Dr David Whitebread
University of Cambridge
With Marisol Basilio, Martina Kuvalja and Mohini Verma
A report on the value of children’s play with a series of policy recommendations
W r i tt en f or T oy I n d u st ri e s o f Eu ro pe ( TI E)
A pr il 2 01 2
The importance of play
Table of Contents
Part 1. Aims of the Report ........................................................................................................ 3
Part 2. Executive Summary ....................................................................................................... 5
Authors and Contributors ...................................................................................................... 7
Part 3. Review of Research ....................................................................................................... 8
3.1 Archeological, historical, anthropological and sociological research .............................. 8
3.2 Evolutionary and psychological research ...................................................................... 13
3.3 The five types of play ..................................................................................................... 18
3.4 Environmental and social factors supporting or inhibiting play .................................... 24
3.5 The consequences of play deprivation .......................................................................... 28
3.6 The work and views of European play researchers ....................................................... 29
Part 4. The work and views of European Play Organisations ................................................ 35
4.1 The work of European play organisations ..................................................................... 35
4.2 Views of European play organisations on issues related to childrens play .................. 37
Part 5. Policy Review and Recommendations ........................................................................ 40
Part 6. Bibliography ................................................................................................................. 48
Part 1. Aims of the Report
Play is sometimes contrasted with work and characterised as a type of activity which is
essentially unimportant, trivial and lacking in any serious purpose. As such, it is seen as
something that children do because they are immature, and as something they will grow out
of as they become adults. However, as this report is intended to demonstrate, this view is
mistaken. Play in all its rich variety is one of the highest achievements of the human species,
alongside language, culture and technology. Indeed, without play, none of these other
achievements would be possible. The value of play is increasingly recognised, by researchers
and within the policy arena, for adults as well as children, as the evidence mounts of its
relationship with intellectual achievement and emotional well-being.
This report, however, focuses on the value of childrens play. It is a particularly important
time for this to be recognised, as modern European societies face increasing challenges,
including those that are economic, social and environmental. At the same time, the
opportunities and support for childrens play, which is critical to their development of the
abilities they will need as future citizens able to address these challenges, are themselves
under threat. This arises from increasing urbanisation, from increasing stress in family life,
and from changes in educational systems.
Within the educational field, during recent decades the importance of high quality early
childhood education has been increasingly recognised by the research community and by
governments and policy makers throughout Europe and world-wide. However, the nature of
high quality in this context has been contested. While in some European countries the
emphasis continues to be upon providing young children with rich, stimulating experiences
within a nurturing social context, increasingly in many countries within Europe and across the
world, an earlier is better approach has been adopted, with an emphasis upon introducing
young children at the earliest possible stage to the formal skills of literacy and numeracy. This
is inimical to the provision and support for rich play opportunities. What is increasingly
recognised within the research and policy communities, however, is that one vital ingredient
in supporting healthy intellectual, emotional and social development in young children is the
provision of opportunities and the support for play.
The purposes and functions of play in childrens development have been researched for well
over a century by thinkers and scientists from a range of disciplines. Part 3 of this report
provides an overview of the range of research concerned with childrens play
(anthropological, sociological, historical, psychological, educational) which has established the
value of play for learning and development (and the consequences of a lack of play
opportunities). This includes sections reviewing the research concerned with each of the five
main types of play in which human children engage (physical play, play with objects, symbolic
play, pretence/socio-dramatic play and games with rules) and the implications of each area of
research for provision and policy. This part of the report concludes with a section
summarising the research, views and policy recommendations related to childrens play of
leading European play researchers.
Alongside, and partly arising from, the increasing body of research evidence, there has been a
recent and significant growth in the recognition of the importance of childrens play within
the policy arena. The report recognises this in Part 4 which provides an overview of the
governmental, professional and charitable organisations across Europe concerned with the
provision and enhancement of childrens play opportunities. This section includes a survey of
the views of these leading stakeholders on the value of play for childrens learning and
development, and of their policy recommendations.
International bodies such as the United Nations and the European Union have begun to
consider and develop policies concerned with childrens right to play, with the educational
and societal benefits of play provision, and with the implications of this for leisure facilities
and educational programs. The recognition of the need for further research in this area is also
documented. In Part 5, therefore, the report reviews these policy developments, including
existing European policy, and makes further policy recommendations for play provision in
educational and non-educational contexts, and for beneficial research initiatives.
Part 2. Executive Summary
2.1 The archaeological, historical, anthropological and sociological research into childrens
play shows that play is ubiquitous in human societies, and that childrens play is supported by
adults in all cultures by the manufacture of play equipment and toys. Different types of play
are more or less emphasised, however, between cultures, based on attitudes to childhood
and to play, which are affected by social and economic circumstances.
2.2 In many ways, childrens right and opportunities for play are constrained within
modern urbanised societies within Europe. This appears to be a consequence of the
environmental stressors of contemporary life, the development of a risk-averse society, the
separation from nature, and tensions within the educational arena, with an emphasis on
earlier is better.
2.3 The evolutionary and psychological evidence points to the crucial contribution of play
in humans to our success as a highly adaptable species. Playfulness is strongly related to
cognitive development and emotional well-being. The mechanisms underlying these
relationships appear to involve plays role in the development of linguistic and other
representational abilities, and its support for the development of metacognitive and self-
2.4 Psychological research has established that there are five fundamental types of human
play, commonly referred to as physical play, play with objects, symbolic play, pretence or
socio-dramatic play, and games with rules. Each supports a range of cognitive and emotional
developments, and a good balance of play experience is regarded as a healthy play diet for
children. Some types of play are more fully researched than others, and much remains to be
understood concerning the underlying psychological processes involved.
2.5 Children vary in the degree to which they are playful, and have opportunities to play.
Playful children are securely attached emotionally to significant adults. Poverty and urban
living, resulting in stressed parenting and lack of access to natural and outdoor environments,
can lead to relative play deprivation. At the same time, children brought up in relatively
affluent households may be over-scheduled and over-supervised as a consequence of
perceptions of urban environments as dangerous for children, and a growing culture of risk-
averse parenting. Children suffering from severe play deprivation suffer abnormalities in
neurological development; however, the provision of play opportunities can at least partially
remediate the situation.
2.6 Leading play researchers from eight European countries were consulted about their
work and their views on the important aspects of play for learning and development. While
there were differences in emphasis, there was general consensus that play is difficult to
define, that it is not the only context for childrens learning, but makes unique and beneficial
contributions, that play provision is under threat in Europe, and that there are dangers but
also contributions from screen-based play. The role of adults in supporting childrens play is
complex, often poorly executed and counter-productive, and different views were expressed.
This is an area which would benefit from further research.
2.7 Organisations supporting and advocating childrens play from across Europe were also
consulted, with twelve representative bodies responding to a survey of their work, their views
on the nature and value of childrens play, and on the extent and quality of current provision.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there was widespread support for the value of play and extensive
evidence of poor provision. At the same time, numerous examples were provided of
initiatives which were significantly enhancing opportunities for high quality play experiences
in different parts of Europe.
2.8 The report acknowledges the work of the European Commission and Council in
their development of policies supporting provision for childrens play. For example, on 12
May 2011, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on Early Years Learning in the
European Union, which notes that the early years of childhood are critical for childrens
development and highlights that in addition to education, all children have the right to rest,
leisure and play.
2.9 It makes four recommendations for more detailed policies which could be developed,
with advantage, by the European Union, which are supported by the research evidence and
the expert views of the play researchers and organisations consulted. These are as follows:
Promote awareness and change attitudes regarding childrens play
Encourage improved provisions of time and space for childrens play
Support arrangements enabling children to experience risk and develop resilience
Establish funding agencies that promote play and play research
Authors and Contributors
This report has been researched and written by Dr David Whitebread, a Senior Lecturer in
Psychology and Education at the University of Cambridge, UK, together with two of his PhD
students, Martina Kuvalja and Mohini Verma, and a post-doctoral researcher, Marisol Basilio.
The latter are each conducting research into aspects of young childrens play and learning. Dr
Whitebread is an expert in the cognitive development of young children and in early
childhood education. He has published extensively in relation to childrens learning and
development, and the role of play in these processes. His most recent publication is
Developmental Psychology and Early Childhood Education (Sage, 2012).
The authors would like to thank the European play researchers and play organisations who
contributed information and views which have informed this report. The former are listed on
p. 31, and the latter on pp. 36-7.
Part 3. Review of Research
This part of the report presents a literature review of research concerned with the
phenomenon of play. Extensive research has been conducted concerning the nature and
purposes of play within a wide range of academic disciplines. The role of play in relation to its
contexts within human societies has been addressed within archaeological, historical,
anthropological and sociological research, and this work is addressed in the first section
(section 3.1.) of this review below. Following this, section 3.2 addresses the research which
has attempted to understand the psychological processes through which play impacts directly
upon individual learning and development. The following three sections (sections 3.3 3.5)
set out the research related to the now established five general play types, the environmental
factors which support or inhibit play, and the consequences of play deprivation.
