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The Value of Play I: The Definition of Play Gives Insights

Freedom to quit is an essential aspect of play's definition.

Play in our species serves many valuable purposes. It is a means by which children develop their physical, intellectual, emotional, social, and moral capacities. It is a means of creating and preserving friendships. It also provides a state of mind that, in adults as well as children, is uniquely suited for high-level reasoning, insightful problem solving, and all sorts of creative endeavors.

This essay is the first in a series I plan to post on The Value of Play. The subject of this first installment is the definition of play. Clues to play’s value lie in the definition.

Most of this essay is about the defining characteristics of play, but before listing them there are three general points that I think are worth keeping in mind. The first point is that the characteristics of play all have to do with motivation and mental attitude, not with the overt form of the behavior. Two people might be throwing a ball, or pounding nails, or typing words on a computer, and one might be playing while the other is not. To tell which one is playing and which one is not, you have to infer from their expressions and the details of their actions something about why they are doing what they are doing and their attitude toward it.

The second point, toward definition, is that play is not necessarily all-or-none. Play can blend with other motives and attitudes, in proportions ranging anywhere from 0 up to 100 percent play. Pure play occurs more often in children than in adults. In adults, play is commonly blended with other motives, having to do with adult responsibilities. That is why, in everyday conversation, we tend to talk about children “playing” and about adults bringing a “playful attitude” or “playful spirit” to their activities. We intuitively think of playfulness as a matter of degree. Of course, we don’t have meters for measuring these things, but I would estimate that my behavior in writing this blog is about 80% play.

The third point is that play is not neatly defined in terms of some single identifying characteristic. Rather, it is defined in terms of a confluence of several characteristics. People before me who have studied and written about play have, among them, described quite a few such characteristics; but they can all be boiled down, I think, to the following five:

  1. Play is self-chosen and self-directed.
  2. Play is activity in which means are more valued than ends.
  3. Play has structure, or rules, which are not dictated by physical necessity but emanate from the minds of the players.
  4. Play is imaginative, non-literal, mentally removed in some way from “real” or “serious” life.
  5. Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind.

The more fully an activity entails all of these characteristics, the more inclined most people are to refer to that activity as play. By “most people,” I don’t just mean most scholars who study play. Even young children are most likely to use the wordplay for activities that most fully contain these five characteristics. These characteristics seem to capture our intuitive sense of what play is. Notice that all of the characteristics have to do with the motivation or attitude that the person brings to the activity.

Let me elaborate on these characteristics, one by one, and expand a bit on each by pointing out some of its implications for thinking about the purposes of play.

1. Play is self-chosen and self-directed; players are always free to quit.

Play is, first and foremost, an expression of freedom. It is what one wants to do as opposed to what one is obliged to do. The joy of play is the ecstatic feeling of liberty. Play is not always accompanied by smiles and laughter, nor are smiles and laughter always signs of play; but play is always accompanied by a feeling of “Yes, this is what I want to do right now.” Players are free agents, not pawns in someone else’s game.

Players not only choose to play or not play, but they also direct their own actions during play. As I will argue below, play always involves rules of some sort, but all players must freely accept the rules, and if rules are changed then all players must agree to the changes. That is why play is the most democratic of all activities. In social play (play involving more than one player), one player may emerge for a period as the leader, but only at the will of all the others. Every rule a leader proposes must be approved, at least tacitly, by all of the other players.

The ultimate freedom in play is the freedom to quit. A person who feels coerced or pressured to engage in an activity, and unable to quit, is not a player but a victim. The freedom to quit provides the foundation for all of the democratic processes that occur in social play. If one player attempts to bully or dominate the others, the others will quit and the game will be over; so players who want to continue playing must learn not to bully or dominate. People who don’t agree to a proposed change in rules may likewise quit, and that is why leaders in play must gain the consent of the other players in order to change a rule. People who begin to feel that their needs or desires are not being met in play will quit, and that is why children learn, in play, to be sensitive to others’ needs and to strive to meet those needs. It is through social play that children learn, on their own, with no lectures, how to meet their own needs while, at the same time, satisfying the needs of others. This is perhaps the most important lesson that people in any society can learn.

