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36 JANUARY 2002
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students and teachers

Working with play

Bernard Altman

In many children's homes an attempt is made by the staff to define their role in facilitating the developmental tasks facing the children. A broad range of tasks are identified:

  1. Cognitive development
  2. Social and emotional development
  3. Education and language development
  4. Independence and responsibility.

Staff are, however, often faced with the difficulty of finding effective methods to implement in order to facilitate the child's growth. In this situation, play may be used not only as a basic activity resource but in many instances as an appropriate child care methodology. Play is a behaviour format which can facilitate rapport and communication and through which information and learning can pass between child and adult. Through play the child learns by doing with the least amount of resistance.

The significance of play within, the human experience has been widely recognised (d'Heule, 1979) and play is a natural activity for children (Weininger. 1978). It is a way in which children explore their environment and come to terms with its realities.

Child care practice might use the high levels of motivation apparent in play and its undeniable educational value. In order to do so the validity of play in respect of child development must be established; play must be placed within a theoretical framework; an attempt must be made to integrate this knowledge into our child care techniques.

The validity of play
Generally speaking our children are under pressure to perform. They are encouraged and primed to prepare for the tasks facing them in the next phase of life. Our economy expects skilled, cognitively competent and qualified young people in order to perpetuate itself. This pressure is particularly evident in our school systems. The nature and strength of resistance to the present educational format is reflected in the rebellious attitude of our children towards school. We are most often confronted by this rebelliousness from adolescents, but for underachievers and deprived children school can become a negative experience even at the junior primary level.

The emphasis on performance both in class and on the sports field to some extent denies the importance of play. This is especially so in the context of learning that takes place through the daily living experiences of the child – learning that cannot be taught formally and theoretically but which must be experienced within social interaction.

According to Piaget (1972) play can serve many purposes and since children learn more effectively through activity rather than instruction, play provides an excellent vehicle for learning. Weininger (1978) emphasises an inner reality (intellectual and emotional life) and an outer reality (world experience) and the child's use of play to accommodate and connect these realities. During the first five or six years it is the child's own sense of exploration that puts him in contact with outer reality (Frank, 1979). Through play the child's life-encounters can be restructured, dramatised and symbolised so that the elements of his environment can be evaluated, comprehended and assimilated. Through fantasy the child will fill in gaps of information or distort reality for his own inner needs and satisfaction, or when reality becomes unbearable or too threatening he may retreat into his own exclusive world of fantasy.

At the interface between inner and outer reality, where fantasy is challenged, the child's cognitive functions (e.g. perception, comprehension and evaluation) are exercised.

The various forms of play have been cited as significant in the development of:

According to Weininger (1978) play promises a valuable experience within which language skills are stimulated. Through verbalisation of activities the child may freely communicate his experiences.

Play activity provides a stable, logical, pre-verbal structure to which the child applies his reasoning. The reasoning is put into language and the language in turn assists reasoning because it helps the child to recognise what others think of his speech efforts.

It is suggested that play, although not a prerequisite for language, facilitates language acquisition and skills by providing a vehicle through which language can be practised and encouraged.

It is not only through language but through play itself that the child can learn to express himself in a unique and individual manner. He discovers qualities about himself and finds his own sense of satisfaction (Weininger, 1978). He can construct “as if” situations in which he can play mother, father, sister, teacher, etc. In the acting out of various situations and roles, play has a constructive function. It is an attempt by the child to master and integrate reality. In this sense play also has the adaptive function of defusing and divesting situations of their negative and threatening qualities. This facilitates the positive assimilation of experiences for the child (Klein, 1979).

The socialising function of play cannot be underestimated. Through imitation, role-play, modelling and identification, various culture-specific games entrench social patterns of behaviour. Sex-typed roles especially are practised in children's play, for example studies involving primates suggest that play facilitates the development of mothering roles (Lancaster, 1976).

The validity of play lies in the fact that it is part of a process of growth. Play is a process of experimentation and exploration. Through play the child attempts to master various skills to cope with his changing roles in a changing environment, to assimilate and integrate processes and to develop an adaptive and individual personality. It is through play that the child is learning to learn (Frank, 1979).