As part of the process of putting together this review, a number of leading play researchers
from across Europe and across disciplines were specifically consulted. They were asked to
provide a brief report indicating the nature of their research contribution, together with their
views on significant factors influencing the contribution of play to childrens learning and
development, the consequences of a lack of provision, and their policy recommendations.
The information and views they submitted are summarised in the final section of this review
3.1 Archaeological, historical, anthropological and sociological research
The study of play through time and across cultures has consistently demonstrated two
characteristic features of play in human societies. First, it is clear that play is ubiquitous
among humans, both as children and as adults, and that childrens play is consistently
supported by adults in all societies and cultures, most clearly in the manufacture of play
equipment and toys. Second, it emerges that play is a multi-faceted phenomenon, with a
variety of types that appear in all societies, but that there are variations in the prevalence
and forms that the various types of play take in different societies. These variations appear
to arise from differing attitudes concerning the nature of childhood and the value of play.
Archaeological and cross-cultural records indicate the prevalence of play and games since
prehistoric times, supported by the existence of dice, gaming sticks, gaming boards and
various forms of ball-play material made of stones, sticks and bones from the Palaeolithic
Era (Fox, 1977; Schaefer and Reid, 2001). Excavations in ancient China, Peru, Mesopotamia
and Egypt have revealed miniature models made of pottery and metal, most probably used
as toys for children and drawings showing depictions of people playing and play objects such
as tops, dolls and rattles (Frost, 2010).
Within historical times, studies of the nature of childhood within European cultures have
revealed a remarkably consistent picture (Ariès, 1996, Cunningham, 2005). Thus, in the
classical societies of ancient Greece and Rome, childrens play was clearly valued and the
seeds of many modern views on play can be discerned. Plato (427 347 BC), for example,
advocated the use of free-play, gymnastics, music and various other forms of leisurely
activities as means of developing skills for adult life, as well as supporting health and
physical development. Aristotle (384 322 BC) also emphasised the value of play and
physical activities for the overall development of the child. Roman thinkers such as
Quintilian (35-97 AD) recommended the use of play as the earliest form of instruction.
Historians (Wiedemann, 1989; Golden, 1993), when trying to reconstruct the life of children
in these ancient societies, have found play to be the characteristic feature of childhood,
with children enjoying great autonomy in the sphere of play.
A similar picture emerges in studies of childhood throughout medieval Europe and into the
period of the Reformation and Renaissance (Hanawalt, 1995; Orme, 2001). Ideas such as
developmentally appropriate education, play-based pedagogy, learning through first-hand
experience, the importance of vigorous play for healthy development and adult
participation in childrens play can be seen clearly articulated by the thinkers and educators
of these times, including Martin Luther, John Amos Comenius and John Locke. In the
modern era proponents of early childhood education such as Rousseau, Pestalozzi and
Froebel advocated similar ideas, and in some cases implemented them in their own
educational centres (e.g.: Pestalozzis Institute for children in Switzerland established in
1805 and the first kindergarten started by Froebel in Germany in 1837). Froebel was also
the first to use the term playground to describe play environments developed by adults for
Within the twentieth century, renowned folklorists Iona and Peter Opies encyclopaedic
studies of British childrens folklore, language, nursery rhymes and games (Opie and Opie,
1952; 1959) demonstrated that children were singing, playing and talking with each other in
the same manner as their predecessors over a century ago, and across the English-speaking
world. More recent reviews of these collections furthermore, have documented the
continuation of these traditions until today and across continents (Warner, 2001).
Anthropologists have studied childrens play in a wide variety of cultures and, increasingly in
the modern world, with the increase in levels of immigration, in sub-cultures within
societies. The cultures studied include those that are ancient and technologically primitive,
such as Mayan culture in Mexico (Gaskins, 2000), cultures in the developing world, such as
Malaysia (Choo, Xu and Haron, 2011) and Puerto Rico (Trawick-Smith, 2010), and modern,
urbanised, technologically advanced cultures, such as Italy (Bornstein, Venuti and Hahn,
2002). Several studies have compared play across cultures or sub-cultures, in relation to
cultural attitudes and practices. Cote and Bornstein (2009), for example, have reported a
number of studies comparing play and attitudes to play amongst mothers and young
children in Japanese, South American and European immigrant sub-cultures in the United
A number of clear and consistent patterns emerge from these studies. All five types of play
in which human children engage (physical play, play with objects, symbolic play,
pretence/sociodramatic play and games with rules) are found in different manifestations,
depending on available technology, in all cultures. However, there are variations between
cultures and subcultures in attitudes to childrens play, arising from cultural values about
childhood, gender and our relations with the natural world often linked to economic
conditions, religious beliefs, social structures and so on. Cultural attitudes, transmitted to
the children predominantly through the behaviour of their parents, affect how much play is
encouraged and supported, to what age individuals are regarded as children who are
expected to play, and the extent to which adults play with children.
Attitudes to gender in different cultures also impact upon childrens play. In cultures in
which there is rigid separation between adult male and female roles boys and girls are
prepared for these roles through the toys and games provided, with boys play often being
more competitive, physical and dangerous and girls play being more focused on their future
domestic role, involving play with household objects, such as pots and pans, tea-sets, and
dolls. Historically, children in all cultures have played extensively in their natural
environments. In modern, urbanised societies, however, the natural environment is often
seen as remote and dangerous for children, so specially designed playgrounds and parks are
seen as more appropriate play spaces.
Gaskins, Haight and Lancy (2007) have identified three general cultural perceptions or views
of play which seem to have a significant impact on the pattern of childrens play, and the
level of involvement of their parents, as follows:
‘Culturally curtailed play’ in some pre-industrial societies play is tolerated but
viewed as being of limited value and certain types of play are culturally discouraged.
For example, in Gaskins (2000) study of the Mayan people in the Yucatan she found
that pretence involving any kind of fiction or fantasy was regarded as telling lies.
‘Culturally accepted play’ in pre-industrial societies parents expect children to play
and view it as useful to keep the children busy and out of the way, until they are old
enough to be useful, but they do not encourage it or generally participate in it.
Consequently the children play more with other children unsupervised by adults, in
spaces not especially structured for play, and with naturally available objects rather
than manufactured toys.
‘Culturally cultivated play’ middle-class Euro-American families tend to view play as
the childs work; play is encouraged and adults view it as important to play with their
children. The children also often spend time with professional carers, who view it as
an important part of their role to play with the children to encourage learning. The
style and content of this involvement varies, however; a study of mothers in Taiwan
found that they directed the play much more than Euro - American parents and
focused on socially acceptable behaviour, rather than encouraging the childs
When we look at the contemporary situation in 21st century Europe, it is clear that the final
general view of culturally cultivated play generally prevails. At the same time, however, it
is clear that there are variations even within Europe, and that there are tensions between
many parents views and the opportunities they are able to afford their children. Two
particular issues emerge related to attitudes to childrens safety and risk, and to the amount
of time parents are able to devote to playing with their children.
A currently emerging cultural difference within modern Euro-American societies involves
attitudes to risk; in the heavily urbanised UK, for example, the culture is currently quite risk-
averse, and so children are heavily supervised and play indoors, in their gardens and in
specially designed play spaces with safety surfaces. In the more rural and thinly populated
Scandinavian countries, however, children are much more encouraged to play outdoors and
in natural surroundings, and are far less closely supervised. At the same time, many parents
across the developed countries of the world have reported in a number of surveys that they
feel they do not have sufficient time to play with their children. This was a clear finding, for
example, of a survey carried out by the LEGO Learning Institute (2000) of parents in France,
Germany, the UK, Japan and the USA.
The evidence suggests that modern, urbanised life styles often result in a pattern whereby
children are much more heavily scheduled during their leisure time than was the case in the
recent past. Lester and Russell (2010), in a major review of research examining childrens
contemporary play opportunities worldwide, provide a very useful and compelling review of
the environmental stressors in modern life, associated with increasing urbanisation, which
impact negatively on childrens play experiences. Within this, they make the telling point
that half the worlds children will very soon be living in cities. The concern of many
commentators is that the resulting pattern of children being over-supervised and over-
scheduled, with decreasing amounts of time to play with their peers or parents, is likely to
have an adverse effect on childrens independence skills, their resourcefulness and the
whole range of developmental benefits which we document in the following section. In the
LEGO Learning Institute (2000) study a review of newspapers and periodicals demonstrated
that there have been extensive debates about this issue in the public press from at least the
mid 1990s onwards. Many parents, in their response to the survey they completed,
indicated clearly that they recognise these problems in their own lives, and would very
much welcome the opportunity to provide improved quality of play experiences for their
There are also currently tensions within the educational arena. Over the last ten to twenty
years, the curriculum for early childhood and primary education has been increasingly
prescribed by governments. While these have avowed the value of children learning
through play, this has been systematically limited to children under the age of six to seven
years of age. While there are many beacons of excellence, what play provision there is
within educational contexts across Europe is also often ineffectively supported by
inadequately trained staff. As a consequence, there has been a plethora of books published
recently by early childhood educationalists and developmental psychologists setting out the
value of play for childrens learning and development (see, for example, Moyles, 2010;
Broadhead, Howard and Wood, 2010, Whitebread, 2011). At the same time, however, these
publications consistently document the difficulties early years practitioners have in
developing effective practice to support childrens learning through play, largely
exacerbated by pressures to cover the prescribed curriculum, meet government imposed
standards etc. Combined with the curbs on childrens free play opportunities identified
within the home context above, this leads to a worrying picture overall of children across
Europe and the rest of the developed world with increasingly limited opportunities for the
free play and association with their peers which were so commonly available only a
generation or two ago to their parents and grandparents. Chudakoff (2007), for example,
has documented the sharp decline in childrens free play with other children across the
3.2 Evolutionary and psychological research
Psychologists have been researching and theorising about play and its role in development
for well over a century. However, partly because of its highly multi-faceted nature and the
fact that it is an intrinsically spontaneous and unpredictable phenomenon, it has proved to
be extremely difficult to define and to research. As a consequence, whilst it is almost
universally accepted that children benefit from play opportunities, and particularly strongly
supported amongst the early childhood professional community, realising the full
developmental and educational potential of play in practice has proved illusive. However,
there has been a considerable resurgence in research on childrens play in recent years
which gives us a much clearer view of the nature of play, of its purposes and the processes
by which it influences development and learning. In turn, these more recent analyses
provide very clear guidelines as to the nature of provision for play that is required to allow
our young children to flourish in all aspects of development.