This point about play being self-chosen and self-directed is ignored by, or perhaps unknown to, many adults who try to take control of children’s play. Adults can play with children, and in some cases can even be leaders in children’s play, but to do so requires at least the same sensitivity that children themselves show to the needs and wishes of all the players. Because adults are commonly viewed as authority figures, children often feel less able to quit, or to disagree with the proposed rules, when an adult is leading than when a child is leading. And so, when adults try to lead children’s play the result often is something that, for many of the children, is not play at all. When a child feels coerced, the play spirit vanishes and all of the advantages of that spirit go with it. Math games in school and adult-led sports are not play for those who feel that they have to participate and are not ready to accept, as their own, the rules that the adults have established. Adult-led games can be great for kids who freely choose them, but can seem like punishment to kids who haven’t made that choice.

What is true for children’s play is also true for adults’ sense of play. Research studies have shown that adults who have a great deal of freedom as to how and when to do their work often experience that work as play, even (in fact, especially) when the work is difficult. In contrast, people who must do just what others tell them to do at work rarely experience their work as play.

2. Play is an activity in which means are more valued than ends.

Many of our actions are “free” in the sense that we don’t feel that other people are making us do them, but are not free, or at least are not experienced as free, in another sense. These are actions that we feel we must do in order to achieve some necessary or much-desired goal, or end. We scratch an itch to get rid of the itch, flee from a tiger to avoid getting eaten, study an uninteresting book to get a good grade on a test, work at a boring job to get money. If there were no itch, tiger, test, or need for money, we would not scratch, flee, study, or do the boring work. In those cases we are not playing.

To the degree that we engage in an activity purely to achieve some end, or goal, which is separate from the activity itself, that activity is not play. What we value most, when we are not playing, are the results of our actions. The actions are merely means to the ends. When we are not playing, we typically opt for the shortest, least effortful means of achieving our goal. The non-playful, goal-oriented college student, for example, does the least studying in each course that she can in order to get the “A” that she desires, and her studying is focused directly on the goal of doing well on the tests. Any learning not related to that goal is, for her, wasted effort.

In play, however, all this is reversed. Play is activity conducted primarily for its own sake. The playful student enjoys studying the subject and cares less about the test. In play, attention is focused on the means, not the ends, and players do not necessarily look for the easiest routes to achieving the ends. Think of a cat preying on a mouse versus a cat that is playing at preying on a mouse. The former takes the quickest route for killing the mouse. The latter tries various ways of catching the mouse, not all very efficient, and lets the mouse go each time so it can try again. The preying cat enjoys the end; the playing cat enjoys the means. (The mouse, of course, enjoys none of this.)

Play often has goals, but the goals are experienced as an intrinsic part of the game, not as the sole reason for engaging in the game’s actions. Goals in play are subordinate to the means for achieving them. For example, constructive play (the playful building of something) is always directed toward the goal of creating the object that the player has in mind. But notice that the primary objective in such play is the creation of the object, not the having of the object. Children making a sandcastle would not be happy if an adult came along and said, "You can stop all your effort now. I'll make the castle for you." That would spoil their fun. The process, not the product, motivates them. Similarly, children or adults playing a competitive game have the goal of scoring points and winning, but, if they are truly playing, it is the process of scoring and trying to win that motivates them, not the points themselves or the status of having won. If someone would just as soon win by cheating as by following the rules, or get the trophy and praise through some shortcut that bypasses the game process, then that person is not playing.

Adults can test the degree to which their work is play by asking themselves this: “If I could receive the same pay, the same prospects for future pay, the same amount of approval from other people, and the same sense of doing good for the world for not doing this job as I am receiving for doing it, would I quit?” If the person would eagerly quit, the job is not play. To the degree that the person would quit reluctantly, or not quit, the job is play. It is something that the person enjoys independently of the extrinsic rewards received for doing it.

One reason why play is such an ideal state of mind for creativity and learning is because the mind is focused on means. Since the ends are understood as secondary, fear of failure is absent and players feel free to incorporate new sources of information and to experiment with new ways of doing things.

