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What Is Play? How Children Define It

If an adult is present, it’s probably not play.

Source: Poznyakov/Shutterstock

One of my earliest posts here concerned the definition of play, which I developed further in an article on “Definitions of Play” for Scholarpedia (Gray, 2013) and in my book Free to Learn.

I first examined the ways that play has been defined by other play scholars, including such classic writers as Johan Huizinga (in his book Homo Ludens) and Lev Vygotsky (in his essay “The Role of Play in Development”) as well as contemporary researchers. From this, I made a list of potential defining characteristics of play, combined similar terms, dropped characteristics that seemed idiosyncratic to a single author, and injected a bit of my own judgment. The result was a set of five defining characteristics.

How I (and Many Other Researchers) Define Play

I concluded that play is best understood as an activity that is:

  • (a) freely chosen and directed by the players),
  • (b) intrinsically motivated (conducted for its own sake rather than some reward outside of itself),
  • (c) structured by rules within the player’s mind,
  • (d) always creative and usually imaginative, and
  • (e) conducted in an active, alert, but relatively non-stressed frame of mind.

In elaborations of this definition, I have explained how each of these characteristics contributes to play’s power in promoting children’s healthy development and learning. In brief:

  • Because it is freely chosen and directed by the players, play is a major force for children’s learning how to take initiative, direct their own behavior, negotiate with and get along with playmates, and solve their own problems.
  • Because it is intrinsically motivated, play is how children discover, pursue, and become skilled at what they love to do.
  • Because it is guided by mental rules, play is how children learn to plan, structure, and create the boundaries (rules) for activities that engage them.
  • Because it is always creative and often highly imaginative, play is how children exercise and build their capacities for creativity and imagination.
  • Finally, the mental state of play—active and alert but relatively non-stressed—has been shown in many studies to be the ideal state of mind for learning anything new or doing anything that requires creativity or the generation of new insights.

All in all, the drive to play is nature’s means of getting children to practice the most essential abilities all children need to develop to live satisfying, meaningful, and productive life.

Oksana Kuzmina/Shutterstock
Source: Oksana Kuzmina/Shutterstock

How Young Children Identify an Activity as Play or Not Play

I’ve been wondering how kids themselves, especially young ones, define play. It turns out that there have been quite a few research studies in which young children—usually in preschool or kindergarten—are asked in various ways to distinguish between play and not play. In a review of 12 such studies, Natasha Goodhall and Cathy Atkinson (2019) concluded that even very young children have a rather clear conception of the difference between play and non-play and that this is similar from child to child. Most important for the present discussion, a key characteristic of play for children is that it is chosen and directed by the children themselves. In study after study, activities set up and monitored by a teacher—even if the children admitted they were fun—were not judged as play.

As one example of such a study, Justine Howard and her colleagues (2006) showed children pictures of other kids engaged in various activities and asked them to judge each as “play” or “not play.” It turned out that the most reliable indicator for the children was the presence or absence of an adult. If an adult (generally seen to be a teacher) was present, the activity was most often judged as “not play,” even if the children looked happy and engaged. If no adult was present, it was most often judged as “play.” Children were also more likely to judge an activity as play if there was more than one child involved than if a single child was doing something alone.

The children’s assumption, apparently, is that if an adult is present the adult is probably taking charge, so it isn’t play; and if no adult is present but two or more children are doing something together it is very likely play, because that’s what children do when they are together with no adult.

Howard and her colleagues (2006) also reviewed previous research on children’s understanding of play and concluded that, all in all, children consider an activity to be play if it (a) is controlled by the children, (b) is enjoyable, (c) has no predetermined goal, and (d) involves pretense. Yay! This list matches reasonably well with the list I generated based on the work of other play researchers and my own observations and musings. I’m apparently not too far off the mark.

Play-Based Learning Programs Are Often Not Play

Unfortunately, many education specialists who have heard that play is good for children’s learning don’t understand what play is. They develop “play-based learning" programs that violate the first defining characteristic of play because they are chosen and set up by the teacher and are more-or-less imposed upon the children rather than freely chosen by them. Once the first characteristic is violated, the others are also generally undermined.

I think it is hard for teachers to provide much real play for children, because that means giving up control. Moreover, stepping back and letting the children do their own thing may look like laziness or negligence to adult observers.

As Wood and Attfield (1996) pointed out years ago, curriculum initiatives that claim to be founded on the idea of play-based learning can be a kind of straitjacket, because teachers feel pressured to provide activities that look like play to other adults, but where the teacher is still clearly in charge and where "learning" of the type adults expect to see in a classroom seems to be happening.

In a future post I plan to deal with the value and challenge of DOING LESS for children. It’s a challenge for parents as well as teachers, because parenting has in recent times been increasingly defined as a job, or as work, and if you aren’t working at it, because you're letting your kids just be, you may be seen as negligent—or think of yourself as such.

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Gray, P. (2013). Definitions of play. Scholarpedia 8: 30578.

Goodhall, N., & Atkinson, C. (2019). How do children distinguish between ‘play’ and ‘work’? Conclusions from the literature. Early Child Development and Care, 189, 1695-1708.

Howard, J., Jenvey, V., & Hill, C. (2006). Children’s categorisation of play and learning based on social context. Early Child Development and Care, 176, 379-393.

Wood, E. & Attfield, J. (1996) Play, learning and the early childhood curriculum (London, Paul Chapman).

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