The evidence for the developmental benefits of play is actually now overwhelming. There is
also an emerging consensus as to the various types of play and their developmental
significance. This new position arises partly from the surge of evidence arising in the last
few decades from evolutionary psychology. It has been recognised for some time that,
through evolution, as more and more complex animals evolved, the size of their brains
increased, and this was associated with increasingly longer periods of biological immaturity
(i.e. the length of time the young were cared for by their parents), paralleled by increasing
playfulness (Bruner, 1972).
Thus, as mammals evolved into primates, and as primates evolved into humans, there was
an increase in problem-solving abilities allowing use and an increase in
representational abilities supporting the development of language and thought. Paralleling
this, in mammals we see the emergence of physical play (mostly rough and tumble); in
primates we see play with objects developing and simple tool use, and in humans we see
the emergence of symbolic forms of play (including verbal and artistic expression,
pretence, role-play and games with rules) which depend upon our symbolic abilities such
as language. This analysis of the evolution of play, and its most glorious manifestation in
humans, has led researchers in this area to argue that playfulness is fundamental to the
development of uniquely human abilities. Pellegrini (2009), for example, has concluded
that, in animals and humans, play (as opposed to work) contexts free individuals to focus
on means rather than ends. Unfettered from the instrumental constraints of the work
context, where you have to get something done, in play the individual can try out new
behaviours, exaggerate, modify, abbreviate or change the sequence of behaviours,
endlessly repeat slight variations of behaviours, and so on. It is this characteristic of play, it
is argued, that gives it a vital role in the development of problem-solving skills in primates,
and the whole gamut of higher-order cognitive and social-emotional skills developed by
humans. The evolutionary perspective has thus contributed significantly to the emerging
consensus around the psychological functions of play and an agreed typology of play based
on its adaptive psychological functions (which we detail below).
Powerful evidence supporting this view of the role of play in human functioning has also
emerged within recent developmental psychology. Here, recent studies using a range of
new research techniques, including neuroscientific and other physiological measures, have
shown strong and consistent relationships between childrens playfulness and their
cognitive and emotional development. Tamis-LeMonda and Bornstein (1989), for example,
have demonstrated that infant habituation (an established measure of how quickly an
infant processes information, strongly related to emerging cognitive abilities) predicts the
amount of symbolic play children engage in a few years later. We also now have extensive
evidence of the inter-relationships between the complexity and sophistication of childrens
play, particularly their symbolic or pretend play, and their emotional well-being (sometimes
assessed through physiological measures of stress) (Bornstein (2006).
Much of the contemporary work on childrens play within developmental psychology,
however, has built on the influential theories of the Russian psychologist of the first part of
the 20th century, Lev Vygotsky (1896 1934). His writings were suppressed in Stalins era
and not published in English until the 1970s. Since that time, however, his ideas about the
processes of childrens learning have been enormously influential. His key insight as regards
the role of play (Vygotsky, 1978) was that it makes two crucial contributions to childrens
developing abilities, which relate to their development of language (and other human forms
of symbolic representation) and to their developing abilities to control their own cognitive
and emotional processes, or to self-regulate. The significance of this insight has become
increasingly recognised as the evidence has mounted that these two abilities, language and
self-regulation, are intimately inter-related (Vallaton and Ayoub, 2011) and together form
the most powerful predictors of childrens academic achievement and of their emotional
well-being (Whitebread, 2011).
As regards language, Vygotsky argued that play makes a crucial contribution to the
development of the unique human aptitude for using various forms of symbolic
representation, whereby various kinds of symbols carry specific, culturally defined
meanings. These forms of symbolic representation include drawing and other forms of
visual art, visual imagination, language in all its various forms, mathematical symbol
systems, musical notation, dance, drama and so on. Play is recognised in this analysis as the
first medium through which children explore the use of symbol systems, most obviously
through pretence. The co-occurrence in infants of the emergence of pretend play and the
use of sounds to carry meaning (the beginnings of language) around the age of ten to
fourteen months is widely reported, and clear support for Vygotskys analysis of the
involvement of pretence in the early development of symbolic representational abilities.
Vygotsky went on to argue that pretence play becomes a transition from the purely
situational constraints of early childhood to the adult capability for abstract thought.
Children, he argued, require the support of real situations and objects with which to work
out ideas through play. Thus play both allows children to consolidate their understandings
of their world and facilitates their development of the representational abilities they will
use to think through ideas as an adult. As further evidence to support this view, Vygotsky
noted that certain types of childrens play (mostly play with objects and pretence) are often
accompanied by self-directed or private speech, where children are observed to self-
commentate as they play. This phenomenon has been the subject of extensive and ongoing
research within developmental psychology, and Vygotskys view has been consistently
supported (Winsler and Naglieri, 2003; Fernyhough and Fradley, 2005). The production of
private speech is extremely common during these types of childrens play and is clearly
associated with episodes of challenge and problem-solving.
The role of play in supporting childrens development of metacognitive and self-regulatory
abilities is also an area of current research development. Metacognitive abilities concern
our developing awareness of our own cognitive and emotional processes, and our
development of strategies to control them. It is now clearly established that children begin
to develop this awareness and control very early in life, that significant individual
differences are quickly established which have long-lasting consequences for achievement
and well-being, that these abilities are learnt, and can be taught, and that the various types
of play form a powerful context for their development (Whitebread and Pino Pasternak,
2010; Whitebread, 2010, 2011).
Karpov (2005) has produced a useful review of research by Russian psychologists, who
describe themselves as neo-Vygotskians, who have explored the development of cognitive
self-regulation and control relating to particular types of play. For example, a study of three
to seven year old children standing sentry by Manuilenko (1948; reported in Karpov, 2005)
supported Vygotskys suggestion that childrens use of verbal tools to regulate the
behaviour of others was a significant factor in their development of self-regulation. Children
standing sentry in a room containing playmates managed to stand motionless for
significantly longer than when they were on their own. This appeared to be a consequence
of the playmates monitoring the sentrys performance. Other studies of the emergence
of self-regulatory abilities in young children within educational contexts have shown that
these are mainly demonstrated in playful contexts of different types (Whitebread et al
A further body of research has investigated the role of pretence/socio-dramatic play in the
development of emotional self-regulation. Berk, Mann and Ogan (2006), for example, have
reported on a number of studies investigating how young children learn to cope with
emotionally arousing or stressful events, particularly through this type of play. The evidence
indicates that children spontaneously engage in socio-dramatic pretence play relating to
stressful or traumatic situations arising in their experience (e.g.: going to the dentist, or the
hospital), and that this type of play can be very productively facilitated and supported by
adults in therapeutic contexts with children who have been subjected to abuse,
experienced profound grief, etc. (Clark, 2006).
3.3 The five types of play
Given the general difficulty with defining play, and the recognition of its complexity, it is not
surprising that there have been numerous attempts to categorise different types of play. As
Moyles (1989) has demonstrated, for every aspect of childrens development, there is a
form of play. However, in the contemporary psychological literature the various kinds of
play are generally divided into five broad types based upon the developmental purposes
which each serves, partly arising from the evolutionary analyses to which we have referred
above, and how each relates to and supports childrens learning. These types are commonly
referred to as physical play, play with objects, symbolic play, pretence/ socio-dramatic play
and games with rules. Although each type of play has a main developmental function or
focus, arguably all of them support aspects of physical, intellectual and social-emotional
growth. From all the available evidence, a balance of experience of each of these types of
play is likely to be beneficial to childrens development.