3. Play is guided by mental rules.

Play is freely chosen activity, but it is not freeform activity. Play always has structure, and that structure derives from rules in the player’s mind. This point is really an extension of the point just made about the importance of means in play. The rules of play are the means. To play is to behave in accordance with self-chosen rules. The rules are not like rules of physics, nor like biological instincts, which are automatically followed. Rather, they are mental concepts that often require conscious effort to keep in mind and follow.

A basic rule of constructive play, for example, is that you must work with the chosen medium in a manner aimed at producing or depicting some specific object or design. You don’t just pile up blocks randomly; you arrange them deliberately in accordance with your mental image of what you are trying to make. Even rough and tumble play (playful fighting and chasing), which may look wild from the outside, is constrained by rules. An always-present rule in play fighting, for example, is that you mimic some of the actions of real fighting, but you don’t really hurt the other person. You don’t hit with all your force (at least not if you are the stronger of the two); you don’t kick, bite, or scratch. Play fighting is much more controlled than real fighting; it is always an exercise in restraint.

Among the most complex forms of play, in terms of rules, is what play researchers call sociodramatic play—the playful acting out of roles or scenes, as when children are playing “house,” or acting out a marriage, or pretending to be superheroes. The fundamental rule here is that you must abide by your and the other players’ shared understanding of the role that you are playing. If you are the pet dog in a game of “house,” you must walk around on all fours and bark rather than talk. If you are Wonder Woman, and you and your playmates believe that Wonder Woman never cries, then you refrain from crying, even when you fall down and hurt yourself.

To illustrate the rule-based nature of sociodramatic play, the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky wrote about two actual sisters—ages seven and five—who sometimes played that they were sisters.[1] As actual sisters, they rarely thought about their sisterhood and had no consistent way of behaving toward one another. Sometimes they enjoyed one another, sometimes they argued, and sometimes they ignored one another. But, when they were playing sisters, they always behaved according to their shared stereotype of how sisters should behave. They dressed alike, talked alike, always loved one another, talked about the differences between themselves and everyone else, and so on. Much more self-control, mental effort, and rule following was involved in playing sisters than in being sisters.

The category of play with the most explicit rules is that called formal games. These are games, like checkers and baseball, with rules that are specified, verbally, in ways designed to minimize ambiguity in interpretation. The rules of these games are commonly passed along from one generation of players to the next. Many formal games in our society are competitive, and one purpose of the formal rules is to make sure that the same restrictions apply equally to all competitors. Players of formal games, if they are true players, must adopt these rules as their own for the period of the game and be willing to stick to them. Of course, except in “official” versions of such games, players commonly modify the rules to fit their own needs, but each modification must be agreed upon by all the players.

The main point I want to make here is that every form of play involves a good deal of self-control. When not playing, children (and adults too) may act according to their immediate biological needs, emotions, and whims; but in play they must act in ways that they and their playmates deem appropriate to the game. Play draws and fascinates the player precisely because it is structured by rules that the player herself or himself has invented or accepted.

The student of play who most strongly emphasized play’s rule-based nature was Lev Vygotsky, whose example of sisters playing sisters I just mentioned. In an essay on the role of play in development, originally published in 1933, Vygotsky commented, as follows, on the apparent paradox between the idea that play is spontaneous and free and the idea that players must follow rules:

“The … paradox is that in play [the child] adopts the line of least resistance—she does what she most feels like doing because play is connected with pleasure—and at the same time she learns to follow the line of greatest resistance by subordinating herself to rules and thereby renouncing what she wants, since subjection to rules and renunciation of impulsive action constitute the path to maximum pleasure in play. Play continually creates demands on the child to act against immediate impulse. At every step the child is faced with a conflict between the rules of the game and what she would do if she could suddenly act spontaneously. … Thus, the essential attribute of play is a rule that has become a desire. …. The rule wins because it is the strongest impulse. Such a rule is an internal rule, a rule of self-restraint and self-determination …. In this way a child’s greatest achievements are possible in play, achievements that tomorrow will become her basic level of real action and morality.”[1]

Vygotsky's point, of course, is that the child's desire to play is so strong that it becomes a motivating force for learning self-control. The child resists impulses and temptations that would run counter to the rules because the child seeks the larger pleasure of remaining in the game. To Vygotsky's analysis, I would add that the child accepts and desires the rules of play only because he or she is always free to quit if the rules become too burdensome. With that in mind, the paradox can be seen to be superficial. The child's real-life freedom is not restricted by the rules of the game, because the child can at any moment choose to leave the game. That is another reason why the freedom to quit is such a crucial aspect of the definition of play. Without that freedom, rules of play would be intolerable. To be required to act like Wonder Woman in real life would be terrifying, but to act like that in play––a realm you are always free to leave––is great fun.

