Academic journal article American Journal of Play

Free Choice or Adaptable Choice: Self-Determination Theory and Play

Academic journal article American Journal of Play

Free Choice or Adaptable Choice: Self-Determination Theory and Play

Article excerpt


SELF-DETERMINATION THEORY (SDT) defines motivation as based on three, basic, psychological needs-competence, relatedness (the desire to feel connected to others), and autonomy (Ryan and Deci 2000). Those interested in SDT consider choice important to motivation (Deci and Ryan 1985, Ryan and Deci, 2000; Deci and Ryan 2000; Gagné 2003), and they tend to characterize it in one of three ways-no choice, controlled choice, and autonomous choice. "It seems," write Deci and Ryan (2000), "that when people are more able to satisfy all three of their basic psychological needs, the regulation of their behavior will be characterized by choice, volition, and autonomy rather than pressure, demand, and control, and the result will be higher quality behavior and greater psychological well-being" (243).

This approach comports with contemporary theories of play that suggest children benefit from playful activity because it frees them from the fear of failure and makes them better able to try a fuller and more flexible range of behaviors (Bruner 1974; Sutton-Smith 1979; Howard and Miles 2008). These theories usefully explain robust empirical research that compares children's behavior at play and not at play, which often demonstrates how playing children are better at solving problems (e.g. Mclnnes et al. 2009, 2011) and offers increased evidence of their emotional well-being (e.g. Howard and Mclnnes 2013).

Researchers have looked at SDT from several perspectives such as sport (De Meester et al. 2014), health (Ng et al. 2012), and education (Eyal and Roth 2011). Some have also studied SDT and such topics as children's physical play (Sebire et al. 2013), the use of video games (Przybylski, Rigby, and Ryan 2010), and the relationship between play and some parenting styles (Joussemet, Landry, and Koestner 2008). Currently however, no research exists that has considered the relationship between SDT and the level of choice play provides (Garvey 1977). A discussion linking SDT and its role in children's play appears long overdue, particularly when we consider that the widely accepted definition of play as a freely chosen activity directly affects some policies and practices related to play.

Both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland's play policies officially define play as "freely chosen, intrinsically motivated and with no external goals" (Welsh Assembly Government [WAG] 2002; National Children's Office [NCO] 2004; Office for First Minister and Deputy First Minister [OFMDFM] 2008; Scottish Government [SG] 2013; and this is also reflected in a global statement of play (International Play Association [IPA] 2014).

Although choice is a strong feature of play (e.g. Bruce 1994), this definition of play depends on the adult perception of children's activities rather than on the views of children about their activities (King and Howard 2014a). Thus, how those who develop policy and how those who put that policy into practice look at play are often at odds, especially for early childhood education (Wood 2004, 2007). Part of this conflict revolves around adult-led and child-led play- whether to offer no-choice or controlled-choice (adult-led) or autonomouschoice (child-led) play. Bergen (1988) developed a definition for school activities based on the amount of choice, possibility, and opportunity children enjoy. When children enjoyed the greatest degree of choice, she termed the activity free play. As the level of choice moved from child to adult, the terms change to guided play, directed play, work disguised as play and, finally, work.

We consider children's free play as their own time, often not linked to any educational outcome-for example, playing at home or on the school play- ground. However, even when the practitioner aims to create free play within the classroom, we would often consider what occurs as directed play or work disguised as play to meet educational outcomes. According to Wood (2004b, 2007), in UK education policy for early childhood, practitioners found that play used for teaching followed learning outcomes and was often controlled, high-lighting the difference between policy and practice in the interpretations of play. …

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