Within this section, the main psychological benefits of each of these types of play and their
typical developmental trajectories in physically and psychologically healthy children are
This type of play was the earliest to evolve and can be observed in some reptiles and
amphibians and most, if not all, mammals (Power, 2000). In human children it includes
active exercise play (e.g.: jumping, climbing, dancing, skipping, bike riding and ball play),
rough-and-tumble (with friends, siblings or parents/ guardians) and fine-motor practice
(e.g.: sewing, colouring, cutting, junk modelling and manipulating action and construction
Exercise play begins to emerge during the second year of life and typically occupies around
20% of childrens behaviour by the age of four to five years. The evidence suggests that this
type of play is related to childrens developing whole body and hand-eye co-ordination, and
is important in building strength and endurance (Pellegrini and Smith, 1998).
The most extensively researched aspect of physical play, however, is rough-and-tumble
play. It includes chasing, grappling, kicking, wrestling and rolling on the ground and appears
to have evolved as a mechanism through which children learn to control aggression. It
emerges slightly later than exercise play and is typical amongst pre-school children.
However, like most types of play, it continues to be enjoyed, usually between family
members and close friends, right into adulthood. It is easily distinguishable from actual
aggression by the evident enjoyment of the participants, and appears to be wholly
beneficial. The research evidence suggests that it is clearly associated with the development
of emotional and social skills and understandings. In human children, it is associated with
the development of strong emotional bonds, or attachments, between children and their
parents, and with school-aged childrens abilities to understand emotional expressions
(Jarvis, 200). A study by Mellen (2002), for example, looked at father-son rough and tumble
behaviours that involved direct body contact in 157 suburban families in the United States
and found that it related very strongly with three-year-old sons social competence, as
demonstrated in pre-school.
There is a concern that children, largely as a consequence of the pressures of urban living
discussed above, with the loss of natural environments and concerns about safety, are over-
supervised and do not have the opportunities for risky outdoor physical play that supports
their developing independence, resourcefulness and self-regulation. A general recognition
of this concern is at the basis of pressures to provide outdoor play spaces for children living
in urban environments. Amongst early years practitioners these concerns have led to a
recent resurgence in the provision of outdoor play, and an increasing interest in Forest
schools and the outdoor schools in some areas of Scandinavia (Tovey, 2007; Frost, 2010).
Fine-motor play refers to a wide range of activities which support young childrens
development of their fine-motor hand and finger co-ordination skills. These activities are
often solitary, can be beneficially supported by an adult (e.g.: sewing, construction) and,
due to their absorbing nature, help children develop their concentration and perseverance
Play with objects
This second type of play is also widely observed in primates (Power, 2000) and in humans
concerns childrens developing explorations, as young scientists, of the physical world and
the objects they find within it. Play with objects begins as soon as infants can grasp and hold
on to them; early investigative behaviours include mouthing/biting, rotating while looking,
rubbing/stroking, hitting and dropping. This might be described as sensori-motor play
when the child is exploring how objects and materials feel and behave. From around
eighteen to twenty four months toddlers begin to arrange objects, which gradually develops
into sorting and classifying activities. By the age of four years, building, making and
constructing behaviours emerge.
As with all other types of play, play with objects often also incorporates other types of play,
as it clearly has physical and manipulative aspects and often, in children, is carried out
within a pretence or socio-dramatic context. When young children are making or building,
they are also often developing a story or narrative. It is a relatively well-researched type of
play, as it is distinctively related to the development of thinking, reasoning and problem-
solving skills. When playing with objects, children set themselves goals and challenges,
monitor their progress towards them, and develop an increasing repertoire of cognitive and
physical skills and strategies. A study by Pellegrini and Gustafson (2005), for example, in
which three to five year olds were systematically observed over an entire school year,
demonstrated that the amount of playful exploration, construction and tool use in which
children engaged predicted their subsequent performance on physical problem-solving
tasks. Play with objects is also particularly associated with the production of private
speech, with children commonly commentating on their activity. This appears to have the
function of helping the child to maintain their attention, keep their goals for the activity in
mind, monitor their progress, make strategic choices regarding ways to proceed, and
generally regulate themselves through the task. As a consequence, construction and
problem-solving play is also associated with the development of perseverance and a
positive attitude towards challenge (Sylva, Bruner and Genova, 1976).
Arising from these findings, a number of studies have investigated the use of constructional
play as a kind of therapy with children in clinical groups characterised by problems with
aspects of self-regulation, such as autism and ADHD. Owens et al (2009), for example,
carried out an eighteen week LEGO Therapy program with six to eleven year olds with high
functioning autism and Asperger Syndrome. Maladaptive behaviours decreased significantly
more in the LEGO group than in a matched no intervention control group.
As we have discussed above, humans are uniquely equipped to use a wide variety of
symbolic systems including spoken language, reading and writing, number, various visual
media (painting, drawing, collage) music and so on. Not surprisingly, during the first five
years of life, when children are beginning to master these systems, these aspects of their
learning are an important element within their play. This type of play supports their
developing technical abilities to express and reflect upon their experiences, ideas and
Play with language starts very early in life with children under the age of one-year-old
playing with sounds, and, as they grow older, particularly playing with the sounds of the
language or languages they are hearing around them. This play is a very active process and
quickly develops into making up new words, playing with rhymes, and eventually young
childrens love of puns and other jokes with language. Extensive research has clearly
established that this type of play is a powerful support for developing language abilities and,
crucially, through its support for phonological awareness, impacts upon the ease with which
young children develop early literacy skills (Christie and Roskos, 2006). By placing basic
numeracy in meaningful, real life contexts, play involving counting and other basic
mathematical operations similarly supports young childrens ability to engage with formal
mathematics with confidence (Whitebread, 2000; Carruthers and Worthington, 2006).
Until fairly recently play with the various visual media had been relatively less systematically
researched. Recent work, however, has strongly supported Vygotskys (1986) insight that
there are very close links between early drawing and writing in young childrens mark
making. In fascinating studies of mark making amongst chimpanzees, for example,
Matthews (2011) has shown that drawing was perhaps the earliest evolving type of
symbolic representation, and continues to be a significant aspect of young childrens
symbolic play. Studies of childrens drawings have demonstrated how through drawing,
children gradually increase their graphic vocabularies, and their ability to organise graphic
elements into a pictorial representation (a kind of graphic grammar), becoming
increasingly able to use this mode of symbolic representation to express their meanings
(Jolley, 2010; Ring, 2010). The evidence from these studies suggests that childrens visual
literacy (i.e. their ability to understand pictures, photographs, diagrams, scale models,
plans, maps etc) is importantly enhanced by their experiences of playing with a variety of
Musical play is another very under-researched area, despite being a ubiquitous and highly
significant form of play in all human cultures. From a very early age, children sing, dance and
delight in exploring and making sounds of all kinds, with their own bodies and with all kinds
of objects. In extensive research of early mother-infant pre-linguistic interactions,
Trevarthen (1999) has clearly illustrated the role of the human infants innate response to
rhythm and sounds in establishing early communicative abilities. A recent review of
research in this area concluded that it seems likely that musical play, partly as a
consequence of its powerfully social and interactive characteristics, supports a wide range
of childrens developing abilities, including those related to social interaction,
communication, emotion understanding, memory, self-regulation and creativity (Pound,
2010). In a study which involved 96 four-year-olds in joint music making, for example,
Kirschner and Tomasello (2010) showed that these children significantly increased
subsequent spontaneous cooperative and helpful behaviour, relative to a carefully matched
control condition with the same level of social and linguistic interaction but no music.
In the urbanised, technologically advanced modern world, this is clearly the most prevalent
type of play amongst young children, emerging around the age of one year old. It is also the
most heavily researched. High-quality pretend play has repeatedly been shown to be very
closely associated with the development of cognitive, social and academic abilities. Studies
have reported the impact of playworld experience on narrative skills in five to seven year
olds (Whitebread and Jameson, 2010), of pretence play on deductive reasoning and social
competence, and of socio-dramatic play on improved self-regulation among young
children who are prone to be highly impulsive.
A range of studies have supported Vygotskys (1978) insights concerning the impact of this
type of play on childrens representational and self-regulatory abilities (Karpov, 2005). This
is also a type of play in which a high prevalence of private speech is commonly observed
(Berk, Mann and Ogan, 2006). This type of play is often characterised and perceived as free
play. Paradoxically, however, a number of studies have shown that, in fact, it makes some
of the greatest demands on childrens self-restraint, or self-regulation. During socio-
dramatic play, in particular, children are obliged to follow the social rules governing the
character they are portraying. Berk and colleagues report a number of studies with three
and four year olds demonstrating a clear link between the complexity of socio-dramatic play
and improvement in social responsibility. OConnor and Stagnitti, K. (2011) have recently
reported on a study of thirty five children aged five to eight in special schools, some of
whom were offered a pretend play intervention. Findings revealed that the children
participating in the play intervention, compared to a matched group who did not, showed a
significant decrease in play deficits, became less socially disruptive and more socially
connected with their peers.
