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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historical Perspectives and Theory
  • Identifying and Studying Play
  • Exploration, Curiosity, and Play
  • Some Important Descriptive Works on Play in Human and Nonhuman Animals
  • Comparative and Evolutionary Studies
  • Some Important Theoretical Papers on Play in Primarily Nonhuman Animals
  • Some Important Theoretical Papers on Play Primarily Focused on Humans
  • Some Key Reviews of Play in Human Children
  • Physiology, Energetics, Ecology, and Play
  • The Neuroscience of Play
  • Play in Education, Learning, Cognitive, Emotional, and Social Development
  • Games, Sports, and Outdoor Activities
  • Cultural Perspectives, Humor, and Folklore
  • Pretense, Innovation, and Creativity
  • Play, Ritual, Fairness, Morality, and Religion
  • Play Therapy
  • Journals, Organizations, and Conferences Devoted to Play and Related Topics

Psychology Play Behavior
Gordon M. Burghardt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0222


Play behavior has fascinated people since ancient times, yet the scholarly and scientific study of play has remained elusive to most people exploring the topic for the first time. It has generated a plethora of definitions, approaches, target subjects, and theory. Even the phenomena included in the category of play are contested. Recent monographs, handbooks, encyclopedias, and edited books abound, containing thousands of citations. Selecting a handful of sources for each of the headings used here was a challenge. Nonetheless, a serious attempt has been made to incorporate currently important sources as well as seminal writings. The focus is specifically on play behavior; however, a clear demarcation between studies of overt behavior and other play topics is often difficult. Furthermore, play occurs in a wide range of animals, and this bibliography reflects the growing detailed studies on play in nonhuman animals and the search for understanding basic mechanisms underlying play, its development, evolution, and adaptive value; the emotional/experiential components of play; and play in its cultural and sociological dimensions. This bibliography begins with some overviews of play and historical, definitional, and methodological issues, followed by selected areas of research interest. While some key journal articles are provided, secondary sources, reviews, monographic treatments, and edited books are emphasized. The latter provide detailed entries to the literature as well as containing chapters and articles by important researchers and topics that, for space limitations, could not be individually highlighted in the sections below. Many sources were appropriate for several section headings, and some are cross-listed. Many authors have written numerous important works on play, but editorial policy is to limit specific citations to any one author. Finally, in the specific sections, influential, prescient, and seminal contributions are mixed with selected recent works that represent contemporary views and approaches that may or may not prove enduring. That is, the goal is to provide a balance between older works with continuing major influence and that provide helpful orientations to current studies, on the one hand, and some of the most recent works that reflect current research and stimulate new empirical research, modeling, and scholarship, on the other. The emphasis throughout is on basic theoretical, conceptual, and empirical studies, with less attention to applied research and the recent surge in largely qualitative and descriptive work in areas of sports, child development, play therapy, and education, which are addressed in other Oxford Bibliographies.

General Overviews

There are several sources for general overviews of play, from various perspectives. The ones included here were published since the mid-1990s, including textbooks, and reflect recent research and scholarship. Earlier and additional valuable overview treatments are listed in other sections, but this section includes the most comprehensive treatments of current theory and empirical findings. Carlisle and Golson 2009 and Johnson, et al. 2015 provide much general information on play by leading researchers. Pellegrini 2009 and Smith 2010 provide good overviews of play, primarily in children, who are the focus of most play research. Power 2000 is a current integration of research on exploration, play, and tool use in children and selected animal species, while Thompson 1996 provides a compact overview of the development of mammalian play in various species, behaviors studied, and importance in captive environments. Henricks 2015 and Sutton-Smith 1997 are broad integrations of play research and theory, primarily by psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists.

  • Carlisle, R. P., and J. G. Golson, eds. 2009. Encyclopedia of play in today’s society. 2 vols. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    A collection of diverse, often short entries on many aspects of play, with an emphasis on sports.

  • Henricks, T. S. 2015. Play and the human condition. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

    Henricks has been a prominent writer on play and play theory for many years. This volume is most valuable for the succinct, authoritative, and integrative treatments of writers from psychology and especially sociology, including Bakhtin, Caillois, Erikson, Freud, Geertz, Goffman, Huizinga, Marks-Tarlow, Piaget, Schechner, Sutton-Smith, Turner, and Vygotsky. Departs from Sutton-Smith 1997, but was highly influenced by Sutton-Smith.

  • Johnson, J. E., S. G. Eberle, T. S. Henricks, and D. Kuschner, eds. 2015. Handbook of the study of play. 2 vols. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

    Contains sustained treatments of play divided into useful sections covering the many disciplines studying play, major figures and theoretical/conceptual issues, and applications of play in music, playgrounds and recess, theater and performance, and therapy. The last section discusses emerging subjects, such as methodology, well-being, and neuroscience.

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

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195367324.001.0001

    An up-to-date survey of current play research and theory by a prolific student of play. Overlaps with Smith 2010.

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

    A detailed review that also covers tool use, focusing on children and several other mammalian species on which considerable play research exists.

  • Smith, P. K. 2010. Children and play. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

    Another up-to-date survey of play research focusing on children, but has an evolutionary bent. Complements Pellegrini 2009, by an author with whom Smith has collaborated.

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

    Although Sutton-Smith began his long and productive career focusing on folklore, childhood humor, and child development, he integrated many aspects of the field in this important book, perhaps the most important since Huizinga 1955 (cited under Historical Perspectives and Theory). A main feature is his typology of play across seven rhetorics, of which only a few map onto the traditional approaches of psychologists to play.

  • Thompson, K. V. 1996. Behavioral development and play. In Wild mammals in captivity. Edited by D. G. Kleiman, M. E. Allen, K. V. Thompson, and S. Lumpkin, 352–371. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    A brief chapter, but one that contains many tables and references to play occurring in mammals, and especially salient in regard to captive environments, with a focus on zoos.

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