What is Play?

What is the powerful word and why do we believe so much into it?

It may look like children only waste their time pretending they are something they are not, while they could be at school learning how to write. But they are not wasting time, just the opposite! Play is where the learning for life appears.

Through play, children learn skills which they will need during their lives, and there is a lot to learn! Similarly, some animals also play to get ready for life. Humans have an extra task on their plate, and that is learning for their culture. Everyone living in a specific environment from the geographical and societal perspective needs to learn how things are done specifically for their culture. Any parent can observe this for example when their children copy what they do, such as going to work, cooking, taking care of babies, etc. Anthropologists have noted that children from farming cultures would play at farming, while those from hunter-gatherer cultures would play at hunting and gathering (see Gray, 2012a; Lancy, 2015). Not only they copy their parents, but they are learning important skills specific for the society they are living in.

Peter Grey, an expert in this field, identified four characteristics of play. Play is always self-chosen and self-directed, intrinsically motivated, guided by mental rules that leave room for creativity, and imaginative (Gray, 2012b). Intrinsically motivated here mean that children play because they want to, they find it pleasable and interesting, not because they would get any reward for playing. In addition, during play children have control over what is happening.

Would you not send your kid to school?

If we take away play from children, we basically prevent them from learning important life skills. It is like not sending them to school! During play, children learn how to behave and communicate with each other, what are norms, or about ethics. They learn how to control activity and set up rules, how to follow them, and when to change them.

Sadly, even with so many classes available to catch up on Zoom, it seems that this one, once skipped, will not be rerun.


Gray, P. (2012a). The value of a play-filled childhood in development of the hunter-gatherer individual. In D. Narvaez, J. Panksepp, A. Schore, & T. Gleason (Eds.), Evolution, early experience and human development: From research to practice and policy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press

Lancy, D. F. (2015). The anthropology of childhood: Cherubs, chattel, changelings (2nd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

Huizinga, J. (1955). Homo Ludens: A study of the playelement in culture. Boston, MA: Beacon Press

Gray, P. (2012b). Definition of play. In Encyclopedia of play science. Retrieved from http://www.scholar pedia.org/article/Encyclopedia_of_Play_Science. Accessed June 24, 2017.

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