An aspect of socio-dramatic play which often causes concern amongst parents and teachers
is that related to play with guns. However, the research evidence suggests that these
concerns are misplaced and that attempts by adults to discourage or forbid them are
generally counter-productive. Gun play, similar to rough-and-tumble, is easily
distinguishable from real aggression or violence. In this kind of play, as in all other aspects
of socio-dramatic play, children are developing their co-operative and social skills in
contexts which are salient to their interests, and which arise from their real and vicarious
experiences (Holland, 2003; Levin, 2006).
Games with Rules
Young children are strongly motivated to make sense of their world and, as part of this, they
are very interested in rules. As a consequence, from a very young age, they enjoy games
with rules, and frequently invent their own. Opie and Opies (1959) collections of children
games and folklore are a testament to childrens love of games with rules. These include
physical games such as chasing games, hide-and-seek, throwing and catching etc. and, as
children mature, more intellectual games such as board and card games, electronic and
computer games, and the whole variety of sporting activities.
As well as helping children to develop their understandings about rules, the main
developmental contribution of playing games derives from their essentially social nature.
While playing games with their friends, siblings and parents, young children are learning a
range of social skills related to sharing, taking turns, understanding others perspectives and
so on (DeVries, 2006).
The use of electronic and computer games by todays children is another particular area of
anxiety for parents and teachers. The concerns here relate to violence and to the addictive
nature of some games. However, the evidence in this area is equivocal. A recent survey of
346 children from the 7th and 8th grade of seven elementary schools in the United States,
for example, found that playing videogames did not appear to take place at the expense of
childrens other leisure activities, social integration, and school performance. There was also
no significant relationship between the amount of time children spent on videogames and
aggressive behaviour. Furthermore, a positive relationship was found between time spent
on videogames and a childs intelligence (Van Schie and Wiegman, 1997). Other studies in
the UK have shown, furthermore, that well-designed computer games offering open-ended
or problem-solving challenges to children are likely to share some of the benefits of
problem-solving or constructional play with objects (Siraj-Blatchford and Whitebread, 2003).
3.4 Environmental and social factors supporting or inhibiting play
There are two types of factors which influence the extent to which children are playful.
These consist of environmental and social factors which support or inhibit childrens natural
playfulness and factors related to provision of opportunities.
A range of evidence has indicated that playfulness in children is both an indication of mental
well-being and is supported by it. In this literature the two key issues which emerge relate
to young childrens formation of secure emotional attachments and to the role of stress.
Arising originally from the seminal work of Bowlby (1953) and Ainsworth et al. (1978), we
now have abundant evidence that the formation of secure emotional attachments early in a
childs life has significant consequences for healthy brain development (Swain et al, 2007),
for emotion regulation and the ability to show empathy, form emotional relationships and
friendships with others (Feldman, 2007), for emotional resilience (Schore, 2001) and for
playfulness (Panksepp, 2001). Of particular importance in this area is the crucial role of
playfulness in childrens formation and maintenance of friendships, which are, in turn,
fundamentally important in supporting healthy social and emotional development
The role of secure emotional attachments in supporting childrens ability to cope with
anxiety and stress is also of particular significance. However, here the picture is quite
complex, as a certain level of stress or unpredictability in the environment appears to
support the development of childrens resilience and playfulness, whereas high levels of
stress clearly lead to a reduction in the amount of play in which children engage (Burghardt,
2005). The US National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2005) make the
distinction between the positive stress which arises from children living in emotionally
supportive and stimulating environments containing elements of uncertainty, which
supports playfulness and the development of resilience, and toxic stress, where children
are unsupported and subjected to severely and consistently stressful situations.
Lester and Russell (2010) have provided a powerful analysis of the environmental stressors
experienced by children across the world. From this analysis it is clear that some of the
most vulnerable groups of children are those living in cities and urbanised contexts.
Children living in poverty in these environments are often malnourished, a situation which,
since playfulness requires metabolic energy (Burghardt, 2005), is often associated with low
levels of play. As a consequence of the stress on their parents, they are also less likely to
receive sensitive parenting leading to secure attachments. A number of studies in the UK,
for example, have linked poverty, parental stress, inadequate parenting and childrens
mental health problems (Russell et al, 2008). Meltzer et al (2000) estimated that children
living in low-income households are nearly three times as likely to suffer mental health
Living in urban environments can also have negative effects on the playfulness of children
who are fortunate to live in supportive households, but whose parents, carers and teachers,
perceiving a range of environmental hazards and dangers, become overly risk-averse and
over-protect and over-supervise their children (Veitch et al, 2006). This leads us into the
second category of factors which can support or inhibit childrens play, which relate to
opportunities provided for play. A study by Shier (2008) clearly illustrates this issue. This
compared opportunities for play and attitudes to safety while playing outdoors between
children living in Nicaragua and the UK. While the children in Nicaragua enjoyed a high level
of independent mobility and developed self-reliance attitudes towards safety while
swimming in lakes, climbing trees etc., the children in the UK were much more closely
supervised and did not generally experience these opportunities.
This problem of parental over-supervision and over-scheduling of children has arisen quite
recently, just in the last few decades. However, according to a survey of parental attitudes
in sixteen countries (Singer et al., 2009) this is now a worldwide issue. Mothers in this
survey, from countries across Europe and in four other continents, reported fears about
allowing their children to play outside related to increases in traffic, crime, harassment and
violence, possible abduction, dirt and germs, and many more similar issues. A report written
for the UK National Trust (Moss, 2012) cites evidence that the area where children are
allowed to range unsupervised around their homes has shrunk by 90% since the 1970s. At
the same time, in the UK and many other countries, rates of obesity, self-harm and mental
health disorders diagnosed in children have climbed significantly. This is attributed to a now
well recognised phenomena of nature deficit Louv, 2005) arising from children
having very limited access to the outdoors and natural environments.
Even the most playfully inclined children will not be able to play, sufficiently for them to
reap the benefits in terms of their learning and development, if they are not given the time,
the space and the independence to develop their own spontaneous and self-initiated play
activities. Lester and Russell (2010) provide a very useful review of the now quite extensive
literature studying childrens use of urban and rural spaces for playful purposes. What
emerges from this is that, in their play, children appropriate different spaces and features
within their environment which are quite unpredictable by adults, and that the richest play
spaces are mostly natural and unplanned. Many urban playgrounds, designed by adults, are
often too neat and tidy, and essentially often rather barren as regards playful opportunities.
The most successful urban play environments are adventure playgrounds which are set up
so that children can adapt them and build their own spaces, using a range of natural and
man-made building materials (Bartlett, 2002).
Having said all this, of course, much very productive playful activity can and does take place
in the home and (although unfortunately to a markedly declining degree in a number of
European countries) in early care and educational settings and schools. Three key factors
emerge from the research concerning the support for play in these environments. These
relate to the level of stimulation, the quality of interactions with adults, and the degree of
independence or autonomy offered to the children concerning their play. The latter two
issues have been addressed earlier in the report. As regards stimulation, within indoor
environments, this is mostly related to the provision of play materials and toys which
support the five types of play identified earlier in this report. It has been established for
some time, through a number of studies, that access to a variety of materials and toys is
related to childrens cognitive development (Bradley, 1985).
Within this general position it is well established that materials and toys support play most
effectively when they are open and flexible and provide children with a wealth of
opportunities for creativity, for social interaction with their peers and adults, for authorship
and for deep engagement (Gauntlett et al., 2010). However, beyond this there is currently
a paucity of research as to the qualities of specific types of materials and toys, related to the
different types of play, which most effectively support playfulness, learning and
development. Recent studies by Howard and colleagues, for example, have shown that a
key factor in children engaging with and learning most effectively from activities with toys
and other materials, is that they perceive the situation to be playful (Howard, 2002;
McInnes, K., Howard, J., Miles, G., and Crowley, K., 2009, 2011).
3.5 The consequences of play deprivation
Given the abundant nature of the research evidence that play in humans is adaptive and is
fundamental in supporting a whole range of intellectual, emotional and social abilities, it
seems self-evident that children who, for whatever reason, play very little or not at all will
be disadvantaged in their development. For obvious ethical reasons, however, direct studies
of the consequences of preventing children from playing have not been conducted. The
evidence in this area, therefore, is largely circumstantial or based on animal studies (mostly
rats). Nevertheless, the evidence we have is compelling and seems strong enough,
combined with that of the positive benefits of playful experiences reviewed above, to
suggest that the provision of rich playful opportunities, across the five types indicated,
would be a wise policy position for any society wishing to fully benefit from its human
As we have indicated earlier, there is very clear evidence that childrens cognitive
development and emotional well-being are related to the quality of their play, and a
number of studies have shown that individuals who are not well developed in these areas
are not playful. Brown (1998), for example, found consistent child and adult play deficits in a
study of criminally violent young men. In a recent study of one to two year old children in
maltreating families Valentino et al (2011) found that children in such families displayed
less child-initiated play and less socially competent behaviour than children of the same age
in non-maltreating families. The many studies of the severely deprived children discovered
in Romanian orphanages following the breakup of the Soviet Union reported a range of
severe cognitive and emotional deficits including abnormal repetitive or brief play
behaviours, together with deficient growth and functioning in a number of key brain regions
(Chugani et al, 2001). There have also been numerous studies of the Romanian children, and
other children kept in orphanages in deprived circumstances, documenting their recovery
once adopted and exposed to life in a loving, family environment including, of course, rich
play opportunities. The difficulty with much of this evidence, of course, is that the lack of
play, or its provision, is just part of an overall pattern of deprivation or provision, and so it is
impossible to conclude that the play experience per se was entirely responsible for the
outcomes. Perhaps more telling evidence, however, arises from studies where playful
opportunities are introduced to children while they are still living in the orphanage. Taneja
et al (2002), for example, introduced a structured play regime into an Indian orphanage and
reported highly significant gains on measures of motor, cognitive and social functioning.
