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Making Meaningful Sense of Play

by John Kilbourne, Movement Science, Grand Valley State University

Over the past several years there has been a renewed interest in the meaning and importance of play. Play has been featured in the New York Times Magazine, Taking Play Seriously, and in two fairly recent books, Stuart Brown's Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (2009), and Bateson's and Martin's Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation (2013).

As part of my doctoral program in the early 1990s at The Ohio State University (Building a Bridge Between Athletics and Academics), I was fortunate to study the importance of play and many of the early play theorists. These included the 18th Century educator Jean Jacques Rousseau who in Emile wrote about the importance of play for children.

Rousseau began with the idea that children should be outdoors and active. In so doing, the child would develop his senses through his experiences. The senses would then provide the background against which ideas took shape. By moving and touching everything, seeing, and hearing, tasting and smelling, the child would begin to associate the objects of the external world with the five senses (Mechikoff, 2010, p. 160).

Later the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky suggested that play was, "...a critical part of childhood, allowing a child, as he said in one oft-repeated quote, to stand 'a head taller than himself'" (Bartlett, 2011, p. B6).

Following Vygotsky, the preeminent play theorist Johan Huizinga (1950) described the characteristics of play in his noteworthy book, Homo Ludens,

Summing up the formal characteristics of play we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside "ordinary" life as being "not serious," but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings, which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means (Huizinga, 1950, p. 13).

Adding to the work of Huizinga was Roger Caillois (1961) who in Man, Play and Games, identifies the following six characteristics of play (p. 128):

  1. Free: in which play is not obligatory; if it were, it would at once lose its attractive and joyous quality as diversion;
  2. Separate: circumscribed within limits of space and time, defined and fixed in advance;
  3. Uncertain: the course of which cannot be determined nor the result attained beforehand, and some latitude for innovations being left to the player’s initiative;
  4. Unproductive: creating neither goods, nor wealth, nor new elements of any kind; and, except for the exchange of property among the players, ending in a situation identical to that prevailing at the beginning of the game.
  5. Governed by rules: under conventions that suspend ordinary laws, and for the moment establish new legistlation, which alone counts;
  6. Make believe: accompanied by a special awareness of a second reality or of a free unreality, as against real life.

More recently, Stuart Brown (2009) who has chronicled more than six thousand patient play histories, affirmed the importance of play in his book, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. He lists the following seven "Properties of Play" (p. 16):

  1. Apparently purposeless (done for its own sake)
  2. Voluntary
  3. Inherent attraction
  4. Freedom from time
  5. Diminished consciousness of self
  6. Improvisational potential
  7. Continuation desire

And just last year, Bateson and Martin (2013) introduced their pivotal book, Play, Playfulness, Creativity, and Innovation in which they discuss the biology, functions, and evolution of play. They describe five characteristics of play (p. 2):

  1. The behavior is spontaneous and rewarding to the individual.
  2. It is intrinsically motivated and its performance is a goal in itself.
  3. The behavior occurs in a protected context when the play is neither ill nor stressed.
  4. The behavior is incomplete or exaggerated relative to non-playful behavior in adults.
  5. It is performed repeatedly.

As informative as all of these writers have been, they seem to me to fall short when it comes to acknowledging the essence of play and its importance in child and adult development. This "essence" was actually brought to life by our daughter Zoé, who when she was just three years old helped to clarify my understanding about the meaning and importance of play. At this time, more than twenty years ago, I was studying play and play theory at The Ohio State University.

Witnessing Zoé's play brought to life for me the writings of the play theorists. What follows, is one of her early play journeys and an exploration of the many important lessons she and I learned. My hope is that by sharing her story others may be motivated to make their lives and teaching experiences more playful. Attempting to stay within the spirit of play her story is shared as a conversation Zoé and I had several years after the actual event.

The Conversation

Zoé - Dad, remember the time I went down that big slide in Columbus, Ohio? Remember that boy who I played with? Can you tell me that story again?

Daddy - Yes, I remember. The slide story is important because your play with the young boy and the slide helped your dad understand the many wonders of play. Your simple lesson taught me to appreciate how important play is to our life.

Zoé - Remember that little boy dad? He was pretty silly wasn't he? How old was he?

