The Importance of Play

How has play evolved?

“It has been recognised for some time that, through evolution, as more and more complex animals evolved, the size of their brains increased, and this was associated with increasingly longer periods of biological immaturity (i.e. the length of time the young were cared for by their parents), paralleled by increasing playfulness (Bruner, 1972). ”

“Thus, as mammals evolved into primates, and as primates evolved into humans, there was an increase in problem-solving abilities allowing greater ‘tool use’ and an increase in ‘representational’ abilities supporting the development of language and thought. Paralleling this, in mammals we see the emergence of physical play (mostly ‘rough and tumble’); in primates we see ‘play with objects’ developing and simple tool use, and in humans we see the emergence of ‘symbolic’ forms of play (including verbal and artistic expression, pretence, role-play and games with rules) which depend upon our ‘symbolic’ abilities such as language. This analysis of the evolution of play, and its most glorious manifestation in humans, has led researchers in this area to argue that playfulness is fundamental to the development of uniquely human abilities. Pellegrini (2009), for example, has concluded that, in animals and humans, play (as opposed to ‘work’) contexts free individuals to focus on ‘means’ rather than ‘ends’. Unfettered from the instrumental constraints of the work 15 context, where you have to get something done, in play the individual can try out new behaviours, exaggerate, modify, abbreviate or change the sequence of behaviours, endlessly repeat slight variations of behaviours, and so on. It is this characteristic of play, it is argued, that gives it a vital role in the development of problem-solving skills in primates, and the whole gamut of higher-order cognitive and social-emotional skills developed by humans. The evolutionary perspective has thus contributed significantly to the emerging consensus around the psychological functions of play and an agreed typology of play based on its adaptive psychological functions (which we detail below).”

What is the historical significance of play?

Research regarding play has shown that play is consistently present across time and in all cultures as demonstrated in the support which it is given by adults in all societies and cultures through the manufacture of toys and play equipment as well as the fact that play is historically multi-faceted in all societies and cultures with slight variations in form and prevalence.  The differences that exist in the nature of play across various cultures and societies is rooted in the attitudes regarding the function of play and importance of childhood.  It is clear that play has existed and been supported by adults in a number of cultures for many millions of years by the evidence of the existence of toys made out of sticks and stones in even the most primitive of cultures.  Historians have found play to be a consistent characteristic of childhood since ancient times.

According to Whitebread (2012), Plato (427-347 BC), Aristotle (384-322 BC), and Quintilian (35–97 AD) all advocated for the value of play:

  • Plato
    • advocated the use of free-play, gymnastics, and music as a means of developing skills for adult life.
  • Aristotle
    • emphasized the value of play and physical activities for overall child development.
  • Quintilian
    • recommended free play as the earliest form of instruction.

 

Philosophy about play has been influenced by others various thinkers and educators across history such as:

  • Johann Pestalozzi (1805)
    • established his own institute for children in Switzerland.
  • Friedrich Froebel (1837)
    • established the first kindergarten in Germany and was the first to use the term ‘playground’ to describe a child’s play structure developed by adults.

“Ideas such as developmentally appropriate education, play-based pedagogy, learning through first-hand experience, the importance of vigorous play for healthy development and adult participation in children’s play can be seen clearly articulated by the thinkers and educators of these times, including Martin Luther, John Amos Comenius and John Locke.”

“Tamis-LeMonda and Bornstein (1989), for example, have demonstrated that infant habituation (an established measure of how quickly an infant processes information, strongly related to emerging cognitive abilities) predicts the amount of symbolic play children engage in a few years later. We also now have extensive evidence of the inter-relationships between the complexity and sophistication of children’s play, particularly their symbolic or pretend play, and their emotional well-being (sometimes assessed through physiological measures of stress) (Bornstein (2006).”

“Much of the contemporary work on children’s play within developmental psychology, however, has built on the influential theories of the Russian psychologist of the first part of the 20th century, Lev Vygotsky (1896 – 1934). His writings were suppressed in Stalin’s era and not published in English until the 1970s. Since that time, however, his ideas about the processes of children’s learning have been enormously influential. His key insight as regards the role of play (Vygotsky, 1978) was that it makes two crucial contributions to children’s developing abilities, which relate to their development of language (and other human forms of ‘symbolic representation’) and to their developing abilities to control their own cognitive and emotional processes, or to ‘self-regulate’. The significance of this insight has become increasingly recognised as the evidence has mounted that these two abilities, language and self-regulation, are intimately inter-related (Vallaton and Ayoub, 2011) and together form 16 the most powerful predictors of children’s academic achievement and of their emotional well-being (Whitebread, 2011). As regards language, Vygotsky argued that play makes a crucial contribution to the development of the unique human aptitude for using various forms of symbolic representation, whereby various kinds of symbols carry specific, culturally defined meanings. These forms of symbolic representation include drawing and other forms of visual art, visual imagination, language in all its various forms, mathematical symbol systems, musical notation, dance, drama and so on. Play is recognised in this analysis as the first medium through which children explore the use of symbol systems, most obviously through pretence. The co-occurrence in infants of the emergence of pretend play and the use of sounds to carry meaning (the beginnings of language) around the age of ten to fourteen months is widely reported, and clear support for Vygotsky’s analysis of the involvement of pretence in the early development of symbolic representational abilities. Vygotsky went on to argue that pretence play becomes a ‘transition’ from the ‘purely situational constraints of early childhood’ to the adult capability for abstract thought. Children, he argued, require the support of real situations and objects with which to work out ideas through play. Thus play both allows children to consolidate their understandings of their world and facilitates their development of the representational abilities they will use to think through ideas as an adult. As further evidence to support this view, Vygotsky noted that certain types of children’s play (mostly play with objects and pretence) are often accompanied by self-directed or ‘private’ speech, where children are observed to selfcommentate as they play. This phenomenon has been the subject of extensive and ongoing research within developmental psychology, and Vygotsky’s view has been consistently supported (Winsler and Naglieri, 2003; Fernyhough and Fradley, 2005). The production of private speech is extremely common during these types of children’s play and is clearly associated with episodes of challenge and problem-solving. The role of play in supporting children’s development of ‘metacognitive’ and self-regulatory abilities is also an area of current research development. Metacognitive abilities concern our developing awareness of our own cognitive and emotional processes, and our 17 development of strategies to control them. It is now clearly established that children begin to develop this awareness and control very early in life, that significant individual differences are quickly established which have long-lasting consequences for achievement and well-being, that these abilities are learnt, and can be taught, and that the various types of play form a powerful context for their development (Whitebread and Pino Pasternak, 2010; Whitebread, 2010, 2011). Karpov (2005) has produced a useful review of research by Russian psychologists, who describe themselves as neo-Vygotskians, who have explored the development of cognitive self-regulation and control relating to particular types of play. For example, a study of three to seven year old children ‘standing sentry’ by Manuilenko (1948; reported in Karpov, 2005) supported Vygotsky’s suggestion that children’s use of verbal tools to regulate the behaviour of others was a significant factor in their development of self-regulation. Children standing sentry in a room containing playmates managed to stand motionless for significantly longer than when they were on their own. This appeared to be a consequence of the playmates ‘monitoring’ the ‘sentry’s’ performance. Other studies of the emergence of self-regulatory abilities in young children within educational contexts have shown that these are mainly demonstrated in playful contexts of different types (Whitebread et al 2007). A further body of research has investigated the role of pretence/socio-dramatic play in the development of emotional self-regulation. Berk, Mann and Ogan (2006), for example, have reported on a number of studies investigating how young children learn to cope with emotionally arousing or stressful events, particularly through this type of play. The evidence indicates that children spontaneously engage in socio-dramatic pretence play relating to stressful or traumatic situations arising in their experience (e.g.: going to the dentist, or the hospital), and that this type of play can be very productively facilitated and supported by adults in therapeutic contexts with children who have been subjected to abuse, experienced profound grief, etc. (Clark, 2006).”

How does play differ in various cultures?