Fearn and Howard (2011) have recently published a very useful review of studies of play
therapy as a resource for children facing adversity.
The other main area of research which has provided evidence relating to play deprivation,
but which also has obvious limitations, has involved studies with rats. Rats have often been
chosen for psychological research as they are highly intelligent mammals and learn quickly.
They are also highly playful. As with humans, further, they present significant individual
differences. Pellis and Pellis (2009) have been pre-eminent in research concerned with play
in rats and have discovered clear relationships between their level of play behaviour and
significant physiological changes in their brains. For example, playful rats have been shown
to have significantly elevated levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is
recognised to have a central role in developing and maintaining neural plasticity (or, the
ability to learn). They have also demonstrated that play supports novel neural connections
and changes the architectural structure of significant brain regions. Play deprived rats
became more aggressive to other rats, were less able to mate successfully, and showed
heightened levels of fear and uncertainty in novel environments.
3.6 The work and views of European play researchers
As part of the process of putting together this review, eight leading play researchers from
across Europe were specifically consulted. They were asked to respond to a number of
questions concerning the nature of their research and their views on the value of play,
existing provision for play in their countries, the advent of screen-based play and the role of
adults in childrens play. The information and views they submitted on these issues are
summarised in this final section of this review of the research literature, and their most
recent research papers are listed in the bibliography in Part 6 of this report. The eight experts
consulted, listed in alphabetical order of their countries, were as follows:
Denmark: Dr Stig Broström, Centre of Early Childhood Research, Department of Education,
France: Prof Gilles Brougère, Institute of the Sciences of Play, University of Paris 13
Germany: Dr. Martin R. Textor, Institute of Education and Futures Research, University of
Italy: Prof Emma Baumgartner, Department of Developmental and Social Psychology at
Sapienza, University of Rome
Poland: ena Muchacka, Pre-school and Early Education Institute, Pedagogical
University of Cracow
Spain: Imma Marín, President of International Play Association in Spain
Sweden: Prof Ingrid Pramling Samuelsson, Department of Education, Göteborg University
United Kingdom: Dr Justine Howard, Centre for Children and Young Peoples Health and
Well Being, Human and Health Sciences, Swansea University
Research interests, questions and findings
Most of the research concerned with play carried out by these European experts is
concerned with play in children from birth to six years. This research is predominantly
concerned with the impact of play on development and play in pre-school and educational
settings. Specifically, four main topics are addressed, related to:
the definition of play and its distinction from other activities,
the benefits of play (is it beneficial, and if so, should we encourage it, and how do we
play and the curriculum (how should play be integrated into curriculum, should
educative play only be integrated into it, should it be structured or free?)
the role of adults (parent/teacher) in childrens play.
In addition, Baumgartner has also researched gender issues in relation to childrens play.
The findings from this European research emphasise the importance of play. However, there
are differences regarding the definition of play and while some research suggests that play
is beneficial for childrens cognitive development and is an important educational tool
(Broström, Pramling Samuelsson and Muchacka), others have suggested that childrens
informal activities can only be defined as play if they are free (i.e. outside adult direction or
control) and that this more narrowly defined play is just one of a number of informal means
by which children learn (Brougère, Textor and Howard). In addition, Baumgartner reports
the finding that children spend 80% of their playing time in gender-segregated groups.
Views concerning the nature and value of childrens play
Views were also divided along similar lines regarding the value of play for childrens
development. Some felt that play is often romanticised by its advocates and needs to be
researched in a more rigorous and realistic manner. Children learn in many different ways,
by observation and imitation, by rote, through reinforcement and by exploration, trial and
error, all of which may or may not involve play. When children play, however, it was
recognised that there are many opportunities for skill development, for example language
and social skills, gross and fine motor skills, sorting and sequencing. There was more general
consensus, however, that the benefits of play are related to its promotion of self-esteem,
emotional wellbeing and resilience. When children engage in a task as though it is play, it
was suggested, behavioural thresholds are lowered and they are able to try things out with
only self-set targets and goals. As a result, resilience and esteem grow and children develop
the confidence to meet physical, intellectual and emotional challenges.
Children learn and develop through activities other than play, Howard argued, but they
learn and develop more effectively through activities that are play. Marín, Muchacka and
Broström expressed the view that play is beneficial as it is childrens natural way of learning
and exploration. However, Baumgartner argued that viewing play as a complex set of
different behaviours would be more productive in relation to understanding its contribution
to development. In general, however, there was consensus that all types of play can be
beneficial, and Howard argued that children need the opportunity to experience a variety of
activities that will develop their full repertoire of play skills. Therefore, opportunities for all
different types of play matter. Broström, Texter and Muchacka particularly emphasised the
importance of socio-dramatic play in children.
The provision for childrens play
The view of our experts regarding provision for childrens play were also somewhat divided,
with those from Denmark, Germany and Sweden believing that the children in those
countries had good opportunities for play, whereas the experts from the other five
European countries believing they were insufficient. In Italy, France, Poland, UK and Spain
the view was that there is a growing tendency to reduce play time in childrens lives, both at
school and home, in order to increase time for learning (learning and play are seen as
separate concepts). The emphasis is on academic performance, especially in reading and
maths. Also, Textor expressed the view that, although there is good provision, play and
learning through play is quite structured in Germany. In Spain, Marín suggested that play is
not completely separated from learning, and is only valued as a means to certain valued
results, such as learning, but not as a process on its own right.
Benefits and concerns regarding screen-based play
In response to a question concerning current anxieties regarding the recent rapid increase in
screen-based play, the European experts took a rather balanced view. While it is clearly the
case that we live in a digital society and accordingly video games and other screen-based
technologies are a part of 21st century childrens lives, the evidence that this is at the
expense of, or directly opposed to, physical and outdoor play is not clear. As we have
reviewed earlier in this report, if the amount of time children spend playing outdoors has
declined, this appears to be a result of changing attitudes to risk in urban environments
rather than to an increase in video game technology. However, excessive, solitary screen-
based play in early childhood is recognised to be problematic if it limits the development of
childrens other play skills, and links have been established in this case with difficulties in
social development, obesity and so on.
The experts also point out clear evidence of a range of benefits arising from screen-based
play. For example, there are studies that indicate physical benefits of video games, such as
quickened reaction time. In clinical studies video games have been successfully used in
order to increase childrens compliance to medical treatments. Videogames can increase
childrens tolerance to frustration. They are also often very active and mentally stimulating
and cooperative, with many children playing games with friends and with parents. Indeed,
there is some evidence that well-designed videogames can enrich play resources for
children and their families.
The role of adults in childrens play
The role of adults in childrens play is a complex and under-researched area and so, not
surprisingly, a number of slightly different views were expressed by our European experts.
On the one hand Broström and Texter expressed the view that the full potential of play can
only be unlocked by active teachers or parents. On the other hand, Baumgartner, Marín and
Muchacka were of the view that childrens play doesnt need adult supervision. Adults
should provide materials, safe spaces and toys to encourage childrens play without
interfering. However, these recommendations varied mostly in response to the situation in
their own country rather than in substance. So, for example, Denmark has a lot of free play
in schools and teachers tend not to involve themselves or participate in childrens play, and
so Broström, the Danish expert, recommended more adult involvement and more structure,
which he believes would be beneficial for children. On the other hand, in France childrens
play opportunities are often more structured, and so Brougère, the French expert,
recommended more free play where children make their own decisions. Clearly, both
recognise that there is value in a variety of play situations, and so would recommend a
balanced diet of free, child-initiated play, play between children and adults, and so on. This
predominant view concerning a balance between adult-child play and adult-free play
manifested itself most clearly in a general consensus around the view that an adult who
pays attention, listens to the child and talks to them, will be more beneficial than an adult
who structures and directs the childs activity. Certainly, some evidence suggests that, if an
adult organises the play, children are more interested in capturing the adults attention and
are less motivated to participate with their peers in shared activities.
Howard expressed the view, however, that dichotomising adult directed v child initiated,
work v play or structured v unstructured situations is not, in practice, particularly helpful.
The key point, in her view, is whether the children perceive the situation as playful. Her
research suggests that it is possible for adults to operate as co-players with children,
supporting and extending the play activities, while preserving the childrens freedom and
autonomy to develop the play as they wish.
Part 4. The work and views of European Play Organisations
In order to produce this report we also consulted with governmental, professional and
charitable organisations across Europe concerned with the provision and enhancement of
childrens play opportunities. These organisations were asked to answer a number of
questions about their work supporting childrens play and to indicate their views on
significant factors influencing the contribution of play to childrens learning and development.