Daddy - You are probably about his age now, 7 years old. I wonder if he still lives in Columbus and still goes to that park. I am so thankful to you and that little boy for sharing with me the essence of play.

(I've listed The Wonders or Characteristics of Play here as a prelude to their discussion in our conversation. The ten wonders come from the literature and many experiences I've had with and about play.)

One - Play involves movement of the bodily being.
Two - Play is a voluntary activity (free).
Three - Play involves risk.
Four - Play involves imitation of other humans and the environment.
Five - Play involves pretending (make believe).
Six - Play involves bonding between other humans and the environment.
Seven - Play involves alternation and change.
Eight - The product of play is only play (play is not done for profit or material gain).
Nine - Play involves a solution or resolution.

And, despite what outsiders might think or say, to the participants.

Ten - Play is a very serious activity.

Daddy - We were living in Columbus, Ohio while Daddy was working on his doctorate at The Ohio State University. One day when I had a morning free, you and I went across the street from where we lived to play in the Park of Roses. It was a beautiful fall morning.

Zoé - Yes, I remember. We lived in that tiny apartment and Cindy lived across the hall from us. Doesn't Cindy live in Puerto Rico now?

Daddy - Yes, and she has a young brother. What was his name?

Zoé - I don't remember. It was a funny name. Maybe Alvin?

Daddy - I don't remember either. While at the park you noticed a young boy, 6 or 7 years old, climbing-up and swishing down a giant slide that stood in the corner of the park. You ran quickly (movement) over to the tall slide. This was the first time your dad had ever seen you go near this particular slide (voluntary).

At first you stood very patiently next to the slide and watched the young boy climb up the ladder and swish down the slide. Shortly thereafter you walked over to the tall ladder and slowly began to climb towards the top (risk). I quickly ran over to the slide when I realized that you were actually going to climb to the top of the ladder. Only being three years old, I wanted to make sure that you did not stumble or fall.

I remained quietly behind the ladder as you made your way to the top. When you reached the top, you sat your small body down and waited on the landing, thinking about your next move. You had sensed the young boy's action on the slide and seemed ready to copy his feat (imitation). Carefully, you nudged yourself away from the landing and swished down the slippery slope. What do you think your face looked like as you gathered your thoughts at the bottom of the slide? Can you show me?

Zoé - Was I happy?

Daddy - Yes! Do you remember that moment? Can you show me?

Zoé - No! (Zoe smiles and chuckles).

Daddy - See! You do remember. As you stood on the ground near the bottom of the slide your face was filled with happiness and joy. You had accomplished something that you had never done before. For a brief moment you were a different person who would never be the same because a new dimension had just been added to your being (pretending). And this, your first journey with your new friends, the little boy and the slide, was just the beginning (bonding with another human being and the environment).

Zoé - Then what did the little boy do? Tell me that part.

Daddy - After watching your first triumph, a friendship developed without even talking. Your new friend went back to the ladder and climbed to the top again (alternation). At the top, he turned his body over onto his stomach and swished down the slide on his tummy. Seeing this new method of going down the slide, you proceeded to climb the ladder again.

I again remained behind the ladder to insure your safety. When you reached the top you, like your new friend, turned yourself over onto your tummy (change). This intricate position took some slick maneuvering on your part. Laying on your tummy you carefully pushed yourself away from the safety of the landing and swished down the slippery slide a second time. When you arrived at the bottom your face was once again glowing with happiness.

Zoé - Then what did the little boy do?

Daddy - Be patient. I'll tell you. After the tummy slide, your new friend scurried up the ladder a third time and rested on the landing. Without any talking between the two of you, you climbed the ladder and sat down behind the young boy. He waited patiently as you adjusted your legs near his body. How you knew what to do is one of the many mysteries of play. Once in place, the two of you went down the slide together. When you reached the bottom of the slide both of you were filled with a sense of delight. You smiled at each other and acknowledged your success. The young boy then ran away to another area of the park while you stood and thought about your accomplishments (resolution).

Zoé - I wish I could go down a big slide like that again. Isn't there a slide like the one in Columbus in the park by Cranberry World? Maybe we can go there someday.

