Play Defined — The Importance Of Understanding Play

Part two of a series of talks about how important play is for not only children’s development but for adults to destress, be more creative, maintain cognitive function and more….

When defining anything, looking at the history and etymology of the word itself is vital in understanding roots and changes in how the word is used through time.

The etymology of ‘Play’ tells us some vital things about what it is;

Verb;

  • Old English plegan, plegian “move rapidly, occupy or busy oneself, exercise; frolic; make sport of, mock; perform music,”
  • West Germanic *plegan “occupy oneself about”
  • Old Frisian plega “tend to,”
  • Middle Dutch pleyen “to rejoice, be glad,”
  • German pflegen “take care of, cultivate”

Noun;

Old English plega (West Saxon), plæga (Anglian) “quick motion; recreation, exercise, any brisk activity” (the latter sense preserved in swordplay, etc.).

By early Middle English it could mean a variety of things;

“a game, a martial sport, activity of children, joke or jesting, revelry, sexual indulgence.”

This last list really shows the diversity of what play could be, there is not a set list of play activities anywhere, playing is determined by much more than the nature of the activity.

Most people know what ‘play’ is, they can think about it as a concept in their heads, can see it happening, could initiate it if needed, etc…but actually defining in one statement, sentence or paragraph becomes a lot harder. There are many definitions online, by groups of people who study and research play to those who observe it frequently in children. The list below is a collection of themes that the interwebs seems to agree upon:

  • It is highly individual, self chosen and self directed;
  • It is voluntary, there is always the freedom to quit;
  • It is pleasurable, enjoyable;
  • It is creative, it involves discovery;
  • It is not about a result, but the action of doing it;
  • It is not ‘real’ life; and
  • It is free from serious consequence.

Using these themes you could make up several definitions that might encompass an idea of what play is, if we had to explain it to an alien life form who has never seen it;

“Play is a self driven, enjoyable activity which someone participates in freely with no pressure, consequence or result.”

Or

“Play is the consequence of participating in a self driven activity, defined and enjoyed by the individual at all levels.”

Or

“Play is the creation of an enjoyable activity by the individual, free from pressure, result or consequence.”

All these definitions were created using the themes listed in a couple of minutes. Give the same themes to a sociology professor and you will get three more different definitions. A psychiatrist, three more and a school teacher, three more. I don’t think you can box ‘play’ into one quick definition.

What similarities in play can we see across the world? Tell me in the comments what you think the similarities of these images are!?

Regardless of our differences, we all in the same ways!

Whether it is using dolls/puppets/figures, building/making/constructing something, pretending to be something you are not or moving around in an energetic way, children typically play in similar ways across the world. Each of these broad methods provides key developmental benefits to children that are being lost in adults.

Adults play in different ways, often tied to parameters that are obvious such as sports and games or not so obvious such as a lifetime of societal norms, peer pressures or financial restrictions. Adults tend to join leagues, organized meet-up groups, preset activities where the discovery, creativity have been removed for ease of participation. Adults grow out of play and grow into norms, patterns, comfort zones. I would say, one of the best aspects of play, is that it gets you out of your comfort zone, that is why it’s so important for the development of a child.

Some adults still play in ways that utilize creativity skills, problem solving and discovery. Some computer games provide a platform that is impossible to navigate without critical thinking, discovery and creativity. Those who play role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons from back in my day to ‘Magic The Gathering’ for the more recent generation also have to draw from imagination and creativity to participate.

Those who spar in martial arts classes or compete in sports for fun must use on the spot creativity, discovery and analysis to ‘play’ and when it is in the right environment can meet many of the themes that are associated with play.

There are of course environments in these activities that do not promote the core of what play is. Females are often degraded and bullied in online computer games, kids that play role playing games often mocked as ‘geeks’ or ‘nerds’. Sports coaches can focus completely on the winning and not the playing and martial arts instructors can be bullies and too disciplined. So its not the actual activity that can be considered play, but a broader less tangible idea of what play is, which is heavily reliant on the environment and circumstances present.

This paragraph from an article I read gives a good example of what I mean here;

“Two people might be throwing a ball, or pounding nails, or typing words on a computer, and one might be playing while the other is not. To tell which one is playing and which one is not, you have to infer from their expressions and the details of their actions something about why they are doing what they are doing and their attitude toward it.”

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, document outlining the “General comment №17 (2013) on the right of the child to rest, leisure, play, recreational activities, cultural life and the arts” outlines the factors essential to an optimum environment for play;

  • Freedom from stress;
  • Freedom from social exclusion, prejudice or discrimination;
  • An environment secure from social harm or violence;
  • An environment sufficiently free from waste, pollution, traffic and other physical hazards to allow them to circulate freely and safely within their local neighborhood;
  • Availability of rest appropriate to their age and development;
  • Availability of leisure time, free from other demands;
  • Accessible space and time for play, free from adult control and management;
  • Space and opportunities to play outdoors unaccompanied in a diverse and challenging physical environment, with easy access to supportive adults, when necessary;
  • Opportunities to experience, interact with and play in natural environments and the animal world;
  • Opportunities to invest in their own space and time so as to create and transform their world, using their imagination and languages;
  • Opportunities to explore and understand the cultural and artistic heritage of their community, participate in, create and shape it;
  • Opportunities to participate with other children in games, sports and other recreational activities, supported, where necessary, by trained facilitators or coaches; and
  • Recognition by parents, teachers and society as a whole of the value and legitimacy of the rights provided for in article 31.

Its good to know that organizations as important at the United Nations recognize the importance of play and have researched the topic thoroughly enough to garner a complete understanding of how we can make play an integral part of everyday life, for children, adults, geeks, nerds, girls, boys, women, men, jocks, artists…..Humans.

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