According to Whitebread (2012), Gaskins, Haight, and Lancy (2007) identify three basic perceptions of play which have significant impact upon the pattern of children’s play and how parents are involved:

  • Culturally curtailed play
    • in some pre-industrial societies play is tolerated but viewed as being of limited value and certain types of play are culturally discouraged. For example, in Gaskins (2000) study of the Mayan people in the Yucatan she found that pretence involving any kind of fiction or fantasy was regarded as telling lies.
  • Culturally accepted play
    • in pre-industrial societies parents expect children to play and view it as useful to keep the children busy and out of the way, until they are old enough to be useful, but they do not encourage it or generally participate in it. Consequently the children play more with other children unsupervised by adults, in spaces not especially structured for play, and with naturally available objects rather than manufactured toys.
  • Culturally cultivated play
    • middle-class Euro-American families tend to view play as the child’s work; play is encouraged and adults view it as important to play with their children. The children also often spend time with professional carers, who view it as an important part of their role to play with the children to encourage learning. The style and content of this involvement varies, however; a study of mothers in Taiwan found that they directed the play much more than Euro – American parents and 12 focused on socially acceptable behaviour, rather than encouraging the child’s independence.

How does safety/risk and parental time availability effect a child’s play experiences?

“A currently emerging cultural difference within modern Euro-American societies involves attitudes to risk; in the heavily urbanised UK, for example, the culture is currently quite riskaverse, and so children are heavily supervised and play indoors, in their gardens and in specially designed play spaces with safety surfaces. In the more rural and thinly populated Scandinavian countries, however, children are much more encouraged to play outdoors and in natural surroundings, and are far less closely supervised. At the same time, many parents across the developed countries of the world have reported in a number of surveys that they feel they do not have sufficient time to play with their children. This was a clear finding, for example, of a survey carried out by the LEGO Learning Institute (2000) of parents in France, Germany, the UK, Japan and the USA. The evidence suggests that modern, urbanised life styles often result in a pattern whereby children are much more heavily scheduled during their leisure time than was the case in the recent past. Lester and Russell (2010), in a major review of research examining children’s contemporary play opportunities worldwide, provide a very useful and compelling review of the environmental ‘stressors’ in modern life, associated with increasing urbanisation, which impact negatively on children’s play experiences. Within this, they make the telling point that half the world’s children will very soon be living in cities. The concern of many commentators is that the resulting pattern of children being over-supervised and overscheduled, with decreasing amounts of time to play with their peers or parents, is likely to have an adverse effect on children’s independence skills, their resourcefulness and the whole range of developmental benefits which we document in the following section. In the 13 LEGO Learning Institute (2000) study a review of newspapers and periodicals demonstrated that there have been extensive debates about this issue in the public press from at least the mid 1990s onwards. Many parents, in their response to the survey they completed, indicated clearly that they recognise these problems in their own lives, and would very much welcome the opportunity to provide improved quality of play experiences for their children.”

“There is a concern that children, largely as a consequence of the pressures of urban living discussed above, with the loss of natural environments and concerns about safety, are oversupervised and do not have the opportunities for ‘risky’ outdoor physical play that supports their developing independence, resourcefulness and self-regulation. A general recognition of this concern is at the basis of pressures to provide outdoor play spaces for children living in urban environments. Amongst early years practitioners these concerns have led to a recent resurgence in the provision of outdoor play, and an increasing interest in Forest schools and the outdoor schools in some areas of Scandinavia (Tovey, 2007; Frost, 2010). ”

“There are two types of factors which influence the extent to which children are playful. These consist of environmental and social factors which support or inhibit children’s natural playfulness and factors related to provision of opportunities. A range of evidence has indicated that playfulness in children is both an indication of mental well-being and is supported by it. In this literature the two key issues which emerge relate 25 to young children’s formation of secure emotional attachments and to the role of stress. Arising originally from the seminal work of Bowlby (1953) and Ainsworth et al. (1978), we now have abundant evidence that the formation of secure emotional attachments early in a child’s life has significant consequences for healthy brain development (Swain et al, 2007), for emotion regulation and the ability to show empathy, form emotional relationships and friendships with others (Feldman, 2007), for emotional resilience (Schore, 2001) and for playfulness (Panksepp, 2001). Of particular importance in this area is the crucial role of playfulness in children’s formation and maintenance of friendships, which are, in turn, fundamentally important in supporting healthy social and emotional development (Panksepp, 2007). The role of secure emotional attachments in supporting children’s ability to cope with anxiety and stress is also of particular significance. However, here the picture is quite complex, as a certain level of stress or unpredictability in the environment appears to support the development of children’s resilience and playfulness, whereas high levels of stress clearly lead to a reduction in the amount of play in which children engage (Burghardt, 2005). The US National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2005) make the distinction between the ‘positive stress’ which arises from children living in emotionally supportive and stimulating environments containing elements of uncertainty, which supports playfulness and the development of resilience, and ‘toxic stress’, where children are unsupported and subjected to severely and consistently stressful situations. Lester and Russell (2010) have provided a powerful analysis of the ‘environmental stressors’ experienced by children across the world. From this analysis it is clear that some of the most vulnerable groups of children are those living in cities and urbanised contexts. Children living in poverty in these environments are often malnourished, a situation which, since playfulness requires metabolic energy (Burghardt, 2005), is often associated with low levels of play. As a consequence of the stress on their parents, they are also less likely to receive sensitive parenting leading to secure attachments. A number of studies in the UK, for example, have linked poverty, parental stress, inadequate parenting and children’s mental health problems (Russell et al, 2008). Meltzer et al (2000) estimated that children 26 living in low-income households are nearly three times as likely to suffer mental health problems. Living in urban environments can also have negative effects on the playfulness of children who are fortunate to live in supportive households, but whose parents, carers and teachers, perceiving a range of environmental hazards and dangers, become overly risk-averse and over-protect and over-supervise their children (Veitch et al, 2006). This leads us into the second category of factors which can support or inhibit children’s play, which relate to opportunities provided for play. A study by Shier (2008) clearly illustrates this issue. This compared opportunities for play and attitudes to safety while playing outdoors between children living in Nicaragua and the UK. While the children in Nicaragua enjoyed a high level of independent mobility and developed self-reliance attitudes towards safety while swimming in lakes, climbing trees etc., the children in the UK were much more closely supervised and did not generally experience these opportunities. This problem of parental over-supervision and over-scheduling of children has arisen quite recently, just in the last few decades. However, according to a survey of parental attitudes in sixteen countries (Singer et al., 2009) this is now a worldwide issue. Mothers in this survey, from countries across Europe and in four other continents, reported fears about allowing their children to play outside related to increases in traffic, crime, harassment and violence, possible abduction, dirt and germs, and many more similar issues. A report written for the UK National Trust (Moss, 2012) cites evidence that the area where children are allowed to range unsupervised around their homes has shrunk by 90% since the 1970s. At the same time, in the UK and many other countries, rates of obesity, self-harm and mental health disorders diagnosed in children have climbed significantly. This is attributed to a now well recognised phenomena of ‘nature deficit disorder’ (Louv, 2005) arising from children having very limited access to the outdoors and natural environments. Even the most playfully inclined children will not be able to play, sufficiently for them to reap the benefits in terms of their learning and development, if they are not given the time, the space and the independence to develop their own spontaneous and self-initiated play activities. Lester and Russell (2010) provide a very useful review of the now quite extensive 27 literature studying children’s use of urban and rural spaces for playful purposes. What emerges from this is that, in their play, children appropriate different spaces and features within their environment which are quite unpredictable by adults, and that the richest play spaces are mostly natural and unplanned. Many urban playgrounds, designed by adults, are often too neat and tidy, and essentially often rather barren as regards playful opportunities. The most successful urban play environments are ‘adventure playgrounds’ which are set up so that children can adapt them and build their own spaces, using a range of natural and man-made building materials (Bartlett, 2002). Having said all this, of course, much very productive playful activity can and does take place in the home and (although unfortunately to a markedly declining degree in a number of European countries) in early care and educational settings and schools. Three key factors emerge from the research concerning the support for play in these environments. These relate to the level of stimulation, the quality of interactions with adults, and the degree of independence or autonomy offered to the children concerning their play. The latter two issues have been addressed earlier in the report. As regards stimulation, within indoor environments, this is mostly related to the provision of play materials and toys which support the five types of play identified earlier in this report. It has been established for some time, through a number of studies, that access to a variety of materials and toys is related to children’s cognitive development (Bradley, 1985). Within this general position it is well established that materials and toys support play most effectively when they are open and flexible and provide children with a wealth of opportunities for creativity, for social interaction with their peers and adults, for authorship and for deep engagement (Gauntlett et al., 2010). However, beyond this there is currently a paucity of research as to the qualities of specific types of materials and toys, related to the different types of play, which most effectively support playfulness, learning and development. Recent studies by Howard and colleagues, for example, have shown that a key factor in children engaging with and learning most effectively from activities with toys and other materials, is that they perceive the situation to be playful (Howard, 2002; McInnes, K., Howard, J., Miles, G., and Crowley, K., 2009, 2011).”