Along with Vygotsky, I would contend that the greatest of play’s many values for our species lies in the learning of self-control. Self-control is the essence of being human. We commonly say that people behave like “animals,” rather than like humans, when they fail to abide by socially agreed-upon rules and, instead, impulsively follow their immediate drives and whims. Everywhere, to live in human society, people must behave in accordance with conscious, shared mental conceptions of what is appropriate; and that is what children practice constantly in their play. In play, from their own desires, children practice the art of being human.

4. Play is non-literal, imaginative, marked off in some way from reality.

Another apparent paradox of play, also pointed out by Vygotsky, is that play is serious yet not serious, real yet not real. In play one enters a realm that is physically located in the real world, makes use of props in the real world, is often about the real world, is said by the players to be real, and yet in some way is mentally removed from the real world.

Imagination, or fantasy, is most obvious in sociodramatic play, where the players create the characters and plot, but it is also present to some degree in all other forms of human play. In rough and tumble play, the fight is a pretend one, not a real one. In constructive play, the players say that they are building a castle, but they know it is a pretend castle, not a real one. In formal games with explicit rules, the players must accept an already established fictional situation that provides the foundation for the rules. For example, in the real world bishops can move in any direction they choose, but in the fantasy world of chess they can move only on the diagonals.

The fantasy aspect of play is intimately connected to play’s rule-based nature. Because play takes place in a fantasy world, it must be governed by rules that are in the minds of the players rather than by laws of nature. In reality, one cannot ride a horse unless a real horse is physically present; but in play one can ride a horse whenever the game's rules permit or prescribe it. In reality, a broom is just a broom, but in play it can be a horse. In reality, a chess piece is just a carved bit of wood, but in chess it is a bishop or a knight that has well-defined capacities and limitations for movement that are not even hinted at in the carved wood itself. The fictional situation dictates the rules of the game; the actual physical world within which the game is played is secondary. Through play the child learns to take charge of the world and not simply respond passively to it. In play the child’s mental concept dominates, and the child molds available elements of the physical world to meet that concept.

Play of all sorts has “time in” and “time out,” though that is more obvious for some forms of play than others. Time in is the period of fiction. Time out is the temporary return to reality—perhaps to tie one’s shoes, or go to the bathroom, or correct a playmate who hasn't been following the rules. During time in one does not say, “I am just playing,” any more than does Shakespeare’s Hamlet announce from the stage that he is merely pretending to murder his stepfather.

Adults sometimes become confused by the seriousness of children’s play and by children’s refusal, while playing, to say that they are playing. They worry needlessly that children don’t distinguish fantasy from reality. When my son was four years old he was Superman for periods that sometimes lasted more than a day. During those periods he would deny vigorously that he was only pretending to be Superman, and this worried his nursery school teacher. She was only partly mollified when I pointed out that he never attempted to leap off of actual tall buildings or stop real railroad trains and that he would acknowledge that he had been playing when he finally did declare time out by removing his cape. To acknowledge that play is play is to remove the magic spell; it automatically turns time in into time out.

An amazing fact of human nature is that even 2-year-olds know the difference between real and pretend. A 2-year-old who turns a cup filled with imaginary water over a doll and says, “Oh oh, dolly all wet,” knows that the doll isn’t really wet. It would be impossible to teach such young children such a subtle concept as pretense, yet they understand it. Apparently, the fictional mode of thinking, and the ability to keep that mode distinct from the literal mode, are innate to the human mind. That innate capacity is part of the inborn capacity for play.

The fantasy element of play is often not as obvious, or as full-blown, in adults’ play as in children’s play. That is one reason why adults’ play is typically not of the 100% variety. Yet, I would argue, fantasy occupies a big role in much if not most of what adults do and is a major element in our intuitive sense of the degree to which adult activities are play. An architect designing a house is designing a real house. Yet, the architect brings a good deal of imagination to bear in visualizing the house, imagining how people might use it, and matching it with some aesthetic concepts that she has in mind. It is reasonable to say that the architect builds a pretend house, in her mind and on paper, before it becomes a real one.

