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7.2: What is Play?

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    Play is common in childhood, especially for young children, yet it is difficult to describe (Mardel, 2019; Piaget, 1962; Sutton-Smith, 1997). Nevertheless, the presence of play for young children and as part of early childhood education (ECE) has persisted over time (Piaget, 1973; Smilansky & Shefatay, 1990; Sutton-Smith, 1997). Play is also considered an aspect of developmentally appropriate practice (DAP) (National Association for the Education of Young Children, [NAEYC], 2020). Before you read further, take a moment to write down your description of play. In a few sentences or bullet points, how would you describe play? Save your notes so you can compare them with what is described in this chapter.

    One reason play is difficult to describe is that it is creative and fluid. As they are playing children try things out and develop ideas. It is not planned. The children act, talk, and do.  Play is also personal—the player engages based on their own knowledge, understanding, and experiences. Play is a series or set of behaviors and actions (Piaget, 1962). It involves all domains of development, social/emotional, cognitive, and physical. Play is also extrinsic—outside of and external to a person and observable and it is intrinsic—within and inside a person and not observable. This means there are aspects that are external and can be seen and some that are internal and difficult to see (Parton, 1932; Smilansky & Shefatya, 1990; Sutton-Smith, 1997; Vygostky, 1978).

    Children make choices about what to play with, how to use the materials (toys), and whether or not there will be others involved. They make these decisions based on who and what is in the environment. For example, when he arrives and enters the classroom, four-year-old Joey plays with puzzles every day. When he gets to the program on Wednesday, he goes directly to the puzzle shelf and pulls down a puzzle. He glances over at three peers who are building a boat with blocks. Joey looks back and forth at the puzzle and the block building several times. Hesitantly, he sets the puzzle back on the shelf and goes over to the block area and says, “I am going to build a very big ship” and starts to build next to his peers’ boat. In this example, Joey is originally interested in working a puzzle, but the boat building also captured his attention. He pauses before he starts the puzzle and seems to think about what he wants to do. The behavior, playing with puzzles or blocks, is observable and extrinsic. The decision-making is intrinsic, an internal cognitive and social/emotional process of making a decision about what he will do.  A careful observer who has a relationship with Joey and knows him well could comment on Joeys’ motivation (Erikson, 1963), interests (Dewey, 1913, and thinking (Piaget, 1962; Vygotsky, 1978), however these comments are only a hypothesis and Joey’s actions may change at any moment. This is the creative and fluid part of play—young children’s actions change due to shifts in interests, developmental levels, and various other reasons that are unseen. Play is complex and when you think about these things, you can see how it is difficult to describe.

    Description of Play

    Although play is complex, there are key components that can be used to describe it. Three words that have been used to describe play are: choice, wonder, and delight (Mardell, 2019).  Play, even for infants and toddlers, includes choices such as deciding what to play, how to play it, and for how long they want to play. It also includes imagination and making up the things that may be different from reality (Luckenbill, Subramaniam, & Thompson, 2019).

    Joey, from the example in the previous section, makes his own decision about what to play. Wonder relates to curiosity—Joey is curious about what his peers are doing. The story of Joey’s play continues: Joey starts building his big ship and while doing so talks with his peers. They discuss how they are using blocks to build their ships and begin to discuss trips. Joey says, “If we are going on a long trip, we will need food!”  He runs to the dramatic play area and brings back plastic food.  Two more children join the play, and the ships are redesigned and enlarged so that the children can get on the ship, take a trip, and eat food. One person says, “Let’s go to dinosaur land!”  The other children agree, and the journey begins. The children are focused, talking, and laughing at different ideas. The second part of the story shows delight.  In this example, the laughter is an obvious sign of delight, however enjoyment and joy can be experienced in many ways and it is not always with laughter. The example also shows that the children are using their imaginations and making up ideas.


    Review your description of play and consider the three components of choice, wonder, and delight.

    How does your description include (or not) these components?

    Think of a time you saw child(ren) playing. How did you see choice, wonder, and delight?

    7.2: What is Play? is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Jennifer Karshna & Holly Lanoue.

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