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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Associations
  • Play as Multilayered Communication
  • History
  • Sociology
  • Anthropology

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Childhood Studies Play
Anna Beresin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0017


Play is the language of childhood, a complex, social, and multimodal process. Definitions abound but are often found lacking. The selections here are introduced first by general classics, each a mini encyclopedia of play, followed by a section on philosophical antecedents that emphasize the multisided essence of play. Play is multimodal, multidisciplinary, and multifaceted, and so these introductory sections address play in a literature that goes beyond childhood study. The next categories are broken down by discipline and are increasingly focused on the play of childhood itself. Ethology, the study of animal behavior, comes first and addresses the commonalities we share in play with other mammals. Ethology can be considered the root discipline of play observation. The subcategory of animal and human play fighting, also known as rough-and-tumble play, emerges as its own mini section. Classics in the examination of play across time in the study of history come next. Psychology, with its psychodynamic and cognitive emphases, introduces the subcategory of play therapy. Although new attention is being paid to the significance of play in neurology and medicine, it is not addressed here. Sociology books that address play and its relationship to power are followed by books in the hybrid field of education, followed by a special subsection on Early Childhood education and play. The anthropological studies address play and culture more directly. These are distinct from the section on play and folklore, although there is much potential overlap. The folklore studies section emphasizes play genres and offers comparative collections of games, songs, and playful forms, Folklore Monographs, and studies of Children’s Verbal Art. The final sections address playthings, toys, and technology. Historically, the use of objects is a newer topic in the examination of play, as children now spend increasing amounts of their time with things rather than with face-to-face playmates. Video game play and play with computers are the latest arenas for research. They remind us of the basic paradox of play study—that it is both observable and hidden inside the heads of the players.

General Overviews

The books in this section are broad in vision, addressing play across time and space. Huizinga (Huizinga 2008), perhaps the most famous writer about play, did not focus on children’s play, but no discussion of the topic would be complete without him. He argues that play is at the essence of our humanity, that we may not simply be Homo sapiens (knowing man), but also Homo ludens (“playing man”). The folklorist Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1976) focuses on speech genres, offering a wide-angle view of a specific topic, with many bibliographic references. The most prolific writers and collectors of British children’s lore, Iona and Peter Opie, demonstrate the connection between verbal arts and their historical cultural roots. A general introduction to play surely must include some aspect of the Opies’ work (see Opie and Opie 2001). Schwartzman 1978 is a multidisciplinary sourcebook of ethnographic references to children’s play. Pellegrini and Smith 2005 is a solid volume on the biological parallels between the play of the great apes and humans, a counterbalance to the cultural offerings. Piaget 1962, a classic in developmental psychology, makes a case for the dreaminess of play, and Sutton-Smith 1997 links all these disciplines—ethology, history, sociology, folklore, anthropology, psychology—and masterfully frames them through the lens of ambiguity. The author argues that our academic lenses limit our vision, because we tend to see what we look for. Two experts in the field of video game design offer their own collection, Salen and Zimmerman 2006, a large textbook of classic essays, many of them cited in this bibliography.

  • Huizinga, J. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. London: Routledge, 2008.

    NNNThe most famous text on the significance of play, Huizinga’s controversial work is a historical revisioning of history. Play is the essence of our adult civilization. Originally published in 1955 (Boston: Beacon).

  • Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara, ed. Speech Play: Research and Resources for Studying Linguistic Creativity. University of Pennsylvania Publications in Conduct and Communication. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1976.

    NNNOne of the most complete research guides for the study of language play and speech genres, this book focuses on children’s play and traditional adult forms.

  • Opie, Iona, and Peter Opie. The Lore and Language of School-Children. New York: New York Review of Books, 2001.

    NNNThis classic text, one of several by the husband-and-wife team, emphasizes the historical significance and poetry of British children’s oral lore and games. Originally published in 1959 (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

  • Pellegrini, Anthony D., and Peter K. Smith. The Nature of Play: Great Apes and Humans. New York: Guilford, 2005.

    NNNA mini encyclopedia of mammalian play styles and commonalities, this work address what is known among specific species. A technical collection of comparative psychology monographs.

  • Piaget, Jean. Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood. Translated by G. Gattegno and F. M. Hodgson. The Norton Library. New York: Norton, 1962.

    NNNWritten by the prolific developmental psychologist, this work links the play life and dream life of children and seeks to uncover the relationship between what goes on inside the child’s mind and what occurs outside, in culture.

  • Salen, Katie, and Eric Zimmerman, eds. The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006.

    NNNAlthough written as an accompaniment to the authors’ design textbook, this anthology contains excerpted classics in play theory as well as more recent discussions written by game designers.

  • Schwartzman, Helen B. Transformations: The Anthropology of Children’s Play. New York: Plenum, 1978.

    NNNThis has been the most comprehensive collection of ethnographic research on play, worldwide. The book also places psychological research in its frame and takes the reader on an Alice in Wonderland–inspired journey into the transformative qualities of play and its cultural analysis.

  • Sutton-Smith, Brian. The Ambiguity of Play. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

    NNNThe ultimate guide to the field, this book questions academic assumptions about what play is and calls for a broad definition. Contains one of the largest and most diverse bibliographies on play.

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