Lessons Learned

Witnessing the events on that beautiful fall morning in the Park of Roses provided me with an awakening of sorts. Thanks to Zoé and the young boy I was simultaneously able to make sense out of the wonders of play. I had witnessed movement, free activity, risk, imitation, pretending, bonding, alternation, change, and resolution. Moreover, I had seen two young children who were engaged in what was to them a very serious activity.

Zoé's play with the young boy on the slide taught her that she could challenge herself and be triumphant. She gained an understanding and an adoration for her physical capabilities. She also gained an appreciation and a respect for learning about and from other human beings and the world around her. There were no extraneous agendas or strings attached (no profit or material benefits).

The wonders of play were Zoé's path to knowledge and experience about herself and her world. Like Zoé, every one of us has acquired wisdom through the wonders of play. We have created and recreated our world with play.

Play is overflowing with intrinsic rewards. I've already discussed some of these rewards. For example, there are the intrinsic rewards gained when humans experience their bodies being physical. There's the importance of bonding with other humans. Play's other intrinsic rewards include freedom, learning to take risks, learning through imitation, learning to bond with the environment, learning to alternate and change, and learning about resolution.

Learning about freedom (voluntary activity) is a special intrinsic reward from our participation in play. We are free to choose to play or free to choose not to play. Our bodily beings are unconstrained. This freedom although brief, teaches humans that they can be self-governing and independent beings. When you combine this reward with the previously mentioned reward of working cooperatively with other human beings (bonding) you have the essential ingredients for an emancipated and democratic society. Play can be a model for a free and cooperative world.

Learning to take risks is another intrinsic reward we receive from participating in play. Risks are simply anything that frightens us. Through play we learn to take risks and in so doing we overcome our fears. Zoé's mastery of the giant slide is an excellent example of how play provides opportunities for humans to overcome their fears. Moreover our successes in and through play inspire us to risk again. Slowly, play's process of fear and mastery pushes us forward.

Still another notable play reward is imitation: Through imitation we learn. We observe other humans and our environment, and copy the movement, language, personality, and energy. We have learned what to be from copying. We have become someone or something else (pretending). Social psychologists call this phenomenon "Social Learning Theory." At the root of this theory is the wonder of play.

Because play can be a rehearsal of things to come it is important that the imitative and pretending experiences be moral and wholesome. If human beings imitate too many immoral or unwholesome experiences, they may be rehearsing for a life filled with decadence and despair. We must realize that through play people are listening, people are seeing, and people are learning.

Bonding with the environment is yet another reward we receive from playing. Play provides the means for humans to establish relationships between themselves and the environment. The environmental playground is our classroom. This is the arena where we learn respect and an appreciation for the world around us. Through play, participants learn to treasure fresh air, sparkling water, beautiful skies, and other living things. Although often overlooked, this connection is extremely important. It provides human beings with opportunities to respect, appreciate, and therefore preserve the grandeur of our environmental playground. In creating and maintaining positive relationships in our environmental playground we are forced to learn about alternation and change.

Alternation and change are two of play's finest rewards. Alternation teaches us important lessons about sharing and helps us to expand our feelings towards other human beings and the environment. Alternation is facilitated by our openness to accept change. To alternate we must be willing to add to, or delete from our thoughts, ideas, principles, habits, and customs. The wonder of play provides an infinite array of opportunities for us to learn about and practice both alternation and change.

Another reward we receive from our participation in play is that eventually it will play-out. In other words there will always be a solution or resolution. The resolutions from play could be as simple as Zoé's radiance after her success on the slide or as complex as ten judges trying to resolve the unsuccessful performance of a figure skater. The resolution could also be one of sorrow after an agonizing defeat or one of glory after exhilarating success. One of the great rewards from play is that it teaches us that sooner or later, regardless of the complexity, sorrow, or glory, our efforts will yield a resolution. It is our awareness of, and our anticipation for the resolution that inspires us to play again, and again, and again.

Zoé's story has hopefully helped you understand that play is immensely important and provides humans with a myriad of lessons and intrinsic rewards. These rewards have furnished the sustenance that secured our continued progress and evolution. Any phenomenon with that record of success deserves our steadfast commitment to insure continued responsible progress and honorable evolution.


Biography: John Kilbourne, Ph.D. is a professor of Movement Science at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, MI. He is the author of, "Running with Zoe: A Conversation on the Meaning of Play, Games and Sport: Including a Journey to the Canadian Arctic."

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