 

How is play manifested in educational settings?

“There are also currently tensions within the educational arena. Over the last ten to twenty years, the curriculum for early childhood and primary education has been increasingly prescribed by governments. While these have avowed the value of children learning through play, this has been systematically limited to children under the age of six to seven years of age. While there are many beacons of excellence, what play provision there is within educational contexts across Europe is also often ineffectively supported by inadequately trained staff. As a consequence, there has been a plethora of books published recently by early childhood educationalists and developmental psychologists setting out the value of play for children’s learning and development (see, for example, Moyles, 2010; Broadhead, Howard and Wood, 2010, Whitebread, 2011). At the same time, however, these publications consistently document the difficulties early years practitioners have in developing effective practice to support children’s learning through play, largely exacerbated by pressures to ‘cover’ the prescribed curriculum, meet government imposed standards etc. Combined with the curbs on children’s free play opportunities identified within the home context above, this leads to a worrying picture overall of children across Europe and the rest of the developed world with increasingly limited opportunities for the free play and association with their peers which were so commonly available only a generation or two ago to their parents and grandparents. Chudakoff (2007), for example, has documented the sharp decline in children’s free play with other children across the ‘Western’ world.”

What is play?

Typically seen as an immature activity, eventually outgrown, play is often considered as unimportant.  It is elusive in nature in that it is easily recognized yet notoriously difficult to define.  Nevertheless, nearly all definitions of play have in common the pretense for which play is a purposeless activity.  Google (2017) defines play via a mere six definitions; none of which depict the importance of play:

  • engage in (a game or activity) for enjoyment.
  • take part in, participate in, be involved in, compete in, do
  • amuse oneself by engaging in imaginative pretense.
  • engage in without proper seriousness or understanding.
  •  treat inconsiderately for one’s own amusement.
  • fiddle or tamper with.
  • engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.

However, Whitebread (2012) posits the value of play in three specific areas of development:

  • physical development
  • emotional development
  • cognitive development

Furthermore, Whitebread (2008) defines five types of play in which all human children engage in:

  • physical play
  • play with objects
  • symbolic play
  • pretence/socio-dramatic play
  • games with rules

Whitebread (2012) explains that although Moyles (1989) demonstrates that there is a form of play which corresponds to each aspect of a child’s development; all forms of play support aspects of physical, intellectual, and socio-emotional growth.  It is therefore posited by Whitebread (2012) that a balance of the various play forms outlined above is beneficial to a child’s development.

What is physical play?

The evolution of play began with the emergence of physical play and can be identified in reptiles, amphibians, and mammals Power, 2000; Whitebread, 2012).  This form of play typically emerges around age two years and consists of 20% of a child’s behavior by the age of five years.  Research suggests that physical play is responsible for the development of whole body coordination, hand eye coordination, and the development of strength and endurance (Pellegrini and Smith, 1998; Whitebread, 2012).

Physical play in human children consists of:

  • active exercise play
  • rough and tumble play
  • fine motor play

“Given the general difficulty with defining play, and the recognition of its complexity, it is not surprising that there have been numerous attempts to categorise different types of play. As Moyles (1989) has demonstrated, for every aspect of children’s development, there is a form of play. However, in the contemporary psychological literature the various kinds of play are generally divided into five broad types based upon the developmental purposes which each serves, partly arising from the evolutionary analyses to which we have referred above, and how each relates to and supports children’s learning. These types are commonly referred to as physical play, play with objects, symbolic play, pretence/ socio-dramatic play and games with rules. Although each type of play has a main developmental function or focus, arguably all of them support aspects of physical, intellectual and social-emotional growth. From all the available evidence, a balance of experience of each of these types of play is likely to be beneficial to children’s development.”

What is exercise play?

(e.g.: jumping, climbing, dancing, skipping, bike riding and ball play),

What is rough and tumble play?

The most researched, rough and tumble play evolved as a way for children to learn to control aggression and involves “chasing, grappling, kicking, wrestling, and rolling on the ground” (Whitebread, 2012).  This type of play emerges shortly after that of exercise play and continues to be enjoyed into adulthood (Whitebread, 2012).  Rough and tumble play can be distinguished from true aggression in the clear emotional enjoyment of the participants.  Research has shown that rough and tumble play is clearly linked to emotional and social development and understandings.  In fact, Whitebread (2012) posits that rough and tumble play is closely associated in the development of strong emotional bonds and attachments between children and parents (Jarvis, 200).

What is fine motor play?

Fine-motor play consists of that which supports the development of fine-motor hand and finger coordination (Whitebread, 2012).  Usually solitary activities such as sewing, construction etc help children to develop concentration and perseverance skills when supported by an adult (Whitebread, 2012).

(e.g.: sewing, colouring, cutting, junk modelling and manipulating action and construction toys).

What is ‘play with objects’?

“This second type of play is also widely observed in primates (Power, 2000) and in humans concerns children’s developing explorations, as young scientists, of the physical world and the objects they find within it. Play with objects begins as soon as infants can grasp and hold on to them; early investigative behaviours include mouthing/biting, rotating while looking, rubbing/stroking, hitting and dropping. This might be described as ‘sensori-motor’ play when the child is exploring how objects and materials feel and behave. From around eighteen to twenty four months toddlers begin to arrange objects, which gradually develops into sorting and classifying activities. By the age of four years, building, making and constructing behaviours emerge. As with all other types of play, play with objects often also incorporates other types of play, as it clearly has physical and manipulative aspects and often, in children, is carried out within a pretence or socio-dramatic context. When young children are making or building, they are also often developing a story or narrative. It is a relatively well-researched type of play, as it is distinctively related to the development of thinking, reasoning and problemsolving skills. When playing with objects, children set themselves goals and challenges, monitor their progress towards them, and develop an increasing repertoire of cognitive and physical skills and strategies. A study by Pellegrini and Gustafson (2005), for example, in which three to five year olds were systematically observed over an entire school year, demonstrated that the amount of playful exploration, construction and tool use in which children engaged predicted their subsequent performance on physical problem-solving tasks. Play with objects is also particularly associated with the production of ‘private speech’, with children commonly commentating on their activity. This appears to have the function of helping the child to maintain their attention, keep their goals for the activity in mind, monitor their progress, make strategic choices regarding ways to proceed, and generally regulate themselves through the task. As a consequence, construction and problem-solving play is also associated with the development of perseverance and a positive attitude towards challenge (Sylva, Bruner and Genova, 1976). Arising from these findings, a number of studies have investigated the use of constructional play as a kind of therapy with children in clinical groups characterised by problems with 21 aspects of self-regulation, such as autism and ADHD. Owens et al (2009), for example, carried out an eighteen week LEGO Therapy program with six to eleven year olds with high functioning autism and Asperger Syndrome. Maladaptive behaviours decreased significantly more in the LEGO group than in a matched no intervention control group.”

What is ‘symbolic’ play?