Theoretical formulations

In one sense play can be defined as the work of children. It consists of a set of meaningful activities that help the child to relate to his surroundings (Helms and Turner, 1981). Play is voluntary, abundant, diffuse and global. It is characterised by “imaginary qualities” and rules. The relationship between imagination and rules changes so that “... the development from an overt imagining situation and covert rules in early childhood to games with overt rules and covert imagination in later childhood and adulthood outlines the child's evolution from one pole to the other" (Vygotsky. 1966). Play can be intense and serious; it can be creative and spontaneous. It seems that it is the attitude of the child which is important in establishing whether an activity is play.

The difficulty in finding a useful operational definition can be dealt with to some degree by looking at different theories on play.

Evolutionary theories
Herbert Spencer suggested a “surplus energy theory” which explained that the child's playing (jumping, climbing, running, etc.) was a manifestation of his inner energy. Organisms generally use their energy for survival but children are provided for, resulting in an energy surplus which is rechannelled into play.

Another evolutionary theory suggests that play is a method of exercising survival skills that are needed by the individual later in life (Helms and Turner, 1981).

Cognitive-developmental theories
Lewin (Herron and Sutton-Smith, 1971) suggested that play reflects the child's unstructured cognitive functioning. The young child cannot differentiate between reality and fantasy. The manner in which he plays will therefore reflect his level of cognition and his internal state of mind (e.g. angry, shy, sad, etc.).

Buytendijik (Helms and Turner, 1981) postulates that the child's internal infantile dynamics (cognitive and intellectual functioning) are primitive. Therefore, because of the child's lack of cognitive coherence, play is virtually the only activity he is capable of.

Piaget (d'Heule, 1979) suggests that cognitive development takes place as a result of the interaction between the child and the environment. Piaget felt that play emerges in the sensorimotor stage (0-2 years) during which the child practises basic sensorimotor skills (blowing, sucking, grabbing. etc.). Play, like cognitive development, develops sequentially. In the 2-4 age period preconceptual thought emerges. The child at this stage is able to utilise objects symbolically. Intuitive thought (4-7 years) is marked by the child's ability to perceive and to imagine. The child can form a more accurate representation of his environment during the concrete operations stage (7-1 1 years) and in the formal operations stage (11-15 years) his skills become socialised, refined and expanded.

Throughout these stages the child is developing cognitive schemes and adopting aspects of the environment that fit these schemes (assimilation). In addition the child may revise or adapt his cognitive schemes to fit in with realities observed through interaction with his environment (accommodation).

During this developmental process three types of play can be distinguished: practice play (sensorimotor exercise), symbolic play (imagination and representation using symbols) and play with rules (development of moral concepts).

Only the barest fragments of Piaget’s thoughts are presented here. The crucial point made in respect of play has to do with the processes of accommodation and assimilation. These processes indicate that through play the child is developing a concept of reality and is not merely imitating what is seen in the environment. The child's initial sensorimotoric play reactions contribute a basis to his future thought and reason.

Psychoanalytic theories
Psychoanalysis stresses the importance of fantasy and symbolic play. Through play the child “acts out” his wishes. Desires which cannot be satisfied because they are too threatening for the child himself to recognise, or desires which cannot be satisfied in reality are represented symbolically in play. Thus, the child is able to attain mastery over ego-threatening and painful experience as well as gain a degree of satisfaction of unattainable goals. In psychoanalysis, play has important therapeutic value because of its cathartic potential.

Erikson supported the psychoanalytic position that play has defensive and cathartic elements and added that play is a means by which the child learns to cope with the environment. Model situations are created by the child through which he learns how to adjust to the demands of external reality. Erikson distinguishes three phases of play development (d'Heule, 1979).

Firstly, the sphere in which the ego attempts to adjust itself to the world. During this stage the senses and body co-ordinations are exercised. Secondly, the microsphere in which an attempt is made to gain mastery over experiences through the projection of internal feelings upon toys. Finally, the macrosphere in which the child is exposed to other children. Through this contact the play behaviour of others can be observed and social rules can be learned.

Only a few features of the psychoanalytic thought on play are presented here. However, essential contributions made by this school of thought include:

  1. Play is the child's natural mode of self-expression.
  2. When a child plays freely he can express his inner feelings and problems; he can express his personality.
  3. Through play the child gains satisfaction from exercising capabilities, mastering his motor skills.
  4. The child can use symbolic games to resolve or master conflicts which are otherwise passively endured.
  5. Play facilitates the learning of identity, the definition of roles and the acceptance of rule-regulated behaviour.