When I say that my writing this blog is about 80% play, I am taking into account not only my sense of freedom about doing it, my enjoyment of the process, and the fact that I’m following rules (about writing) that I accept as my own, but also the fact that a considerable degree of imagination is involved. I’m not making up the facts, but I am making up the way of stringing them together, and I am imagining how you might respond to what I am writing. Sometimes my fantasy goes even further, and I imagine that the ideas I’m presenting will have certain positive effects on society. So, fantasy is moving me along in this, much as it moves a child along in building a sandcastle or pretending to be Superman. The fact that parts of my fantasy could possibly turn into reality does not negate its status as fantasy.

5. Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind.

This final characteristic of play follows naturally from the other four. Because play involves conscious control of one’s own behavior, with attention to process and rules, it requires an active, alert mind. Players do not just passively absorb information from the environment, or reflexively respond to stimuli, or behave automatically in accordance with habit. Moreover, because play is not a response to external demands or immediate strong biological needs, the person at play is relatively free from the strong drives and emotions that are experienced as pressure or stress. And because the player’s attention is focused on process more than outcome, the player’s mind is not distracted by fear of failure. So, the mind at play is active and alert, but not stressed. The mental state of play is what some researchers call “flow.” Attention is attuned to the activity itself, and there is reduced consciousness of self and time. The mind is wrapped up in the ideas, rules, and actions of the game.

This point about the mental state of play is very important for understanding play’s value as a mode of learning and creative production. The alert but unstressed condition of the playful mind is precisely the condition that has been shown repeatedly, in many psychological experiments, to be ideal for creativity and the learning of new skills. Such experiments are normally not described as experiments on play, but it is no stretch to interpret them as that. What the experiments show is that strong pressure to perform well (which induces a non-playful state) improves performance on tasks that are mentally easy or habitual for the person, but worsens performance on tasks that require creativity, or conscious decision making, or the learning of new skills. In contrast, anything that is done to reduce the person’s concern with outcome and to increase the person’s enjoyment of the task for its own sake—that is, anything that increases playfulness—has the opposite effect.

Strong pressure to perform well inhibits creativity and learning by focusing attention strongly and narrowly on the goal, thereby reducing the ability to focus on means. In the pressured state, one tends to fall back on instinctive or well-learned ways of doing things. That way of responding to pressure is adaptive in many emergency situations. When a tiger is chasing you, you use whatever means you have already learned for getting away or hiding; that is not a good time to experiment with new ways. Experts in any realm can usually perform well in the pressured state because they can call on their well-learned, habitual modes of responding and don’t need to learn anything new or act creatively. Their attention can focus on producing the best possible outcome using the repertoire of actions that are already second nature to them.

When we pressure students to do well on their schoolwork by constantly evaluating their work, we put them into a non-playful, goal-directed state that may motivate those who already know how to do it to perform well, but inhibits experimentation and learning in those who don’t already know how. Pressure widens the performance gap between experts and novices. Even experts, though, must play at their activity of expertise if they are going to rise to still higher levels of expertise. And, in some realms, such as art and essay writing, creativity is required no matter how much experience a person has had, and a playful mind always performs best in those realms.

When an activity becomes so easy, so habitual, that it no longer requires conscious mental effort, it may lose its status as play. That is why players keep making the game harder, or different, or keep raising the criteria for success. A game is a game only if an active, alert mind is required to do it well.

Does this extended definition of play make sense to you? Does it fit with the way that you think of play in everyday life? I ask this question genuinely. I want, for my own work, to be sure that I am using a concept of play that fits with the concept of play that people find useful in everyday discourse. I would very much appreciate your comments on this.

As I said, over the next few weeks I will be elaborating on the various functions of play, both for children and for adults, and I will refer from time to time to the definition of play that I have provided in this post. Stay tuned.

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Lev S. Vygotsky, “The Role of Play in Development,” in M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman (Eds.). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, 92-104. (1978, original essay published in 1933).

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