Title: What Is Play? Exploring Its Characteristics

Published on 26th June, 2023 by Abelle Wee

Title: What Is Play? Exploring Its Characteristics

Play is the work of children. Through play, children understand more about the world and master new learned skills. It is also through play that we get to peek into a child’s world.

There are many definitions of play, one such is

“Play is the expression of intentional states—there presentations in consciousness constructed from what children know about and are learning from ongoing events—and consists of spontaneous, naturally occurring activities with objects that engage attention and interest. Play may or may not involve caregivers or peers, may or may not involve a display of affect, and may or may not involve pretence” (Lifter and Bloom, 1998).

However, the consensus across multi-disciplines and key Play Theorists is the importance of play in holistic child development.

The characteristics of play are:

  1. Active. Children use their bodies and minds in their play. They interact with the environment, with materials and with other people.
  2. Adventurous and risky. Play helps children to explore the unknown. The pretend element offers a safety net that encourages children to take risks.
  3. Communicative. Children share information and knowledge through their play. Their communication can be verbal or non-verbal, simple, or complex.
  4. Enjoyable. Play is fun and exciting and involves a sense of humour. Involved Children become deeply absorbed and focused in their play, concentrating and thinking about what they are doing.
  5. Meaningful. Children play about what they have seen and heard, and what they know. Play helps them to build and extend their knowledge, understanding and skills in a way that makes sense to them.
  6. Sociable and interactive. Children play alongside or with others. Sometimes they also like and need to play alone.
  7. Symbolic. Children imagine and pretend when they are playing. They try out ideas, feelings and roles. They re-enact the past and rehearse the future. This can involve them ‘reading’ and ‘writing’ long before they develop these skills.
  8. Therapeutic. Play helps children to express and work through emotions and experiences. Voluntary Children choose to play. Their play is spontaneous. They shape it as they go, changing the characters, events, objects, and locations.

(Learning and Developing Through Play, 2009, p. 53)

Play can be categorised into two dimensions: Social and Cognitive aspect.

The social aspect of play follows works of sociologist Mildred Parten Newhall (1932):
Play Age Description
Unoccupied play 0 to 3 months When children usually make random and involuntary movements in preparation for the subsequent levels of play.
Solitary Play 3 months to 2.5 years At this stage, children spend much of their time playing on their own and may not notice others around them. They engage in exploration of the world by interacting with objects around them such as touching, banging, or mouthing. Their movements begin to become more targeted and intentional.
Onlooker play 2.5 to 3.5 years During the toddler years, a child will begin to watch other children play but may not enter that play situation. They will begin to learn how to relate to others and develop their social skills.
Parallel play 3.5 to 4 years A child in this stage will play independently beside other children but with little to no social engagement.
Associative play 4 to 4.5 years A higher interest in other children start to develop at this stage and children may begin to socialise with one another. The type of play is usually unstructured and disorganized. However, through Associative play, children learn the rules of social engagement such as sharing, turn-taking, negotiation which further encourages language development.
Cooperative play 4.5 years and above As a child’s play with others become more organized, a common goal is developed where social contracts come into the picture. Children learn to engage in play within boundaries, problem-solve, and regulate their emotions. This leads to participation in more structured games with rules and eventually team sports.
The cognitive aspect of play was derived from the works of pioneer Play Theorists such as Piaget or Vygotsky, to form more commonly used categories of play.
Type of Play Description
Construction Play Building or constructing something new using multiple objects and materials that are natural (e.g., sand) or manufactured (e.g., LEGO blocks), and involves the manipulation of more than one element of the play environment.
Digital/technology play Engaging in video games on computer, electronic toys or tablets, and the creation of digital content.
Exploratory Play One of the earliest types of play that infants engage in, it involves the use of sensorimotor skills to learn about their environment, explore novel materials and their properties, and deciding what can be done with them (e.g., hitting a cup, squishing Play-Doh).
Games with rules Most play have flexible rules and it begins with simple social games like peek-a-boo or turn taking games. As language develops, rules become more apparent and are an important part of pretend play when rules are to be negotiated on what is allowed or not allowed. More conventional games with rules are boardgames or card games.
Language/communication play Involves the play on sound and words in an often rhythmic and repetitive sequence that children adapt or invent (i.e., nonsense words, jokes, rhymes).
Physical play Large-motor play: Using large full body movements and explore ways to combine movements such as running, climbing, dancing, or navigating playground. Includes rough-and-tumble play where children chase, wrestle, playfight with one another. Small-motor play: The development, practice, and mastery of fine motor skills such as finger and hand dexterity, and eye-hand coordination (e.g., threading, jigsaw puzzles).
Pretend Play Dramatic Play: The re-enacting of daily events or situations that the child has experienced through observation of others and themselves. (e.g., combing dolls hair, animating a figurine). Role Play: Where children change their behaviour to assume a role of another by acting out the experiences, ideas, or stories in a safe way (e.g., pretending to put out a fire, going shopping and paying for items). Socio-dramatic play: It is the combination of dramatic and social play that involves taking on a social role, elaborates on a common theme with interactions and verbal communication between more than one play partner regarding the play event. Symbolic play: Using object substitution (e.g., using a box as a house) or action substitution (e.g., bringing hand to ear pretending to hold a phone) which is a fluid process of fantasy and imagination.

Adapted from Burghardt (2011), Huges (2002) and Miller and Almon (2009).

Abelle Wee

About the Author - Abelle Wee

Abelle is a Senior Occupational Therapist who is an advocate for Play and believes it is the foundational occupation of early development to promote social, motor and cognitive skills. She also prioritizes building strong relationships with clients and their families, incorporating family centered principles in her practice. Through parent or caregiver coaching, she has supported many families and clients in their natural environment, empowering them to lead meaningful lives.

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