Symbolic interactionist theories
Cooley and Mead (d'Heule, 1979) understand play in the context of personality and social development. Play is an interaction between the self and the environment. Through play the attitudes and role definitions of others are internalised and socialisation is thus evolved. Through contact with the environment, the child gains knowledge of his material/spatial environment and his distinction from that environment.

The importance of play to this school of thought is that all forms of communication are vital to the process of development. “Fertile research of the past twenty years into kinesis, non-verbal communications and proxemics, the study of spatial relations, has shown that an underlying communicative baseline of any culture begins with the acquisition of the early sensorimotoric patterns".

Play and Child and Youth Care
Given the various theories, the meaning of play to any one child may be as individual as the child himself. The complex of factors which need to be gathered in order to make sense of play in the highly disturbed child is best left in the skilled and trained hands of therapists. But care workers work on a daily basis with both normal and troubled children. Since play is a large part of childhood a good child care work orientation will include an understanding that play has a meaning, just as all behaviour has a meaning. It is also good in our practice to recognise that play has intrinsic value, that it is not merely idle activity.

By observing children at play care workers can identify personality and character traits that may prove valuable in setting goals. A checklist, for example, with various dimensions such as “social”, “isolated”, “aggressive”, “withdrawn”, etc. can be constructed. The details of such a checklist is left to the effort and imagination of those interested. A checklist may be valuable in making care workers conscious of previously unobserved or unremarked behaviour.

A significant proportion of child care work consists of establishing and enforcing group rules. When children are playing they should be allowed to play freely. This is not to say that limits are unnecessary, particularly limits on non-verbal behaviour. Play, however, provides a scenario in which the care worker can be non-directive and display a maximum acceptance of what the child brings into his play. If it is accepted that the child can express anger, conflict, trauma, etc. in the context of play, then it is accepted that the child is communicating with an understanding adult. In this way the child can express himself in his own terms because he is given the space and freedom to do so. Without this freedom and space the relationship between adult and child becomes ritualised and begins to lose its meaning.

Care workers can use games with rules, word games, story-telling, art, puppets and a wide range of toys such as toy soldiers, dolls, doll houses, cars, telephones, animals, puzzles, etc. In fact, once the power of play as a mode of communication is accepted, that is, once the care worker recognises how much information can be exchanged through non-verbal communication, assimilation, accommodation, modelling, role-play, identification, sensation, internalisation, socialisation and consolidation, then these channels can be used with great efficiency and facilitating the developmental tasks facing children.

Through play the child has an opportunity of discovering his own strengths and weaknesses. He can select and improve particular skills, and practise the range of functional capacities that are inherent. As a result of the interaction between himself and the world he is able to establish a sense of personal identity and a definition of his social context. There seems to be no remedial or educational programme that could replace the child's own observations and spontaneous encounters with his environment.

By recognising and understanding the nature of children's play we learn something of “children's language” through which we can communicate.


Connolly, J.A. and Doyle, A. Relation of Social Fantasy to Social Competence in Pre-schoolers Developmental Psychology, 20, 797-806, 1984.

d'Heule, A. Play and the Development of the Person Elementary School Journal, 79, 4. 1979, 225-234.

Frank, L.K. Validity of Play in Therapeutic Use of Child's Play Schaefer, C. (ed), Jason Aronson, New York, 1979.

Frank, L. K. Play in Personality Development in Therapeutic Use of Child's Play Schaefer, C. (ed), Jason Aronson, New York, 1979.

Golomb, C. and Cornelius, C.B. Symbolic Play and its Cognitive Significance Developmental Psychology, 13, 246-252, 1977.

Helms, D.B. and Turner, J.S. Exploring Child Behaviour Holt-Saunders, Japan. 1981.

Herron, R.E. and Sutton-Smith, B. Child's Play Wiley, New York, 1971.

Klein, M. The Psychoanalytic Play Technique in Therapeutic Use of Child's Play Schaefer, C. (ed). Jason Aronson, New York, 1979.

Lancaster, J.B. Play Mothering in Bruner, J.S. (ed), Play “Its Role in Development and Evolution, New York, Basic, 1976.

Piaget, J. Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1972.

Weininger, O. Play and the Education of the Young Child Education, 99. 2, 127-135, 1978.

Zammarelli, J. and Bolton, N. The Effects of Play on Mathematical Concept Formation British Journal of Educational Psychology, 47, 155-161, 1977.

From: Altman, Bernard (1986). Working with Play. The Child Care Worker, Vol.4 No.8, 10-12.

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