“As we have discussed above, humans are uniquely equipped to use a wide variety of symbolic systems including spoken language, reading and writing, number, various visual media (painting, drawing, collage) music and so on. Not surprisingly, during the first five years of life, when children are beginning to master these systems, these aspects of their learning are an important element within their play. This type of play supports their developing technical abilities to express and reflect upon their experiences, ideas and emotions. Play with language starts very early in life with children under the age of one-year-old playing with sounds, and, as they grow older, particularly playing with the sounds of the language or languages they are hearing around them. This play is a very active process and quickly develops into making up new words, playing with rhymes, and eventually young children’s love of puns and other jokes with language. Extensive research has clearly established that this type of play is a powerful support for developing language abilities and, crucially, through its support for phonological awareness, impacts upon the ease with which young children develop early literacy skills (Christie and Roskos, 2006). By placing basic numeracy in meaningful, real life contexts, play involving counting and other basic mathematical operations similarly supports young children’s ability to engage with formal mathematics with confidence (Whitebread, 2000; Carruthers and Worthington, 2006). Until fairly recently play with the various visual media had been relatively less systematically researched. Recent work, however, has strongly supported Vygotsky’s (1986) insight that there are very close links between early drawing and writing in young children’s mark making. In fascinating studies of mark making amongst chimpanzees, for example, Matthews (2011) has shown that drawing was perhaps the earliest evolving type of symbolic representation, and continues to be a significant aspect of young children’s 22 symbolic play. Studies of children’s drawings have demonstrated how through drawing, children gradually increase their ‘graphic vocabularies’, and their ability to organise graphic elements into a pictorial representation (a kind of ‘graphic grammar’), becoming increasingly able to use this mode of symbolic representation to express their meanings (Jolley, 2010; Ring, 2010). The evidence from these studies suggests that children’s visual literacy (i.e. their ability to understand pictures, photographs, diagrams, scale models, plans, maps etc) is importantly enhanced by their experiences of playing with a variety of visual media. Musical play is another very under-researched area, despite being a ubiquitous and highly significant form of play in all human cultures. From a very early age, children sing, dance and delight in exploring and making sounds of all kinds, with their own bodies and with all kinds of objects. In extensive research of early mother-infant pre-linguistic interactions, Trevarthen (1999) has clearly illustrated the role of the human infant’s innate response to rhythm and sounds in establishing early communicative abilities. A recent review of research in this area concluded that it seems likely that musical play, partly as a consequence of its powerfully social and interactive characteristics, supports a wide range of children’s developing abilities, including those related to social interaction, communication, emotion understanding, memory, self-regulation and creativity (Pound, 2010). In a study which involved 96 four-year-olds in joint music making, for example, Kirschner and Tomasello (2010) showed that these children significantly increased subsequent spontaneous cooperative and helpful behaviour, relative to a carefully matched control condition with the same level of social and linguistic interaction but no music. ”

What is ‘pretence/sociodramatic’ play?

“In the urbanised, technologically advanced modern world, this is clearly the most prevalent type of play amongst young children, emerging around the age of one year old. It is also the most heavily researched. High-quality pretend play has repeatedly been shown to be very closely associated with the development of cognitive, social and academic abilities. Studies have reported the impact of playworld experience on narrative skills in five to seven year olds (Whitebread and Jameson, 2010), of pretence play on deductive reasoning and social 23 competence, and of socio-dramatic play on improved ‘self-regulation’ among young children who are prone to be highly impulsive. A range of studies have supported Vygotsky’s (1978) insights concerning the impact of this type of play on children’s representational and self-regulatory abilities (Karpov, 2005). This is also a type of play in which a high prevalence of ‘private speech’ is commonly observed (Berk, Mann and Ogan, 2006). This type of play is often characterised and perceived as ‘free play’. Paradoxically, however, a number of studies have shown that, in fact, it makes some of the greatest demands on children’s self-restraint, or self-regulation. During sociodramatic play, in particular, children are obliged to follow the social rules governing the character they are portraying. Berk and colleagues report a number of studies with three and four year olds demonstrating a clear link between the complexity of socio-dramatic play and improvement in social responsibility. O’Connor and Stagnitti, K. (2011) have recently reported on a study of thirty five children aged five to eight in special schools, some of whom were offered a pretend play intervention. Findings revealed that the children participating in the play intervention, compared to a matched group who did not, showed a significant decrease in play deficits, became less socially disruptive and more socially connected with their peers. An aspect of socio-dramatic play which often causes concern amongst parents and teachers is that related to play with guns. However, the research evidence suggests that these concerns are misplaced and that attempts by adults to discourage or forbid them are generally counter-productive. Gun play, similar to rough-and-tumble, is easily distinguishable from real aggression or violence. In this kind of play, as in all other aspects of socio-dramatic play, children are developing their co-operative and social skills in contexts which are salient to their interests, and which arise from their real and vicarious experiences (Holland, 2003; Levin, 2006). ”

What is ‘games with rules’ play?

“Young children are strongly motivated to make sense of their world and, as part of this, they are very interested in rules. As a consequence, from a very young age, they enjoy games with rules, and frequently invent their own. Opie and Opie’s (1959) collections of children 24 games and folklore are a testament to children’s love of games with rules. These include physical games such as chasing games, hide-and-seek, throwing and catching etc. and, as children mature, more intellectual games such as board and card games, electronic and computer games, and the whole variety of sporting activities. As well as helping children to develop their understandings about rules, the main developmental contribution of playing games derives from their essentially social nature. While playing games with their friends, siblings and parents, young children are learning a range of social skills related to sharing, taking turns, understanding others’ perspectives and so on (DeVries, 2006). The use of electronic and computer games by today’s children is another particular area of anxiety for parents and teachers. The concerns here relate to violence and to the addictive nature of some games. However, the evidence in this area is equivocal. A recent survey of 346 children from the 7th and 8th grade of seven elementary schools in the United States, for example, found that playing videogames did not appear to take place at the expense of children’s other leisure activities, social integration, and school performance. There was also no significant relationship between the amount of time children spent on videogames and aggressive behaviour. Furthermore, a positive relationship was found between time spent on videogames and a child’s intelligence (Van Schie and Wiegman, 1997). Other studies in the UK have shown, furthermore, that well-designed computer games offering open-ended or problem-solving challenges to children are likely to share some of the benefits of problem-solving or constructional play with objects (Siraj-Blatchford and Whitebread, 2003).”

Is play at risk of extinction?

Whitebread (2012) describes “the widespread lack of understanding of the importance of play to be a major barrier to children’s play” noting that “public awareness programmes, particularly aimed at shifting the attitudes of adults towards the presence of children in public places from something negative and problematic to one which understands the child’s needs to explore”.  While health benefits of play are well understood in regards to physical aspects, there is a lack of awareness regarding the benefits of play when it comes to emotional and cognitive awareness.  The crucial significance of play in regards to “children’s emotional well-being, their language development and their development of metacognitive and self-regulatory abilities” makes understanding the importance of play essential.

There is a concern that children, largely as a consequence of the pressures of urban living discussed above, with the loss of natural environments and concerns about safety, are oversupervised and do not have the opportunities for ‘risky’ outdoor physical play that supports their developing independence, resourcefulness and self-regulation. A general recognition of this concern is at the basis of pressures to provide outdoor play spaces for children living in urban environments. Amongst early years practitioners these concerns have led to a recent resurgence in the provision of outdoor play, and an increasing interest in Forest schools and the outdoor schools in some areas of Scandinavia (Tovey, 2007; Frost, 2010).

