“Play: The voluntary activity pursued without ulterior purpose and, on the whole, with enjoyment or expectation of enjoyment” (English and English, 1958).
Early theorists, as well as those of the present day, have been fascinated by the way children play. How does a child learn social interaction with his peers? Does creativity and imagination foster a higher form of play? How do children learn to share and take turns?
Theories of Play Theories of play were first developed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Four theories affected the perception of why and how children play: the surplus energy theory, the recreation theory, the instinct theory and the recapitulation theory.
In the surplus energy theory, advocates maintained that the child builds up an excess of energy, and that active play is necessary to get rid of the surplus. Curtis (1916) proposed that when a child or animal does not need to expend all its energy in obtaining food, shelter, or gaining a living that the leftover energy would be used for play.
The recreation theory focuses on play as a way to recuperate from fatigue experienced from hard work. In other words, play restores energy and provides more benefit to the body than idleness (Mitchell and Mason, 1948).
The instinct theory, proposed by Rousseau, suggests that play is inherited and that the child will engage in behaviors and activities instinctively.
G. Stanley Hall, a leader of the child study movement, attributed play to heredity as part of the recapitulation theory. Curtis (1916) explained this theory as follows: “In this wild life of the savage there were certain activities, which were almost universal. It was necessary to pursue and capture his game, to find it while it was hiding, to strike it down with a stick or stone or shoot it with bow and arrow. Often he had to climb trees, to vault over obstacles, or leap across brooks. At other times, he was the hunted, and he had to flee or hide from such means as lay at hand. There were universal activities of savage man throughout the days of unrecorded history, and it is these same activities that survive in the play of the child” (1916, p.5).
Observations and Theories of Play in the Classroom
These four theories define how play affects child development. Within any group of young children, observers will notice all levels of socialized play. Some children will play along, being very shy and not seek interaction or show a need to be with others. Some will be content to play by themselves. Most of the time, these children will place their toys near others, but not share them with others. Other children may request toys from classmates, but not share the ones they claim. In another part of the playground, you may find children who have formed a group game made up of anyone who wants to play. Boys may only play with boys and girls may only play with other girls, and pairs of children may cooperate in imaginary play.
One purpose of a child care program is to help children grow from egocentric individuals into youngsters who can work and play cooperatively. Understanding children's developmental stage at various ages is an important part of teaching young children. The following theories and stages of play help explain how maturation takes place as children grow and develop.
Parten's Classification of Play
In 1932 Mildred B. Parten developed a system for classifying participation in play. This organization is still considered one of the best descriptions of how play develops in children (Gander, Mary and Harry W. Gardiner, 1981).
Unoccupied Play. The child is not actually “playing” but watches anything that happens to catch his interest. He may play with his own body, move around, remain in one location, or follow a teacher.
Onlooker Behavior. This stage is termed “behavior” instead of play because this child is content in watching other children.
Solitary Independent Play. Children prefer to play by themselves and are not comfortable interacting with other children. They may play apart with chosen toys, yet within speaking distance, and demonstrate little interest in making contact. Contact may consist of grabbing other children’s toys when the opportunity exists.
Parallel Play. This stage is also known as adjacent play or social coaction. Children occupy space near others, but seldom share toys or materials. They may talk, but each has their own conversation and there is no attempt to communicate with each other. As an example, one child may talk about going to the circus while another interrupts about going to a fast food restaurant.
Associate Play. Children lend, borrow, and take toys from others. However, it’s still “every child for himself.” At this stage, the children are beginning to engage in close personal contact, however, they still consider their own viewpoint as most important. Children are not yet ready to participate in teams or group work, but there should be opportunities for group work so they can gradually learn how to communicate their needs.
Cooperative Play. This stage is the highest form of children working and playing together. They share, take turns, and allow some children to serve as leaders for the group. For example, one child may be the policeman, another a nurse, while another is the mother. In cooperative play, three-year-olds play best with approximately three other children; five-year-olds can play successfully with approximately five children.
Young children, who learn to share, take turns, work and play with others show a higher degree of success later in life. Parten found that as children became older and with more opportunities for peer interaction, the nonsocial types (solitary and parallel) declined in favor of the social types (associative and cooperative) (Lorton & Walley, 1979).
Jean Piaget, the French psychologist noted for his studies of mental development in children, believed that children do not develop new cognitive structures in play, but merely try to fit new experiences into what they already know (Piaget, 1951). Throughout the stages of play development, teachers and parents have many opportunities to observe children as they grow physically, emotionally, socially, and intellectually.
Children’s play has fascinated educators, child psychologists, and scientists for centuries. Dr. Seth Scholer, author of Play Nicely and a pediatrician with the Vanderbilt Children's Hospital says, “One reason for the interest in play among theorist is that through play children learn to be creative and use their imagination.” If what children learn best is what they learn through play, then perhaps play should not only be legitimate method of teaching during the early childhood years, but should be the required method.
Carolyn Ross Tomlin is a former child care director, university professor at Union University. She is the author of What I Wish It Hadn't Taken Me So Long to Learn, available at 1stbooks.com. Tomlin contributes to numerous educational and family publications.
Bruner, J.W., (1960). The process of education. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Curtis, H.S. (1916). Education through play. New York: Macmillan.
English, H.B., and A.C. English. (1958). A comprehensive dictionary of psychological and psychoanalytic terms. New York: David McKay.
Frost, Joe L. and Sylvia Sunderlin. (1985). When children play. Wheaton, MD: Association for Childhood Education International.
Gander, Mary J. and Harry W. Gardiner (1981). Child and adolescent development. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
Groos, K. (1898). The play of animals. New York: D. Appleton.
Johnson, G.F. (1907) Education by play and games. Boston: Ginn.
Lorton, John W. & Walley, Bertha L. (1979). Introduction to early childhood education. New York: D. Van Nostrand Company.
Mitchell, E.D., and B.S. Mason (1948). The theory of play. New York: A.S. Barnes.
Parten, M.B. (1932). Social participation among pre-school children. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 27(3), 243-269.
Piaget, J., (1964). Cognitive development in children. in Piaget rediscovered. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Scholer, Seth (2001). Play nicely: Recommendations for managing aggression in young children. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt Press.