There are around twenty to thirty major play organisations across Europe, from which a
representative sample of national, international, governmental, charitable and professional
organisations was contacted. We received detailed information from twelve organisations,
concerning their work and their views on childrens play. This information is summarised in
4.1 The work of European play organisations
Play-related organisations in the EU come from different sectors and fulfil various roles with
regard to the support and promotion of play for children. While most organisations come
from the NGO/NPO sector (European Parents Association (EPA), the International Play
Association (IPA) Sweden, Playboard, the International Toy Library Association (ITLA)),
others describe themselves as membership-based or professional associations (IPA World,
Ludemos, Play Therapy International) representing a network of individual members,
professionals or other local level associations. Some organisations are also part of the
commercial sector (Playlink), which display commitment to social goals. Some organisations
work closely with the ministries of social affairs, health, etc. of their respective countries,
and describe themselves as being related to the government (Finland Ombudsman for
Children); however most consider themselves as working fairly independently. The sectors
which these organisations associate are also reflected in the nature of their membership
and funding. Some of them are national and international associations or research
networks, comprising a network of regional and local bodies or independent researchers
(IPA World, EPA, ITLA, Ludemos). Some organisations also comprise individual members or
professionals such as parents, teachers, playworkers, playground designers, planners, health
professionals, social service officers, etc. (Playboard, Play Therapy International, IPA
Sweden). While the bulk of funding comes from membership fees and government funding,
charitable donations and consultancy fees also form a part of the funding for these
organisations, particularly those which function in the commercial sector.
Although the development and promotion of childrens and young peoples play is the
overarching objective of most play-related organisations, each focus on specific issues. The
various issues related to play that the organisations participating in our survey are working
on include childrens rights (IPA, Finland Ombudsman), life-long learning through play (EPA),
risk-assessment (Playlink), providing opportunities and resources to play (ITLA, Playlink),
play-therapy (Play Therapy International (PTI)), practitioners training and support (EPA, PTI,
Ludemos) and finally research and dissemination of information related to play (Ludemos,
Within these broad issues, play-related organisations carry out a broad range of activities.
Organisations working within the Childs Rights domain focus their activities on advocacy,
campaign support, legislation and policy development (IPA, EPA, Finland Ombudsman, ITLA).
Those working closely with play practitioners, professionals, and other individuals related to
the development of play-friendly environments provide specific training and training for
these purposes, while disseminating information and research related to their particular
area of activity or research (EPA, Ludemos, Play Therapy International, Playlink).
Organisations and their associate members such as the ITLA, Playlink and Playboard directly
support the development of play provisions such as toy libraries and the design and creation
of playable places and play days for children.
Although the notion of play is commonly attributed to young children, most organisations
claim to cater to a broad age-group from twelve months to eighteen years. However, in
terms of the actual provisions available for play, a more detailed investigation is required to
ascertain the age-groups which might be overlooked. It is important to note here that the
Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) (United Nations, 1990) defines a child as every
human being below the age of eighteen years unless under the law applicable to the child,
majority is attained earlier (Article 1, CRC).
4.2 Views of European play organisations on issues related to children’s play
The European play organisations surveyed were also asked questions concerning their views
on the nature and value of childrens play, and on the level of provision in their country and
across Europe. The responses provided by them in relation to these questions are
summarised in this section.
Views concerning the nature and value of childrens play
All the organisations that were surveyed agreed on the general view of play as natural
behaviour or activity that is beneficial for children and is fundamental for their wellbeing
and holistic development (cognitive, social, emotional, physical, etc.). Some organisations
further stressed the fact that play and leisure is a right stated in the CRC.
However, an aspect in which the organisations differed from one another related to the
view of play as a means to achieve other purposes as opposed to being an activity for its
own sake. Thus, some organisations focused on the instrumental value of play for other
purposes, such as education, the learning of values and skills, or health. For example, the
response from the International Toy Library included the statement that:
‘These [values and attitudes] include sharing, following rules, taking turns, valuing the
choices of others, accepting losing, persevering until the activity is finished. This leads to
open minds, good socialization, tolerance and resilience. Cultural games are highly valued as
a means of preserving community culture. Parent/child play is encouraged to strengthen the
Other organisations, however, focused on play for its own sake, seeing play as an activity or
process. The organisations did not concern themselves explicitly with definitions of play,
which were a major concern for the expert researchers, but when describing play as an
activity, they used the following descriptions to express their views on the nature of
‘[Play should be] spontaneous, flexible, unpredictable, imaginative and directed by them [the
‘[Children should be allowed] to take risks, make mistakes, have everyday adventures and
test themselves and their boundaries’ (Ludemos Associate)
‘Play is spontaneous, self-motivated and controlled by the child. Play is not created by adults
for children but by children themselves’ (IPA)
The provision for childrens play
The play organisations advocated the need for spaces and time for play, both in educational
contexts and in the community. Within school the view was expressed that breaks between
lessons are an important chance for children to engage in different kind of plays and games
with their friends, and that it is, therefore, important for schools to have good outdoor
facilities, with hard surfaced areas and fields with toys, equipment and natural elements to
support their play. It was also advocated that outdoor play areas should be designed taking
childrens views and ideas into account.
It was generally perceived that there is a lack of provision for childrens play in communities,
arising from a lack of awareness of its importance. Childrens time for play was also seen to
be limited by too much school work, by safety concerns and lack of parental understanding
about the importance of play, leading to an excess of adult controlled play. Eurochild
‘”time poverty” is an issue that is increasingly acknowledged across Europe due to most
families requiring a dual income, a rise in single-parent families etc.’
The Finland Ombudsman reported on a survey of childrens attitudes, run every year,
concerning the implementation of the CRC. Typically the children express the view that the
right to play is a very important right. They relate it to having fun, to being with friends and
also to being a child. They also complain that their leisure activities are too performance-
oriented and demanding and that they do not have enough free time of their own. The
children would also like to have more non-competitive sports activities and activity clubs
not focusing on the rehearsing of one particular skill.
From an international perspective, the International Toy Library Association provided
statistics of the number of Toy libraries available per country, which varies from over 2,000
in the UK, and over 1,500 in France to only nineteen in Croatia and nine in Turkey. Toy
libraries serve all children, including those with special needs. They are beneficial in the
development of immigrant children and children living in poverty. Government support
varies - most toy libraries survive on donations and volunteers.
Various organisations reported on examples of interventions and activities that they carry
out to promote play. These activities can be classified according to different focuses:
Related to spaces for children to play
Child friendly Cities Committee (IPA)
Design projects, public spaces (Playlink)
Related to training
Positive PlayGrounds (Playboard)
Multi-Disciplinary Play (Play Shaper) aimed at senior management and
professionals including: Councils, Planners, Landscapers and Designers, Highways
and Transport, Health Professionals, Children Services and Schools, Police and
Community Leaders. (Playboard)
Related to play as an Activity or Interaction
Play Quest Programme (Playboard) Supporting children to communicate their
views, and take control over their play time.
Reclaiming Playspace (Playboard)
Promotion of the Play Cycle model of playful interaction; (Ludemos)
Play therapy (Play Therapy Int.) Development of play therapy competencies
Part 5. Policy Review and Recommendations
Based on their expertise and years of experience of working in the play sector, the European
play researchers and the play organisations we contacted were also all asked to suggest
policy recommendations for the European Union. This part of the report draws on these
recommendations, and the research evidence reviewed in Part 3, to make what we would
consider to be evidence-based and important policy recommendations. These
recommendations, in the view of the current authors, would contribute to the provision for,
and quality of, childrens play opportunities to the benefit of the existing and future citizens
of the European Union.
Encouragingly, the European Union has already made significant policy decisions in this
area, which crucially build on Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child,
(1990), which states that:
‘States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and
recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child’.
On 15 February 2011, the European Commission presented ‘An EU agenda for the Rights of
the Child’. This mainly focused on child-friendly justice and the protection of vulnerable
children, and fully recognised the importance for society of providing for the developmental
needs of children, including play. The document concludes as follows:
‘A renewed commitment of all actors is necessary to bring to life the vision of a world where
children can be children and can safely live, play, learn, develop their full potential, and make
the most of all existing opportunities’.
On 12 May 2011, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on Early Years Learning in
the European Union, which notes that the early years of childhood are critical for childrens
development and highlights that in addition to education, all children have the right to rest,
leisure and play.
This was followed on 20 May 2011 by the Council of the European Union adopting
conclusions on early childhood education and care which included the agreement that
measures should be taken to promote
‘developmentally appropriate programmes and curricula, which foster the acquisition of
both cognitive and non-cognitive skills, whilst recognizing the importance of play, which is
also crucial to learning in the early years’.
The present report attempts to provide a review of the best available current evidence
which would support this position, and to draw from this evidence suggestions as to more
detailed policy recommendations for consideration within the European Union.