20 Play with objects This second type of play is also widely observed in primates (Power, 2000) and in humans concerns children’s developing explorations, as young scientists, of the physical world and the objects they find within it. Play with objects begins as soon as infants can grasp and hold on to them; early investigative behaviours include mouthing/biting, rotating while looking, rubbing/stroking, hitting and dropping. This might be described as ‘sensori-motor’ play when the child is exploring how objects and materials feel and behave. From around eighteen to twenty four months toddlers begin to arrange objects, which gradually develops into sorting and classifying activities. By the age of four years, building, making and constructing behaviours emerge. As with all other types of play, play with objects often also incorporates other types of play, as it clearly has physical and manipulative aspects and often, in children, is carried out within a pretence or socio-dramatic context. When young children are making or building, they are also often developing a story or narrative. It is a relatively well-researched type of play, as it is distinctively related to the development of thinking, reasoning and problemsolving skills. When playing with objects, children set themselves goals and challenges, monitor their progress towards them, and develop an increasing repertoire of cognitive and physical skills and strategies. A study by Pellegrini and Gustafson (2005), for example, in which three to five year olds were systematically observed over an entire school year, demonstrated that the amount of playful exploration, construction and tool use in which children engaged predicted their subsequent performance on physical problem-solving tasks. Play with objects is also particularly associated with the production of ‘private speech’, with children commonly commentating on their activity. This appears to have the function of helping the child to maintain their attention, keep their goals for the activity in mind, monitor their progress, make strategic choices regarding ways to proceed, and generally regulate themselves through the task. As a consequence, construction and problem-solving play is also associated with the development of perseverance and a positive attitude towards challenge (Sylva, Bruner and Genova, 1976). Arising from these findings, a number of studies have investigated the use of constructional play as a kind of therapy with children in clinical groups characterised by problems with 21 aspects of self-regulation, such as autism and ADHD. Owens et al (2009), for example, carried out an eighteen week LEGO Therapy program with six to eleven year olds with high functioning autism and Asperger Syndrome. Maladaptive behaviours decreased significantly more in the LEGO group than in a matched no intervention control group. Symbolic play As we have discussed above, humans are uniquely equipped to use a wide variety of symbolic systems including spoken language, reading and writing, number, various visual media (painting, drawing, collage) music and so on. Not surprisingly, during the first five years of life, when children are beginning to master these systems, these aspects of their learning are an important element within their play. This type of play supports their developing technical abilities to express and reflect upon their experiences, ideas and emotions. Play with language starts very early in life with children under the age of one-year-old playing with sounds, and, as they grow older, particularly playing with the sounds of the language or languages they are hearing around them. This play is a very active process and quickly develops into making up new words, playing with rhymes, and eventually young children’s love of puns and other jokes with language. Extensive research has clearly established that this type of play is a powerful support for developing language abilities and, crucially, through its support for phonological awareness, impacts upon the ease with which young children develop early literacy skills (Christie and Roskos, 2006). By placing basic numeracy in meaningful, real life contexts, play involving counting and other basic mathematical operations similarly supports young children’s ability to engage with formal mathematics with confidence (Whitebread, 2000; Carruthers and Worthington, 2006). Until fairly recently play with the various visual media had been relatively less systematically researched. Recent work, however, has strongly supported Vygotsky’s (1986) insight that there are very close links between early drawing and writing in young children’s mark making. In fascinating studies of mark making amongst chimpanzees, for example, Matthews (2011) has shown that drawing was perhaps the earliest evolving type of symbolic representation, and continues to be a significant aspect of young children’s 22 symbolic play. Studies of children’s drawings have demonstrated how through drawing, children gradually increase their ‘graphic vocabularies’, and their ability to organise graphic elements into a pictorial representation (a kind of ‘graphic grammar’), becoming increasingly able to use this mode of symbolic representation to express their meanings (Jolley, 2010; Ring, 2010). The evidence from these studies suggests that children’s visual literacy (i.e. their ability to understand pictures, photographs, diagrams, scale models, plans, maps etc) is importantly enhanced by their experiences of playing with a variety of visual media. Musical play is another very under-researched area, despite being a ubiquitous and highly significant form of play in all human cultures. From a very early age, children sing, dance and delight in exploring and making sounds of all kinds, with their own bodies and with all kinds of objects. In extensive research of early mother-infant pre-linguistic interactions, Trevarthen (1999) has clearly illustrated the role of the human infant’s innate response to rhythm and sounds in establishing early communicative abilities. A recent review of research in this area concluded that it seems likely that musical play, partly as a consequence of its powerfully social and interactive characteristics, supports a wide range of children’s developing abilities, including those related to social interaction, communication, emotion understanding, memory, self-regulation and creativity (Pound, 2010). In a study which involved 96 four-year-olds in joint music making, for example, Kirschner and Tomasello (2010) showed that these children significantly increased subsequent spontaneous cooperative and helpful behaviour, relative to a carefully matched control condition with the same level of social and linguistic interaction but no music. Pretence/socio-dramatic play In the urbanised, technologically advanced modern world, this is clearly the most prevalent type of play amongst young children, emerging around the age of one year old. It is also the most heavily researched. High-quality pretend play has repeatedly been shown to be very closely associated with the development of cognitive, social and academic abilities. Studies have reported the impact of playworld experience on narrative skills in five to seven year olds (Whitebread and Jameson, 2010), of pretence play on deductive reasoning and social 23 competence, and of socio-dramatic play on improved ‘self-regulation’ among young children who are prone to be highly impulsive. A range of studies have supported Vygotsky’s (1978) insights concerning the impact of this type of play on children’s representational and self-regulatory abilities (Karpov, 2005). This is also a type of play in which a high prevalence of ‘private speech’ is commonly observed (Berk, Mann and Ogan, 2006). This type of play is often characterised and perceived as ‘free play’. Paradoxically, however, a number of studies have shown that, in fact, it makes some of the greatest demands on children’s self-restraint, or self-regulation. During sociodramatic play, in particular, children are obliged to follow the social rules governing the character they are portraying. Berk and colleagues report a number of studies with three and four year olds demonstrating a clear link between the complexity of socio-dramatic play and improvement in social responsibility. O’Connor and Stagnitti, K. (2011) have recently reported on a study of thirty five children aged five to eight in special schools, some of whom were offered a pretend play intervention. Findings revealed that the children participating in the play intervention, compared to a matched group who did not, showed a significant decrease in play deficits, became less socially disruptive and more socially connected with their peers. An aspect of socio-dramatic play which often causes concern amongst parents and teachers is that related to play with guns. However, the research evidence suggests that these concerns are misplaced and that attempts by adults to discourage or forbid them are generally counter-productive. Gun play, similar to rough-and-tumble, is easily distinguishable from real aggression or violence. In this kind of play, as in all other aspects of socio-dramatic play, children are developing their co-operative and social skills in contexts which are salient to their interests, and which arise from their real and vicarious experiences (Holland, 2003; Levin, 2006). Games with Rules Young children are strongly motivated to make sense of their world and, as part of this, they are very interested in rules. As a consequence, from a very young age, they enjoy games with rules, and frequently invent their own. Opie and Opie’s (1959) collections of children 24 games and folklore are a testament to children’s love of games with rules. These include physical games such as chasing games, hide-and-seek, throwing and catching etc. and, as children mature, more intellectual games such as board and card games, electronic and computer games, and the whole variety of sporting activities. As well as helping children to develop their understandings about rules, the main developmental contribution of playing games derives from their essentially social nature. While playing games with their friends, siblings and parents, young children are learning a range of social skills related to sharing, taking turns, understanding others’ perspectives and so on (DeVries, 2006). The use of electronic and computer games by today’s children is another particular area of anxiety for parents and teachers. The concerns here relate to violence and to the addictive nature of some games. However, the evidence in this area is equivocal. A recent survey of 346 children from the 7th and 8th grade of seven elementary schools in the United States, for example, found that playing videogames did not appear to take place at the expense of children’s other leisure activities, social integration, and school performance. There was also no significant relationship between the amount of time children spent on videogames and aggressive behaviour. Furthermore, a positive relationship was found between time spent on videogames and a child’s intelligence (Van Schie and Wiegman, 1997). Other studies in the UK have shown, furthermore, that well-designed computer games offering open-ended or problem-solving challenges to children are likely to share some of the benefits of problem-solving or constructional play with objects (Siraj-Blatchford and Whitebread, 2003).”

“However, there are variations between cultures and subcultures in attitudes to children’s play, arising from cultural values about childhood, gender and our relations with the natural world often linked to economic conditions, religious beliefs, social structures and so on. Cultural attitudes, transmitted to the children predominantly through the behaviour of their parents, affect how much play is encouraged and supported, to what age individuals are regarded as children who are expected to play, and the extent to which adults play with children.”

