In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Play

  • Introduction
  • Infancy
  • Early Childhood: Symbolic Play
  • Early Childhood: Social and Physical Play
  • Middle Childhood, Adolescence, and Adulthood
  • Play as a Life-Span Activity
  • Culture and Play
  • Becoming a Community Member Through Play
  • Connections between Social Class and Play
  • Caregiver-Child Play
  • Peer and Sibling Play
  • Cognitive Development
  • Social-Emotional Development
  • Linguistic and Narrative Development
  • Play in Adulthood
  • Play and Early Education
  • Policy

Education Play
Artin Goncu, Tony Perone, Sierra Ryan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0106


This article provides a list of sources on the major trends in the study of play. First, the activity of play and its role in human development have been an area of research interest in many allied disciplines in social sciences. A review of the play literature indicates that the fields of developmental psychology, education, and anthropology, among others, offered many perspectives on the conceptualization of play. In the effort to present a comprehensive review of how play is conceptualized in these allied fields, the first part of this article presents a list of sources on the general overviews of play and play theories. Second, the majority of play theories and research efforts focused on play during infancy and early childhood, and addressed play’s contributions to children’s development and education. However, increasing evidence that play is ever present in the lives of older children and adults has resulted in examination of play as a life-span activity. Following these trends, in the second part, the sources that addressed the play of infants and early childhood are presented. This is followed by a section covering the play during middle childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. The final section on the development of play includes an examination of play as a life-span activity. Mirroring the existing literature, the sections on infancy and early childhood consist of the majority of the works covered in the development section. Third, a significant amount of work conducted to examine play in relation to its cultural and social context are included in this section. A sample of work is presented to indicate that the development of play is highly influenced by the various structural elements of children’s cultures including income and adult values. Sections on social class differences, caregiver-child play, and play with siblings and peers illustrate that availability of play opportunities vary according to many different aspects of children’s contexts that need to be taken into account in examining their play activities. Fourth, following the research efforts that were conducted to make the point that play contributes to different aspects of cognitive, social-emotional, and linguistic development, selected resources are provided that seek relations between play and these aspects of development along with criticisms directed to these endeavors. Fifth, an overview of early childhood programs that incorporate play is discussed. Sixth and finally, a sample of work on social policy about the institution of play in early childhood settings is presented. Also, use of play as an instructional and curricular medium is discussed.

General Overviews and Theories

Recent writings that have culminated in a number of books have made significant contributions to the expansion of play theory and research. Extending the existing theories of play (e.g., Spariosu 1989, Sutton-Smith 1997), these works collectively emphasized the significance of play in human development. However, they drew attention to different aspects of play because of their varying foci and priorities. For example, work in ethology illustrated the presence of play in the lives of different species and its adaptive functions and encouraged work to address the universals in different kinds of human play extending from physical play involving large muscle movements to pretend play involving use of symbols. Some examples of such work can be found in Göncü and Gaskins 2006, Pellegrini 2011, and Power 2000. In some contrast to evolutionary work, research conducted in sociocultural and anthropological frameworks emphasized cultural variation in play. In the effort to understand cultural variation, sociocultural work offered to consider how economical structure, values and beliefs paramount in the children’s culture, and other competing activities influence the emergence of play and its frequency. The goal of this line of research has been to guard against ethnocentrism paramount in the play research conducted in the Western world by illustrating the cultural differences and seeking explanations for them. Work reported in Johnson, et al. 2005; Fleer 2010; Göncü and Gaskins 2006; Pellegrini 2009; Pellegrini 2011; and Power 2000 provides rich examples of such efforts. Lancy 2008, devoted entirely to this question, discusses both cultural and historical variation in children’s play activities. The third important trend in recent work has emphasized the role of play in applied settings such as the classrooms. Fine examples of work in which play’s relevance to children’s schooling is discussed are Fleer 2010 and Johnson, et al. 2005. Drawing largely from the sociocultural theories, this line of work has integrated the psychological and educational approaches, providing guidance both for the researcher and the practitioner. This work has the aim of illustrating specific contributions of play to children’s development such as cognition and communication as it also seeks to advance appropriate implementation of play that is meaningful for everybody involved in the classroom. These books in combination with the others annotated in the sections on cognitive, affective, and communicative theories of play provide a rich start for those who are interested in beginning a career in play research.

  • Fleer, Marilyn. 2010. Early learning and development: Cultural-historical concepts in play. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Drawing from the theory of Vygotsky and other cultural-historical approaches, this book provides recent advances in play research and discusses the role of play in early childhood development and education. Because of its coverage of teachers’ beliefs about children’s play, the book is of interest to early childhood educators as well as developmental researchers.

  • Göncü, Artin, and Suzanne Gaskins. 2006. Play and development: Evolutionary, sociocultural, and functional perspectives. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

    Presents a fairly exhaustive coverage of play theory with a focus on cognitive, social-emotional, and communicative dimensions of play. Addresses the educational and clinical uses and theories of play as well as those on its development. Assumes background knowledge and familiarity with technical language. It is for advanced graduate students and researchers.

  • Johnson, James E., James F. Christie, and Francis Wardle. 2005. Play, development, and early education. Boston: Pearson.

    A textbook on young children’s play and education, this book provides a comprehensive and broad review of theories of play that extend from classical theories such as surplus-energy, recreation, recapitulation, and practice theory to modern psychodynamic and cognitive theories. This is a useful introduction for beginning-level graduate students and researchers.

  • Lancy, David F. 2008. The anthropology of childhood: Cherubs, chattel, changelings. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This is a rare book on the anthropology of childhood with sections on cultural views of play. It is highly comprehensive and should be of use for both the novice and the advanced researcher of play and child development.

  • Pellegrini, A. 2009. The role of play in human development. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195367324.001.0001

    Presents a fairly exhaustive review of play theories. Discusses research on different kinds of play such as social, object, pretend, and locomotor play. As such, serves as a recent sourcebook for play researchers.

  • Pellegrini, Anthony, ed. 2011. The Oxford handbook of the development of play. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This edited volume presents a balanced collection of cultural, cognitive, social, and ethological perspectives on children and animal play. It presents dimensions of play covered in theory and research, and offers different methodologies of research in which theories were addressed.

  • Power, Thomas G. 2000. Play and exploration in children and animals. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    A detailed, lengthy, and comparative account of different kinds of play. Provides a combination of play theory and research. It is an extensive discussion of children’s play from a developmental perspective as it occurs in different interactional and cultural contexts. It is of interest both to seasoned and beginning researchers.

  • Spariosu, Mihai. 1989. Dionysus reborn: Play and the aesthetic dimension in modern philosophical and scientific discourse. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

    An important advanced sourcebook tracing the history of ideas on human play in philosophy. Although it may not appear directly relevant to contemporary play researchers in psychology and education, it is a useful sourcebook that provides background information needed for the appreciation of current theories.

  • Sutton-Smith, Brian. 1997. The ambiguity of play. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    An extensive review of theories and different meanings of play. It illustrates the complexities involved in the conceptualizing and studying of play. Argues that play theories reflect the cultural assumptions and values of the theoretician.

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