Definitions of play vary from the concept that such activities are not consciously performed for the sake of any result, as outlined by leading American educationalist John Dewey (1859 to 1952), to the idea that all behavior displayed by children is play. Research into play is found predominantly in the field of psychology.
Dewey built on the knowledge of key figures such as Swiss educator Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746 to 1827), who believed that children primarily learn by doing. Dewey was also inspired by the work of the great German educator Friedrich Froebel (1782 to 1852). Froebel strongly felt that play had a crucial role in a child's development. These influential theorists examined how skills gained through play, such as problem solving, language and math skills, developed as children were given the opportunity to explore their surroundings.
Play generally relates to children, as it is a naturally occurring and quintessential development activity conducted in their formative years. Play is characterized by children's engagement with objects and other players, in which children decide which activities they participate in and define the nature of their interaction with that activity.
Observations of children at play provide researchers with an insight into various competencies the child possesses, from communication skills, role taking and co-operation to motor co-ordination. It is suggested that play, which is often used as an instructional tool, may represent the imperfect version of mature behaviors that must be learnt.
Bateson (1981) suggests the scaffolding view, where the notion of play is used in the assembly of skills and then disassembled when the skill has been mastered. An example is when pretend play occurs to aid the learning of societal roles among adults. Bateson suggests that when play is considered to be important to the niche of children it is considered to be metamorphic. This is where the child relates to a sense of potency and self-efficacy in activities they have not mastered, therefore motivating the child to persevere.
Rubin (1983) suggests that play can be defined according to the context, which would typically evoke playful behavior. The context of the situation can be useful to determine if behavior is playful or not. For example, behaviors in a playground with familiar friends and play objects that actively engage children are usually present in play contexts. The freedom of choice to play, stress free and quality environments are critical factors as to whether children exhibit playful behaviors.
Piaget (1962) presents play as an observable behavior including the functional elements, symbolic and games with rules. Piaget suggests that the concept of play is primarily assimilation of the environment, incorporating stimuli into their current cognitive schema. When children detach functional motor behaviors from the contexts in which they were developed this is called practice play. Symbolic play sees children using representational communications, such as gestures or words to designate real events and people.
Leading thinkers in this field believe that when a child is unable to play, it is an indication of distress. The use of play allows the process of making the connection between the past, present and future. Play is seen as a middle ground between the impossible and the probable.
According to neuroscience research outlined by Play Therapy United Kingdom, play is crucially important in the development of a child's brain in the formative years. The exposure to both metaphor and symbols through play can have a major positive impact upon this development. The organization regards play as an activity that assists learning and self-development, which can be undertaken by individuals or groups of children, whether the event is spontaneous or planned.
Play activity is sensory, perceptual and potentially symbolic. Through the use of symbols, play can enhance the representational thought and abstract elaboration. It is seen that play activities facilitates the modification of past experiences and devising new coping strategies. During therapy, the child may transform his perspective on significant relationships and alter their adaption to the surroundings.
Slade (1994) suggests that in the treatment of young and ‘more disturbed' children the emphasis in therapy lies in facilitating the discovery of hidden meanings of play activity. By enacting experiences and feelings through play, rather than speaking words, the child develops some structure, whereby the therapist can start to understand meanings and feelings.