“Attitudes to gender in different cultures also impact upon children’s play”

“Gaskins, Haight and Lancy (2007) have identified three general cultural perceptions or views of play which seem to have a significant impact on the pattern of children’s play, and the level of involvement of their parents, as follows:  ‘Culturally curtailed play’ – in some pre-industrial societies play is tolerated but viewed as being of limited value and certain types of play are culturally discouraged. For example, in Gaskins (2000) study of the Mayan people in the Yucatan she found that pretence involving any kind of fiction or fantasy was regarded as telling lies.  ‘Culturally accepted play’ – in pre-industrial societies parents expect children to play and view it as useful to keep the children busy and out of the way, until they are old enough to be useful, but they do not encourage it or generally participate in it. Consequently the children play more with other children unsupervised by adults, in spaces not especially structured for play, and with naturally available objects rather than manufactured toys.  ‘Culturally cultivated play’ – middle-class Euro-American families tend to view play as the child’s work; play is encouraged and adults view it as important to play with their children. The children also often spend time with professional carers, who view it as an important part of their role to play with the children to encourage learning. The style and content of this involvement varies, however; a study of mothers in Taiwan found that they directed the play much more than Euro – American parents and 12 focused on socially acceptable behaviour, rather than encouraging the child’s independence.”

“The evidence suggests that modern, urbanised life styles often result in a pattern whereby children are much more heavily scheduled during their leisure time than was the case in the recent past. Lester and Russell (2010), in a major review of research examining children’s contemporary play opportunities worldwide, provide a very useful and compelling review of the environmental ‘stressors’ in modern life, associated with increasing urbanisation, which impact negatively on children’s play experiences. Within this, they make the telling point that half the world’s children will very soon be living in cities. The concern of many commentators is that the resulting pattern of children being over-supervised and overscheduled, with decreasing amounts of time to play with their peers or parents, is likely to have an adverse effect on children’s independence skills, their resourcefulness and the whole range of developmental benefits which we document in the following section.”

“Over the last ten to twenty years, the curriculum for early childhood and primary education has been increasingly prescribed by governments. While these have avowed the value of children learning through play, this has been systematically limited to children under the age of six to seven years of age.”

“At the same time, however, these publications consistently document the difficulties early years practitioners have in developing effective practice to support children’s learning through play, largely exacerbated by pressures to ‘cover’ the prescribed curriculum, meet government imposed standards etc. Combined with the curbs on children’s free play opportunities identified within the home context above, this leads to a worrying picture overall of children across Europe and the rest of the developed world with increasingly limited opportunities for the free play and association with their peers which were so commonly available only a generation or two ago to their parents and grandparents. Chudakoff (2007), for example, has documented the sharp decline in children’s free play with other children across the ‘Western’ world.”

developmental benefits of play

“It has been recognised for some time that, through evolution, as more and more complex animals evolved, the size of their brains increased, and this was associated with increasingly longer periods of biological immaturity (i.e. the length of time the young were cared for by their parents), paralleled by increasing playfulness (Bruner, 1972). ”

“Paralleling this, in mammals we see the emergence of physical play (mostly ‘rough and tumble’); in primates we see ‘play with objects’ developing and simple tool use, and in humans we see the emergence of ‘symbolic’ forms of play (including verbal and artistic expression, pretence, role-play and games with rules) which depend upon our ‘symbolic’ abilities such as language. This analysis of the evolution of play, and its most glorious manifestation in humans, has led researchers in this area to argue that playfulness is fundamental to the development of uniquely human abilities. Pellegrini (2009), for example, has concluded that, in animals and humans, play (as opposed to ‘work’) contexts free individuals to focus on ‘means’ rather than ‘ends’. Unfettered from the instrumental constraints of the work 15 context, where you have to get something done, in play the individual can try out new behaviours, exaggerate, modify, abbreviate or change the sequence of behaviours, endlessly repeat slight variations of behaviours, and so on. It is this characteristic of play, it is argued, that gives it a vital role in the development of problem-solving skills in primates, and the whole gamut of higher-order cognitive and social-emotional skills developed by humans. The evolutionary perspective has thus contributed significantly to the emerging consensus around the psychological functions of play and an agreed typology of play based on its adaptive psychological functions (which we detail below).”

“strong and consistent relationships between children’s playfulness and their cognitive and emotional development.”

“Tamis-LeMonda and Bornstein (1989), for example, have demonstrated that infant habituation (an established measure of how quickly an infant processes information, strongly related to emerging cognitive abilities) predicts the amount of symbolic play children engage in a few years later. We also now have extensive evidence of the inter-relationships between the complexity and sophistication of children’s play, particularly their symbolic or pretend play, and their emotional well-being (sometimes assessed through physiological measures of stress) (Bornstein (2006).”

“His key insight as regards the role of play (Vygotsky, 1978) was that it makes two crucial contributions to children’s developing abilities, which relate to their development of language (and other human forms of ‘symbolic representation’) and to their developing abilities to control their own cognitive and emotional processes, or to ‘self-regulate’.The significance of this insight has become increasingly recognised as the evidence has mounted that these two abilities, language and self-regulation, are intimately inter-related (Vallaton and Ayoub, 2011) and together form 16 the most powerful predictors of children’s academic achievement and of their emotional well-being (Whitebread, 2011).”

“Vygotsky argued that play makes a crucial contribution to the development of the unique human aptitude for using various forms of symbolic representation, whereby various kinds of symbols carry specific, culturally defined meanings. These forms of symbolic representation include drawing and other forms of visual art, visual imagination, language in all its various forms, mathematical symbol systems, musical notation, dance, drama and so on. Play is recognised in this analysis as the first medium through which children explore the use of symbol systems, most obviously through pretence. The co-occurrence in infants of the emergence of pretend play and the use of sounds to carry meaning (the beginnings of language) around the age of ten to fourteen months is widely reported, and clear support for Vygotsky’s analysis of the involvement of pretence in the early development of symbolic representational abilities.”

“pretence play becomes a ‘transition’ from the ‘purely situational constraints of early childhood’ to the adult capability for abstract thought. Children, he argued, require the support of real situations and objects with which to work out ideas through play. Thus play both allows children to consolidate their understandings of their world and facilitates their development of the representational abilities they will use to think through ideas as an adult. As further evidence to support this view, Vygotsky noted that certain types of children’s play (mostly play with objects and pretence) are often accompanied by self-directed or ‘private’ speech, where children are observed to selfcommentate as they play. This phenomenon has been the subject of extensive and ongoing research within developmental psychology, and Vygotsky’s view has been consistently supported (Winsler and Naglieri, 2003; Fernyhough and Fradley, 2005). The production of private speech is extremely common during these types of children’s play and is clearly associated with episodes of challenge and problem-solving. ”

“The role of play in supporting children’s development of ‘metacognitive’ and self-regulatory abilities is also an area of current research development. Metacognitive abilities concern our developing awareness of our own cognitive and emotional processes, and our 17 development of strategies to control them. It is now clearly established that children begin to develop this awareness and control very early in life, that significant individual differences are quickly established which have long-lasting consequences for achievement and well-being, that these abilities are learnt, and can be taught, and that the various types of play form a powerful context for their development (Whitebread and Pino Pasternak, 2010; Whitebread, 2010, 2011). ”

“Karpov (2005) has produced a useful review of research by Russian psychologists, who describe themselves as neo-Vygotskians, who have explored the development of cognitive self-regulation and control relating to particular types of play. For example, a study of three to seven year old children ‘standing sentry’ by Manuilenko (1948; reported in Karpov, 2005) supported Vygotsky’s suggestion that children’s use of verbal tools to regulate the behaviour of others was a significant factor in their development of self-regulation. Children standing sentry in a room containing playmates managed to stand motionless for significantly longer than when they were on their own. This appeared to be a consequence of the playmates ‘monitoring’ the ‘sentry’s’ performance. Other studies of the emergence of self-regulatory abilities in young children within educational contexts have shown that these are mainly demonstrated in playful contexts of different types (Whitebread et al 2007).”

A further body of research has investigated the role of pretence/socio-dramatic play in the development of emotional self-regulation. Berk, Mann and Ogan (2006), for example, have reported on a number of studies investigating how young children learn to cope with emotionally arousing or stressful events, particularly through this type of play. The evidence indicates that children spontaneously engage in socio-dramatic pretence play relating to stressful or traumatic situations arising in their experience (e.g.: going to the dentist, or the hospital), and that this type of play can be very productively facilitated and supported by adults in therapeutic contexts with children who have been subjected to abuse, experienced profound grief, etc. (Clark, 2006).