The recommendations of this report, and their justifications, are that the European Union
adopts policies which:
1. Promote awareness and change attitudes regarding children’s play
Several organisations such as the International Play Association (IPA), Ludemos, PlayBoard
NI and the International Toy Library Association (ITLA) recommended policy changes at the
international as well as national level, in order to promote public understanding and
awareness of the importance of play. The IPA has been involved in the development of a
General Comment on Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC),
for providing guidance to State parties regarding the successful implementation of Article
31 and raise awareness about it. Recommendations made in this document (publication
anticipated in 2013) will provide countries within the EU with concrete guidance regarding
the practical implementation of Article 31, by identifying and removing the variety of
potential obstacles that hinder the childs right to play. Most organisations also indicated
the widespread lack of understanding of the importance of play to be a major barrier to
childrens play, and suggested various measures for addressing this issue. For example, IPA,
PlayBoard NI and the ITLA highlighted the need for public awareness programmes,
particularly aimed at shifting the attitudes of adults towards the presence of children in
public places from something negative and problematic to one which understands the
childs needs to explore. Ludemos argued for implementing statutory policy changes in
order to shift perceptions, and proposed introducing relevant performance measures of
childrens play, independent mobility or access to the outdoors into EU indices of child
health and well-being as an appropriate mechanism to achieve this. ITLA pointed out that
World Play Day has proved to be an extremely powerful tool in advocating play and that it
should be included in the UN Calendar of Events, in the same way as World Aids Day and
Childrens Day are.
Within the educational arena, as we discussed earlier in the report, a number of EU
educational systems have followed an earlier is better agenda, which is not supported by
existing research evidence and which severely constrains playful opportunities even within
the very early school years.
In general, while the health benefits of physical play are generally well understood, both
within and beyond educational settings, the emotional and cognitive benefits of all five
types of play are not nearly so well recognised, either by parents and the general
community, or by educational and other policy makers. Given the crucial significance of
playful activities for childrens emotional well-being, their language development and their
development of metacognitive and self-regulatory abilities (underpinning academic
achievement, creativity and problem-solving), this enhanced understanding is vitally
2. Encourage improved provisions of time and space for children’s play
The current constraints on provision in urbanised modern societies and contemporary
educational systems have been reviewed earlier in the report. The play experts we
consulted were all of the view that that there is a general lack of play spaces (especially in
big towns and cities) throughout Europe. Childrens play was viewed very strongly by our
European play experts as being about exploring the environment, learning about society and
living with others. The lack of open play areas in childrens neighbourhoods was seen as a
major barrier to these opportunities for growth provided by play. Towns and cities, in the
view of our experts, need to be organised much more with children in mind. It needs to be
possible for children to play in the street, to have local play spaces and parks and safe
routes to them and to their schools, which children can access independently.
All the organisations responding to our survey also advocated more play provision for
children, in terms of time and space, along with additional play-based activities and
materials. For example, Ludemos and PlayBoard NI recommend school-based, freely chosen
and self-determined play programmes supported by appropriate adults, both during and
after school. Informal outdoor activities should be encouraged, coupled with longer school
breaks for promoting more physical activity during school. A standard for the amount of
time for play during the school day (break-time and lunchtime) needs to be established and
incorporated into school inspections. Another suggestion by Ludemos involves making
swimming free for children under sixteen, such that all children are able to swim by the age
of seven (as in the Netherlands). Such a step would not only enable children to be more
independent and confident when around water, but also to develop healthier lifestyles.
Recognition of the need to have free, accessible and child-friendly places for children to play
has been highlighted by several organisations as a crucial step towards ensuring childrens
right to play. Suggestions to implement these range from examining successful initiatives at
creating child-friendly cities, such as Rotterdam in the Netherlands, and encouraging
comparative policy research into child-friendliness in relation to planning and land use.
Suggestions have also been made to review and change planning policies such that they
fully incorporate planning and land-use guidelines that are compatible with the needs of
children and young persons and develop indicators of child-friendly communities. Cross-
sector training has also been recommended for those who plan, design, build and manage
local communities to understand the importance of childrens play and their role in creating
child-friendly public spaces.
ITLA made several recommendations regarding providing toy libraries for children in various
locations that are used or inhabited by children, such as schools, public libraries, community
centres, play parks, childrens hospitals, etc. These facilities can provide children with an
opportunity to play while promoting their learning and wellbeing in several aspects of their
lives. Highlighting the therapeutic aspects of play, Play Therapy International advocate
additional therapeutic play provisions in educational and non-educational settings.
Finally Eurochild made an extremely important point linking play provision to issues of social
justice and development of a socially healthy society:
‘It is crucially important to address play from the perspective of social inclusion and
opportunities for children that face social marginalization and discrimination. There is an
ever widening gap in the opportunities children have according to their parents’ social and
economic background. Increasingly extra-curricular activities including access to play spaces
have to be purchased, exacerbating social inequalities. Conversely, public investment in play
can make an important contribution to social inclusion and equal opportunities.’
3. Support arrangements enabling children to experience risk and develop resilience and
self-reliance through play
In general, the evidence suggests that as societies are becoming more urbanised, and more
children are living in cities, attitudes to risk and safety are currently impeding childrens
opportunities for unsupervised free play, which is required if they are to reap the maximum
benefit from their play experiences. The consensus view of the European play researchers
we consulted was clearly that it is important that children experience risk and that meeting
challenges and learning how to manage risk is one of the main elements of play and should
be supported and encouraged. Unfortunately, but understandably, in the view of our play
experts, parents, carers and teachers today, across Europe, are becoming too riskaverse,
and so over-supervise and over-schedule children to the detriment of their play
Re-establishing a more evidence-based balance between the demands of safety and the
needs of children to play freely, particularly in natural outdoor environments, was a priority
expressed by all the organisations consulted. The response from Playlink is typical of the
‘This is an extremely sensitive area and needs to be addressed thoughtfully. In general we
would say that children and teenagers suffer from too much attention from adults so far as
their free time is concerned. In that sense, we believe more ‘benign neglect’ is required. In
terms of supervised, specifically play provision, we endorse a playworker – ‘low
intervention, high response’ - approach seen in the best adventure playgrounds. Equally, it is
vital that support for a playwork approach in certain settings should not dilute the absolute
need for there to be more opportunities for children and teenagers to play without adult
presence or supervision. This is a complex area, obviously.’
There was general agreement that the application and understanding of safety rules and
standards has had an effect on the quantity and quality of play provision that is offered to
children across Europe, and that there is a danger that the pursuit of a culture of blame and
compensation results in discouraging local authorities from providing any or adequate play
The European Union policy making community could, therefore, make an important
contribution by promoting research to identify the ways in which the interpretation of
safety issues is currently frustrating childrens opportunities to play freely, by consulting
with children about their perceptions concerning play and risk and the manner in which
adults currently manage it, and by revising EU standards for play equipment, reforming the
way these are drawn up and applied.
Other suggestions from European play organisations included promoting the use of natural
materials in playground designs, giving exciting opportunities for children to learn about
risks, moving towards an agreement that national minimum standards for all childcare
settings include quality standards for play, as well as safety and well-being, and work with
the media to overcome the active role they take in manipulating the publics perception of
risks in order to promote the positive characteristics and outcomes of risk.
4. Establish funding agencies that promote play and play research
It was noticeable as we conducted the surveys of European play researchers and
organisations that there were actually remarkably few of the former and that many of the
latter operated on very limited funds provided by government, membership subscriptions or
charitable giving. Given the importance of high quality play opportunities for the education
and development of the children of Europe, particularly when they face major economic,
social and environmental difficulties, this is an unfortunate and unwise situation. It is clear
from this review that core funding needs to be provided for agencies that promote play and
for a much more significant research effort. There is a vital need to connect research,
practice and policy to meet the play needs of children and young people, families and
communities across Europe. Ludemos suggested a 1% tax on games, toys and junk food
marketed at children to support the funding of play agencies and research.
A number of significant areas where further research is clearly required have been
highlighted in this report. In particular, the ways in which adults can most productively
participate in childrens play, in domestic, leisure and educational settings, could
advantageously be much more thoroughly investigated. The processes by which play
supports the development of crucial metacognitive and self-regulatory abilities are also only
now beginning to be researched. The specific types of play most likely to support childrens
emotional development, including their resilience to stressful events, and the therapeutic
use of play for children with severe emotional and/or cognitive disabilities are also other
under-researched areas. Several of the play experts and organisations we consulted also
had specific suggestions. These included research related to:
the benefits of different types of interventions aimed at promoting play,
independent mobility and contact with nature
children and young peoples ideas about, and perceptions of, play
the benefits of play in toy libraries (ITLA)
the benefits to development of playing with specific toys and games
the barriers to playing including policy on planning, traffic, housing and open space,
schools and childcare (Play Board NI).
Alongside a major research push, extensive training for all those involved in the care and
education of children, concerning the psychological processes embedded in playful activity,
the essential qualities of play, the role of adults in supporting it and its benefits for learning
and well-being is vitally important. Currently, the research in this area is very far ahead of
public understanding, and of much of the practice of parents, and care and educational
professionals. To make the improvement of play opportunities a reality for the children of
Europe, this must be a priority in any policy development.
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