Theories of Play

Patrick Bateson

in The Oxford Handbook of the Development of Play

Published in print December 2010 | ISBN: 9780195393002
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Library of Psychology

 Theories of Play

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  • Psychology
  • Developmental Psychology
  • History and Systems in Psychology


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As a category of behavior, play can be readily recognized and measured in mammals at least. However, it is easy to project onto children and other animals adult human notions of what is going on. It is also easy for everybody to suppose that the category called play is unitary. Solitary play and social play, imaginary play and object play are not the same and are motivated in different ways. It is far from obvious that play is always enjoyable. Many different explanations are offered for the current utilities or biological functions that increase the chances of the individual surviving and reproducing. These include the acquisition and honing of physical skills needed at once or later in life, improving problem-solving abilities, cementing social relationships and tuning the musculature and the nervous system. In principle the functions can be tested by experiment but the results are often ambiguous. How and why play evolved cannot be tested directly but may well have depended on the individual having enough resources to devote to the active promotion of its development. Once evolved, play may have acted as a driver of evolutionary change, opening up possibilities that did not previously exist. In terms of public policy, the steady reduction in children’s time for play is cause for serious concern, but recommendations for reversing that trend must be based on hard thought and good evidence.

Keywords: play; development; policy factors; play theory

Article.  4944 words. 

Subjects: Psychology ; Developmental Psychology ; History and Systems in Psychology

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