“There are two types of factors which influence the extent to which children are playful. These consist of environmental and social factors which support or inhibit children’s natural playfulness and factors related to provision of opportunities. A range of evidence has indicated that playfulness in children is both an indication of mental well-being and is supported by it. In this literature the two key issues which emerge relate 25 to young children’s formation of secure emotional attachments and to the role of stress. Arising originally from the seminal work of Bowlby (1953) and Ainsworth et al. (1978), we now have abundant evidence that the formation of secure emotional attachments early in a child’s life has significant consequences for healthy brain development (Swain et al, 2007), for emotion regulation and the ability to show empathy, form emotional relationships and friendships with others (Feldman, 2007), for emotional resilience (Schore, 2001) and for playfulness (Panksepp, 2001). Of particular importance in this area is the crucial role of playfulness in children’s formation and maintenance of friendships, which are, in turn, fundamentally important in supporting healthy social and emotional development (Panksepp, 2007). The role of secure emotional attachments in supporting children’s ability to cope with anxiety and stress is also of particular significance. However, here the picture is quite complex, as a certain level of stress or unpredictability in the environment appears to support the development of children’s resilience and playfulness, whereas high levels of stress clearly lead to a reduction in the amount of play in which children engage (Burghardt, 2005). The US National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2005) make the distinction between the ‘positive stress’ which arises from children living in emotionally supportive and stimulating environments containing elements of uncertainty, which supports playfulness and the development of resilience, and ‘toxic stress’, where children are unsupported and subjected to severely and consistently stressful situations. Lester and Russell (2010) have provided a powerful analysis of the ‘environmental stressors’ experienced by children across the world. From this analysis it is clear that some of the most vulnerable groups of children are those living in cities and urbanised contexts. Children living in poverty in these environments are often malnourished, a situation which, since playfulness requires metabolic energy (Burghardt, 2005), is often associated with low levels of play. As a consequence of the stress on their parents, they are also less likely to receive sensitive parenting leading to secure attachments. A number of studies in the UK, for example, have linked poverty, parental stress, inadequate parenting and children’s mental health problems (Russell et al, 2008). Meltzer et al (2000) estimated that children 26 living in low-income households are nearly three times as likely to suffer mental health problems. Living in urban environments can also have negative effects on the playfulness of children who are fortunate to live in supportive households, but whose parents, carers and teachers, perceiving a range of environmental hazards and dangers, become overly risk-averse and over-protect and over-supervise their children (Veitch et al, 2006). This leads us into the second category of factors which can support or inhibit children’s play, which relate to opportunities provided for play. A study by Shier (2008) clearly illustrates this issue. This compared opportunities for play and attitudes to safety while playing outdoors between children living in Nicaragua and the UK. While the children in Nicaragua enjoyed a high level of independent mobility and developed self-reliance attitudes towards safety while swimming in lakes, climbing trees etc., the children in the UK were much more closely supervised and did not generally experience these opportunities. This problem of parental over-supervision and over-scheduling of children has arisen quite recently, just in the last few decades. However, according to a survey of parental attitudes in sixteen countries (Singer et al., 2009) this is now a worldwide issue. Mothers in this survey, from countries across Europe and in four other continents, reported fears about allowing their children to play outside related to increases in traffic, crime, harassment and violence, possible abduction, dirt and germs, and many more similar issues. A report written for the UK National Trust (Moss, 2012) cites evidence that the area where children are allowed to range unsupervised around their homes has shrunk by 90% since the 1970s. At the same time, in the UK and many other countries, rates of obesity, self-harm and mental health disorders diagnosed in children have climbed significantly. This is attributed to a now well recognised phenomena of ‘nature deficit disorder’ (Louv, 2005) arising from children having very limited access to the outdoors and natural environments. Even the most playfully inclined children will not be able to play, sufficiently for them to reap the benefits in terms of their learning and development, if they are not given the time, the space and the independence to develop their own spontaneous and self-initiated play activities. Lester and Russell (2010) provide a very useful review of the now quite extensive 27 literature studying children’s use of urban and rural spaces for playful purposes. What emerges from this is that, in their play, children appropriate different spaces and features within their environment which are quite unpredictable by adults, and that the richest play spaces are mostly natural and unplanned. Many urban playgrounds, designed by adults, are often too neat and tidy, and essentially often rather barren as regards playful opportunities. The most successful urban play environments are ‘adventure playgrounds’ which are set up so that children can adapt them and build their own spaces, using a range of natural and man-made building materials (Bartlett, 2002). Having said all this, of course, much very productive playful activity can and does take place in the home and (although unfortunately to a markedly declining degree in a number of European countries) in early care and educational settings and schools. Three key factors emerge from the research concerning the support for play in these environments. These relate to the level of stimulation, the quality of interactions with adults, and the degree of independence or autonomy offered to the children concerning their play. The latter two issues have been addressed earlier in the report. As regards stimulation, within indoor environments, this is mostly related to the provision of play materials and toys which support the five types of play identified earlier in this report. It has been established for some time, through a number of studies, that access to a variety of materials and toys is related to children’s cognitive development (Bradley, 1985). Within this general position it is well established that materials and toys support play most effectively when they are open and flexible and provide children with a wealth of opportunities for creativity, for social interaction with their peers and adults, for authorship and for deep engagement (Gauntlett et al., 2010). However, beyond this there is currently a paucity of research as to the qualities of specific types of materials and toys, related to the different types of play, which most effectively support playfulness, learning and development. Recent studies by Howard and colleagues, for example, have shown that a key factor in children engaging with and learning most effectively from activities with toys and other materials, is that they perceive the situation to be playful (Howard, 2002; McInnes, K., Howard, J., Miles, G., and Crowley, K., 2009, 2011).”

play deprivation

“Given the abundant nature of the research evidence that play in humans is adaptive and is fundamental in supporting a whole range of intellectual, emotional and social abilities, it seems self-evident that children who, for whatever reason, play very little or not at all will be disadvantaged in their development. For obvious ethical reasons, however, direct studies of the consequences of preventing children from playing have not been conducted. The evidence in this area, therefore, is largely circumstantial or based on animal studies (mostly rats). Nevertheless, the evidence we have is compelling and seems strong enough, combined with that of the positive benefits of playful experiences reviewed above, to suggest that the provision of rich playful opportunities, across the five types indicated, would be a wise policy position for any society wishing to fully benefit from its human potential. As we have indicated earlier, there is very clear evidence that children’s cognitive development and emotional well-being are related to the quality of their play, and a number of studies have shown that individuals who are not well developed in these areas are not playful. Brown (1998), for example, found consistent child and adult play deficits in a study of criminally violent young men. In a recent study of one to two year old children in ‘maltreating’ families Valentino et al (2011) found that children in such families displayed less child-initiated play and less socially competent behaviour than children of the same age in non-maltreating families. The many studies of the severely deprived children discovered in Romanian orphanages following the breakup of the Soviet Union reported a range of severe cognitive and emotional deficits including abnormal repetitive or brief play behaviours, together with deficient growth and functioning in a number of key brain regions (Chugani et al, 2001). There have also been numerous studies of the Romanian children, and other children kept in orphanages in deprived circumstances, documenting their recovery once adopted and exposed to life in a loving, family environment including, of course, rich play opportunities. The difficulty with much of this evidence, of course, is that the lack of play, or its provision, is just part of an overall pattern of deprivation or provision, and so it is impossible to conclude that the play experience per se was entirely responsible for the outcomes. Perhaps more telling evidence, however, arises from studies where playful opportunities are introduced to children while they are still living in the orphanage. Taneja 29 et al (2002), for example, introduced a structured play regime into an Indian orphanage and reported highly significant gains on measures of motor, cognitive and social functioning. Fearn and Howard (2011) have recently published a very useful review of studies of play therapy as a resource for children facing adversity. The other main area of research which has provided evidence relating to play deprivation, but which also has obvious limitations, has involved studies with rats. Rats have often been chosen for psychological research as they are highly intelligent mammals and learn quickly. They are also highly playful. As with humans, further, they present significant individual differences. Pellis and Pellis (2009) have been pre-eminent in research concerned with play in rats and have discovered clear relationships between their level of play behaviour and significant physiological changes in their brains. For example, playful rats have been shown to have significantly elevated levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is recognised to have a central role in developing and maintaining neural plasticity (or, the ability to learn). They have also demonstrated that play supports novel neural connections and changes the architectural structure of significant brain regions. Play deprived rats became more aggressive to other rats, were less able to mate successfully, and showed heightened levels of fear and uncertainty in novel environments.”

