Basic Elements of Children's Play

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When teachers or parents speak of children's play, they tend to mean behavior that shows many or most of the following qualities in combination. Note, though, that each defining quality is limited; it is always possible to think of an activity we might call "play" that does NOT show the quality in question, or at least does not show it in pure form.

Defining Quality of Play

Critique of Defining Quality

Intrinsically motivated--play is usually chosen by the person himself or herself; it is not the result of carrying out someone else's orders.
Daily recess at school is usually considered "play," even though children usually must participate, and must participate according to rules set by school authorities.
Focused on means, not ends--play is not concerned about the quality of a product or of a performance; it is more about the doing than about the result of doing.
What about "play" in which a child seems to be perfecting a skill, such as roller-blading or break-dancing? In such play the child is interested in both the doing and the quality of the result.
Nonliteral, symbolic behavior--play is about make-believe or pretense, as when children "play house" or improvise other dramas.
This quality may be present in many examples of play, but it leaves out many forms of sensory play, as when children play with finger paints, or experiment in a sand box or in a water table.
Free from external rules or constraints--play is usually governed or structured by the child, not by external authorities.
Does this defining quality rule out children's games with rules, such as hop scotch, jump rope, and the like? The rules of these games do not usually come from adults, but they do come from an external authority--i.e. from peers.
Focused on what child can do with object, not on the constraints of the object--in play, objects meant for a particular purpose can be used for some entirely different purpose.
This may be true sometimes, but is obviously not true all of the time. Even if a child uses a banana as a telephone in an incident of make-believe play, she can still pretend to make phone calls if provided with a real telephone as a prop.
Actively engaged--play involves overt activity by the child; it is not inherently quiet or inactive.
Where does this definition leave a child's inner imagination? Don't flights of fancy also quality as a type of play?

Ideas for Using the Above Chart:

  • Before showing students the chart above, ask students to create their own definitions of play. Then discuss how their definitions compare to the definitions in the chart.
  • Show students only the left side of the chart (just the definitions), and ask them to think of examples of each quality based on their own experience and/or their own lives. If one defining quality is harder to illustrate than another, talk about why this may be so.
  • Talk about whether the "imperfections" of each defining quality, taken singly, really invalidates the entire list of qualities. If the list is considered as a whole, does it do a better job of defining play than if each quality is considered by itself?
  • A discussion question for education students who work with older children or with adults: How would the above six qualities need to be modified in order to describe play--or something akin to "play"--among older children or adults?

- Seifert Seifert Jan 14, 2011