by which children learn to abide by socially agreed-upon rules, an ability that is essential to life in any human society.
The rule-based nature of play is an extension of the previous point about the prominence of means in play. The rules of play are an essential aspect of the means. The rules provide boundaries within which the actions must occur.
Different types of play have different types of rules. A basic rule of constructive play, for example, is that you must work with the chosen medium in a manner aimed at producing or depicting some specific object or design that you have in mind, such as a sandcastle. In shared fantasy play, as when children play “house” or pretend to be superheroes, the fundamental rule is that players must abide by their shared understanding of the roles they are playing; they must stay in character. The pet dog in a game of house must walk or crawl on all fours and say “arf, arf,” no matter how much the player might want to stand up and talk like a person. This takes great self control.
Even playful fighting and chasing, which may look wild to the observer, is constrained by rules. An always-present rule in children’s play fighting, for example, is that the players mimic some of the actions of serious fighting, but don’t really hurt the other person. They don’t hit with all their force (at least not if they are the stronger of the two); don’t kick, bite, scratch, or throw the other person down on a hard surface. Because of its rule-based nature, play is always an exercise in self-restraint.
4. Play is always creative and usually imaginative.
The rules of play provide boundaries within which the actions must occur, but they do not precisely dictate the actions. The rules always leave plenty of room for creativity. Activities that are precisely prescribed by rules are better referred to as rituals than as play. Play is always creative. It is the primary means by which all of us exercise our capacity for creativity.
Most play is not only creative, but also imaginative. Imagination is most obvious in fantasy play, where the players create the characters and plot, but it is also present to varying degrees in most other forms of human play. In rough and tumble physical play, the fight is a pretend one, not a real one. In constructive play, the players may say they are building a castle from sand, but they know it is a pretend castle. In formal games with explicit rules, the players must accept an already established fictional situation that provides the foundation for the rules. For example, in the real world you can get home by any of an infinite number of routes, whenever you choose, but in the fantasy world of baseball you must get “home” by running from base to base around a diamond-shaped path, only after a pitch occurs. Play is embodied fiction.
The activities we most clearly understand to be play involve “time in” and “time out.” Time in is time in the play world, and time out is time back in the serious world, perhaps to tie your shoes, or go to the bathroom, or renegotiate the rules.
The imaginative aspect of play is the characteristic most strongly emphasized by researchers who focus on play’s role in developing the ability to think beyond the concrete here-and-now. As Vygotsky (1933/1978) pointed out, play’s imaginative nature is, in a sense, the flip side of play’s rule-based nature. To the degree that play takes place in an imagined world, the players’ actions must be governed by rules that are in the minds of the players rather than by laws of nature or impulsive instincts. Three- and four-year-olds who imagine there is a troll under the bridge (under the kitchen table) are thinking hypothetically, and when one says, “Oh, we better not go under the bridge,” they are engaging hypothetico-deductive reasoning, which some logicians consider to be the highest level of human thought.
Play is not necessarily all or none.
If all four of the characteristics described above are fully present, we can call the activity pure play. Pure play is most often observed in children. Children are biologically designed for it, and in subsequent letters I will describe why that is so.
We adults are, for good evolutionary reasons, generally more oriented toward meeting real-world responsibilities than toward activities conducted for their own sake, so pure play is less natural and less common for us than for children. Yet, as I will argue through many upcoming letters, we can bring elements of play into even our most practical real-world endeavors. We can enjoy life more, and even fulfill our obligations better, if we carry out our obligations in a playful manner. Activities are playful to the degree that they involve some of the characteristics described above. In discussing adult activities, I will likely use the adjective “playful” more than the noun “play.”
And now, I invite your thoughts and questions. I enjoy comments and learn from them. I might not have time to respond to all comments, but I will aim to read them all and they will affect my thinking and writing as we go along. Of course, I encourage a respectful attitude in all comments, especially when responding to someone else’s comment.
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Goodhall, N., & C. Atkinson, (2019). How do children distinguish between ‘play’ and ‘work’? Conclusions from the literature. Early Child Development and Care,189, 1695-1708.
Howard, J., V. Jenvey, & C. Hill (2006). Children’s categorisation of play and learning based on social context. Early Child Development and Care, 176, 379-393.
Vygotsky, L (1933, reprinted 1978). Play and its role in the mental development of the child. In M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Sourberman (Eds.), Mind and Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.