Specifically, four main topics are addressed, related to:  the definition of play and its distinction from other activities,  the benefits of play (is it beneficial, and if so, should we encourage it, and how do we encourage it?),  play and the curriculum (how should play be integrated into curriculum, should educative play only be integrated into it, should it be structured or free?)  the role of adults (parent/teacher) in children’s play.

“The findings from this European research emphasise the importance of play. However, there are differences regarding the definition of play and while some research suggests that play is beneficial for children’s cognitive development and is an important ‘educational tool’ (Broström, Pramling Samuelsson and Muchacka), others have suggested that children’s informal activities can only be defined as play if they are free (i.e. outside adult direction or control) and that this more narrowly defined play is just one of a number of informal means by which children learn (Brougère, Textor and Howard). In addition, Baumgartner reports the finding that children spend 80% of their playing time in ‘gender-segregated’ groups. Views concerning the nature and value of children’s play Views were also divided along similar lines regarding the value of play for children’s development. Some felt that play is often romanticised by its advocates and needs to be researched in a more rigorous and ‘realistic’ manner. Children learn in many different ways, by observation and imitation, by rote, through reinforcement and by exploration, trial and error, all of which may or may not involve play. When children play, however, it was recognised that there are many opportunities for skill development, for example language and social skills, gross and fine motor skills, sorting and sequencing. There was more general consensus, however, that the benefits of play are related to its promotion of self-esteem, emotional wellbeing and resilience. When children engage in a task as though it is play, it was suggested, behavioural thresholds are lowered and they are able to try things out with only self-set targets and goals. As a result, resilience and esteem grow and children develop the confidence to meet physical, intellectual and emotional challenges. Children learn and develop through activities other than play, Howard argued, but they learn and develop more effectively through activities that are play. Marín, Muchacka and Broström expressed the view that play is beneficial as it is children’s natural way of learning and exploration. However, Baumgartner argued that viewing play as a complex set of different behaviours would be more productive in relation to understanding its contribution to development. In general, however, there was consensus that all types of play can be beneficial, and Howard argued that children need the opportunity to experience a variety of activities that will develop their full repertoire of play skills. Therefore, opportunities for all 32 different types of play matter. Broström, Texter and Muchacka particularly emphasised the importance of socio-dramatic play in children.”

(learning and play are seen as separate concepts

“However, excessive, solitary screenbased play in early childhood is recognised to be problematic if it limits the development of children’s other play skills, and links have been established in this case with difficulties in social development, obesity and so on. ”

“The experts also point out clear evidence of a range of benefits arising from screen-based play. For example, there are studies that indicate physical benefits of video games, such as quickened reaction time. In clinical studies video games have been successfully used in 33 order to increase children’s compliance to medical treatments. Videogames can increase children’s tolerance to frustration. They are also often very active and mentally stimulating and cooperative, with many children playing games with friends and with parents. Indeed, there is some evidence that well-designed videogames can enrich play resources for children and their families. ”

“The role of adults in children’s play is a complex and under-researched area and so, not surprisingly, a number of slightly different views were expressed by our European experts. On the one hand Broström and Texter expressed the view that the full potential of play can only be unlocked by active teachers or parents. On the other hand, Baumgartner, Marín and Muchacka were of the view that children’s play doesn’t need adult supervision. Adults should provide materials, safe spaces and toys to encourage children’s play without interfering. ”

“This predominant view concerning a balance between adult-child play and adult-free play manifested itself most clearly in a general consensus around the view that an adult who pays attention, listens to the child and talks to them, will be more beneficial than an adult who structures and directs the child’s activity. Certainly, some evidence suggests that, if an adult organises the play, children are more interested in capturing the adults’ attention and are less motivated to participate with their peers in shared activities. ”

What is the value of play?

“Views were also divided along similar lines regarding the value of play for children’s development. Some felt that play is often romanticised by its advocates and needs to be researched in a more rigorous and ‘realistic’ manner. Children learn in many different ways, by observation and imitation, by rote, through reinforcement and by exploration, trial and error, all of which may or may not involve play. When children play, however, it was recognised that there are many opportunities for skill development, for example language and social skills, gross and fine motor skills, sorting and sequencing. There was more general consensus, however, that the benefits of play are related to its promotion of self-esteem, emotional wellbeing and resilience. When children engage in a task as though it is play, it was suggested, behavioural thresholds are lowered and they are able to try things out with only self-set targets and goals. As a result, resilience and esteem grow and children develop the confidence to meet physical, intellectual and emotional challenges. Children learn and develop through activities other than play, Howard argued, but they learn and develop more effectively through activities that are play. Marín, Muchacka and Broström expressed the view that play is beneficial as it is children’s natural way of learning and exploration. However, Baumgartner argued that viewing play as a complex set of different behaviours would be more productive in relation to understanding its contribution to development. In general, however, there was consensus that all types of play can be beneficial, and Howard argued that children need the opportunity to experience a variety of activities that will develop their full repertoire of play skills. Therefore, opportunities for all 32 different types of play matter. Broström, Texter and Muchacka particularly emphasised the importance of socio-dramatic play in children.”

What are the consequences of depriving children of play?

“Given the abundant nature of the research evidence that play in humans is adaptive and is fundamental in supporting a whole range of intellectual, emotional and social abilities, it seems self-evident that children who, for whatever reason, play very little or not at all will be disadvantaged in their development. For obvious ethical reasons, however, direct studies of the consequences of preventing children from playing have not been conducted. The evidence in this area, therefore, is largely circumstantial or based on animal studies (mostly rats). Nevertheless, the evidence we have is compelling and seems strong enough, combined with that of the positive benefits of playful experiences reviewed above, to suggest that the provision of rich playful opportunities, across the five types indicated, would be a wise policy position for any society wishing to fully benefit from its human potential. As we have indicated earlier, there is very clear evidence that children’s cognitive development and emotional well-being are related to the quality of their play, and a number of studies have shown that individuals who are not well developed in these areas are not playful. Brown (1998), for example, found consistent child and adult play deficits in a study of criminally violent young men. In a recent study of one to two year old children in ‘maltreating’ families Valentino et al (2011) found that children in such families displayed less child-initiated play and less socially competent behaviour than children of the same age in non-maltreating families. The many studies of the severely deprived children discovered in Romanian orphanages following the breakup of the Soviet Union reported a range of severe cognitive and emotional deficits including abnormal repetitive or brief play behaviours, together with deficient growth and functioning in a number of key brain regions (Chugani et al, 2001). There have also been numerous studies of the Romanian children, and other children kept in orphanages in deprived circumstances, documenting their recovery once adopted and exposed to life in a loving, family environment including, of course, rich play opportunities. The difficulty with much of this evidence, of course, is that the lack of play, or its provision, is just part of an overall pattern of deprivation or provision, and so it is impossible to conclude that the play experience per se was entirely responsible for the outcomes. Perhaps more telling evidence, however, arises from studies where playful opportunities are introduced to children while they are still living in the orphanage. Taneja 29 et al (2002), for example, introduced a structured play regime into an Indian orphanage and reported highly significant gains on measures of motor, cognitive and social functioning. Fearn and Howard (2011) have recently published a very useful review of studies of play therapy as a resource for children facing adversity. The other main area of research which has provided evidence relating to play deprivation, but which also has obvious limitations, has involved studies with rats. Rats have often been chosen for psychological research as they are highly intelligent mammals and learn quickly. They are also highly playful. As with humans, further, they present significant individual differences. Pellis and Pellis (2009) have been pre-eminent in research concerned with play in rats and have discovered clear relationships between their level of play behaviour and significant physiological changes in their brains. For example, playful rats have been shown to have significantly elevated levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is recognised to have a central role in developing and maintaining neural plasticity (or, the ability to learn). They have also demonstrated that play supports novel neural connections and changes the architectural structure of significant brain regions. Play deprived rats became more aggressive to other rats, were less able to mate successfully, and showed heightened levels of fear and uncertainty in novel environments.”