Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The Promise of Play

Why do we play? How does it benefit us?

People play to change the world, to turn it to their purposes, to invent things that were not there before. At the end of their endeavors, they discover it is they themselves who have been changed.

Why do people – of every age and circumstance of life – play? There are many ways of thinking about this. For some scholars, play is a biological matter. They see play as a physiological nudge or shove-in-the back, a dimly understood compulsion to get up, move about, and express oneself. Like other species, humans respond to specific encouragements of body and brain. It is in our nature to establish complicated patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior. Play, as the willful presentation and exploration of such behaviors, facilitates that development.

Play also is a significant psychological affair. We humans are fascinated by the prospect of controlling our own behavior, of being active subjects in our own lives. In that light, play encounters are forms of engagement or dialogue, interchanges between the external forms and forces of the world and our own powers to confront and perhaps direct these. That quality of un-settlement and tension – for play is inevitably precarious, confusing, and unpredictable – makes play fun. Players crave excitement of that sort and the gratification that comes from playing well. More profoundly, they seek to remind themselves that they have the ability to control the terms of their own actions in the world, that they can break the spell of routines that are oftentimes disadvantageous, demoralizing, and depressing. In play, optimism reigns.

Play is social as well. People flourish through companionship. Frequently, those companions invite us to play with them. Usually, that activity raises our spirits, even when initially we are disinclined to participate. Other people constitute our principal forms of support and the best standards against which to measure our own achievements. They grant us placement in their groups. They provide feedback on our behaviors. They tell us who we are. Playing with others gives us chances to explore new statuses and to evaluate the meanings of these. Without censure, players inhabit different versions of themselves. For that reason, playgrounds are the great laboratories of social learning.

Don’t forget the role of culture. We communicate with one another through established forms – publicly circulated beliefs, values, norms, images, and skills. Those shared symbols make possible collective play. And sometimes – as when we create stories, make pictures, or tell jokes – those symbols become the focus of that activity. We play “in” culture but we also play “at” it and “with” it. More than that, culture encourages – and discourages – us from playing. Culture honors certain forms of play as well as certain times and places for those endeavors. It suggests which types of play are appropriate for which types of people. Sometimes, we play to meet these expectations; sometimes we play to violate them.

Last, but not least, is the environment. Certain conditions optimize play; other forestall it. Give us a kite and a windy day and we will have fun. The same can be said for a pool of warm water, a box of wooden blocks, or a craggy hill that is “asking” to be climbed. Much as we do with culture, we play “in” the physical environment, but we also confront specific elements of that world. Through environmental explorations, we learn the boundaries of existence – and the possibilities for expanding those limits.

In all these ways, the world invites us to play. To enter those playgrounds we pay our dues of time, energy, inspiration, and goodwill.

What does play give us in return? In my view, the gift of play is self-realization.

For every creature, the challenge of living is to determine where one stands in situations and to learn what one can there. Existence is ceaseless reconnaissance. Some species inhabit limited environments and develop very specific skill-sets to survive in these. Species of that type do not need to play. But other species, like our own, operate in very open, complicated environments. They face many kinds of challenges; no single behavior guarantees survival. Indeed, the mixture of useful behaviors is both ill-defined and ever-changing. Creatures like that must establish very flexible arrays of thought, feeling, and behavior. In many species, youth is the period set aside for this development. In humans, that quest continues for a lifetime.

We play, then, to develop patterns of recognition-and-response, essentially ways of noticing, evaluating, and responding to the world’s occurrences. Creatures like us have orientation systems that we develop throughout our lives. We rely on those systems. We live inside them; they are fundamental to who we are. But we also treasure the ability to decide which of these patterns we will employ at any time; it pleases us to start and stop those patterns at will. Once again, play activities are the occasions where we practice these possibilities for creation and control.

That sense – of comprehending who we are and what we can do – I call the “self.” Living persons have selves. That is to say, we inhabit our placements in the world; indeed, we are embedded deeply in them. But we humans also can separate ourselves mentally from our immediate settings. We can focus on “situations” that transcend the narrow confines of our perceptual surround. We can dream of things that never were and never will be. We can plan the future. We can choose to do one thing and not another.

The behavior of every creature is “conditioned,” often by factors beyond its control. When creatures play – and this is especially true for humans – they change the terms of those conditions. They interrupt the invisible connections of cause and effect that shackle ordinary existence. Players elevate themselves; they see the world with a new sight. Unafraid, they challenge themselves to change, to become what they have not been before.

When we “realize” ourselves in play then, we explore these possibilities. Although imagination is a crucial setting for play, most play features concrete behaviors. “Acting” in the world (and the concept of action suggests some level of conscious choice), we encounter other things that exist in their own right. Those things, including other people, sometimes allow us to proceed without interference; they may even support our desires. At other times, they resist us, seemingly with a will of their own. Just because the world treats us in these varying ways, we thicken our understandings of the possibilities of living. This knowledge is not simply intellectual; it is practical or applied. Like scientists or artists, players test out ideas by implementing concrete behaviors in the world. Only then can we know what works and what doesn’t, what is useful to us and what must be relegated to the realm of the fantastical.

To be sure, there are different types and settings of play – and different ways of playing. But that variation is unified by play’s general quest to explore the countless strategies for living. In my view, play is the fundamental pathway of experience that centers on “goal-attainment.” In a process without end, players envision the possibilities of situations, define behavior trajectories, develop strategies for fulfilling these, employ these strategies, and examine results. At base, the specific ends of the activity in question are not so important. The real end is self-knowledge.

The gift of play then is that fuller sense of who we are – and who we can be. As part of that process, we learn that other people are important contributors to those feelings of capability and support. We learn about culture, those symbol systems that frame our self-understanding and enhance our communication with others. In its best forms, play emboldens minds and strengthens bodies. It acquaints us with the material environment and teaches that our physical acts have consequences for the world we depend on.

If play were to make promises to us, what would these be? That everyone with an open heart will be admitted to the “magic circle”. Whatever their level of experience and ability, entrants will find themselves challenged. Those difficulties are to be embraced, willingly, by all. No person will present preordained solutions or techniques to others. Instead, each will craft their own responses to their own self-conceived problems. No one will be forced to play, or to stay beyond the time that their interest sustains them. There will be uncertainty and wonderment. There will be fun, magnified by feelings of comradeship. People will leave the playground invigorated by the sense that they now know something about the world – and about themselves – that they did not know before.


Henricks, T. (2015). Play and the Human Condition. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.