Child's Play:
The Work of Childhood

Expansion of Social Contacts or Relationships with Others

Play is the work of childhood. Even if you disagree with the paradox, it is clear that infants and toddlers relate with others through play. Moms and Dads play with little babies. Older infants explore their immediate surroundings by playing with toys. Toddlers like to run, jump, and climb - a form of sensorimotor play. Young children learn to relate to peers using simple games such as Simon Says. The text lists 6 criteria that define the nature of play in childhood.

  1. Child's play is intrinsically motivated because youngsters find it enjoyable.
  2. Child's play is pragmatic. Children are more interested in the process of playing than in the product of play.
  3. Child's play is creative and nonliteral; it resembles real-life activities but is not bound by reality.
  4. Rules govern most of children's play, but they are implicit. When children are playing "school" they all seem to understand the rules, but seldom are they stated as in a game of chess.
  5. Spontaneity is an important element of child's play, it occurs freely and is under the control of the child.
  6. Play is a behavior that is free of emotional distress.

While all developmental theorists agree that play is essential to the socialization process, they differ in explaining why children play. One of the earliest theoretical positions on play was the surplus energy theory. According to this theory, play is possible only when the biological system builds up an excess or surplus of energy. After such an accumulation of energy within the system, the organism engages in play behavior to dissipate or release this surplus energy. Similar to the surplus energy theory, the relaxation theory of play uses the energy concept and characterizes play as necessary for the replenishment of lost energy in the discharge of daily activities.

During the first two decades of the twentieth century, psychology was influenced by instinct theories of behavior. William James, one of the founders of modern psychology, was a popular figure at this period of time. Emanating from this theoretical school is the instinct theory of play. It attributes play to a set of preexistent structures that are bestowed upon a child by the parents. William James believed that play is not a single instinctual response, but rather the product of a cluster of diverse instincts elicited by differential stimulus configurations. Thus, a child bouncing a ball would be responding to that ball (in play) with a set of motoric behaviors available to him or her from the structures of heredity.

A derivative of instinct theory is the pre-exercise theory of play. According to this theory, play is preparation for adult life. The theory maintains that while instincts are transmitted genetically, they appear imperfectly in the immature organism. Through exercise and practice the instincts are gradually perfected to a state necessary for appropriate use in adult life. This theory views play as a vital "supplement" to the developmental process. During play, children and animals refine those imperfectly formed adaptive behaviors that will be used consistently in adulthood.

During the second half of the twentieth century, four important theories of play have dominated developmental psychology: the psychoanalytic theory of play; the learning theory of play; the cognitive theory of play, and Parten's social levels of play. Each of these is summarized in your text. The psychoanalytic theory of play emphasizes the importance of play in social and emotional life. Psychoanalysis believes that play allows the child to gain mastery over objects and social situations by manipulating them in play. Play also allows the child to gratify wishes and desires that are not possible to fulfill in reality. So a little boy can "kill" an action figure that is a soldier and then bring him back to life.

The learning theory of play assumes that the child acquires new behaviors or ways of relating to others by being praised (reinforcement), copying the behaviors of others (observational learning) or through the experience of setting goals and working towards them. Many play activities afford children the opportunity to learn (acquire information) that will be useful to them later in childhood or in adult life.

Piaget and other cognitive theorists believe that play is very important in enhancing the intellectual processes of the child. The cognitive theory of play assumes that there are four types of play, ranked from simple (i.e. less intellectually challenging) to complex (i.e. requiring understanding of rules and logic). Functional play involves simple, repetitive movements that do not require constructing reality in symbolic ways. The infant who continues to drop objects from the highchair and laughs at the sound each one makes is participating in functional play. Piaget calls those repetitive behaviors, from which the young child derives pleasurable, circular reactions.

According to the cognitive theory of play, constructive play follows functional play. Constructive play involves manipulation of physical objects to build or construct something. Constructive play may occur with peers. Most often its importance is in teaching the child the mastery motive or that he or she can conquer a challenge. In the preoperational stage of development, pretend or symbolic play appears. Pretend play, also referred to in developmental psychology as fantasy or dramatic play substitutes imaginary situations for real ones. It is a direct result of the child acquiring figurative thought. Often during this stage of development children's creative energy and fantasies create imaginary playmates.

At the beginning of Middle Childhood, as children enter Piaget's concrete operational stage, they engage in rule-governed play and games. Many times they enjoy arguing about the rules more than they enjoy the social interaction of the game.

In 1932, Mildren Parten proposed that children progress through 6 social levels of play, each of which is more complex than the previous one. Parten's Social Levels of Play are unoccupied play, solitary play, onlooker play, parallel play, associative play and cooperative play. At each of these levels of play more social skills are required for the child to interact successfully with his or her peer group.