By Alex Jordan
What is Play? It can mean many different things based on its context. The unassuming word ‘play’ can mean many things—it can be engaging in a game of duck-duck-goose, be an ‘ecological’ way of learning, or it can be practice for future survival skills needed as an adult. No matter what the case though, play is indisputably a form of enjoyable integrated learning that lends to success later in life.
Sandra J. Stone, an expert in early childhood education, asserts that play is something that is “intrinsically motivated, freely chosen, and process-oriented.” She is adamant that play is not goal-oriented, pretend behaviour, but instead something that is very real and very educational. In fact, she highlights it as an essential approach to important learning that affects children on cognitive, social, emotional, and physical levels.
In tandem with Stone’s concept of play, Erik H. Erikson alludes that child’s play is based on a mixture of experimentation and planning that serves as a way to learn how to deal with experiences or situations. One could say that play is in a lot of ways connected to the notion of ecological thinking—that is, testing and learning at random on a free, unfocused path of thought. Many child educators emphasize that play is a form of education in itself that draws on these aspects of spontaneity and random sampling.
Play, however, is not just limited to humans. In animals (from birds, to felines, to even fish) play (as defined by animal behaviour expert Gordon Burghardt) is behavior that doesn’t seem to have a survival purpose, is rewarding in and of itself, and is performed when an animal is fully fed and stress-free. This can include such involved activities as play-fighting, or more simplistic ones, such as the repeated throwing up and catching of a stone. However, the purpose of such ‘play’ is the same of it in humans—to learn and to develop important social, emotional, and physical skills needed for future survival as an adult.
But what is play once an individual has matured, and it no longer serves a learning purpose? Play then becomes a predominantly social and psychological influence as opposed to one of learning and physical capability. It becomes therapeutic and reduces stress levels. In this ‘stage’ of play, the word can mean anything that provides a sense of self-fulfillment and carefree enjoyment to the user. Psychologist Brian Sutton-Smith wrote in 1997 that “the opposite of play is not work. It’s depression.” I could not agree more with this statement. Numerous psychological studies have confirmed that play reduces stress in adults and lends to a healthier, happier frame of mind. Therapist Dottie Ward-Wimmer constantly uses the power of play to get her adult clients to admit their feelings and work things out that they would have rather ignored or kept hidden. To her, play is a tool that emotionally heals and improves self-esteem, allowing for an environment in which adults have an increased ability to feel empathy and intimacy.
All in all, play is a personalized function of an individual to learn, develop, and relax in a way that brings happiness, and is something that is essential to all.
Stone, Sandra J. Playing: A Kid’s Curriculum. U.S.A.: Good Year Books, 1993.
Ward-Wimmer, Dottie, and Charles E. Schaefer, ed. Play Therapy with Adults. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons, Inc, 2003.
Bekoff, Marc, and John A. Byers, eds. Animal Play: Evolutionary, Comparative, and Ecological Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
“Is Play Unique to Mammals?” Popular Science. 10 June 2009. 1 October 2009.
“Fun Learning Games – Research shows that learning with laughter and play helps avoid burn out.” Educational Cyber Playground. 1997. Educational Cyber Playground. 1 October 2009. <http://www.edu-cyberpg.com/Literacy/Play.asp>
“Play (Activity).” Wikipedia. 24 September 2009. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. 28 September 2009. < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Play_(activity)>
Jordan, Alicia. Personal Interview. 28 September 2009.