Some Aspects of Play and its Significance



These are loosely connected notes which I put together in the late 1990s with the idea of writing an essay on the significance of play in endeavours which involves offering children and young people support. I think they may be of interest to those beginning to consider and study the place of play in the development of children and young people.

For better informed and more insightful essays about play read Linnet McMahon’s article  in Issue 9 of the goodenoughcaring Journal and Dominic McNally’s article in Issue 1 of the same Journal.


The psychoanalyst Charles Rycroft (1972) describes play as an activity which is engaged in for its own sake, for the pleasure it gives without reference to serious aims and ends(Mycroft, 1972).  It is often contrasted with work or other socially or biologically essential acts. Play is of interest to those who work with children and young people for a number of reasons. It is an activity, which paradoxically engages with fantasy in the inner world while at the same time being a form of adaptation to the external world. It is also an activity in which the child’s fantasy is engaged with communal activity (even if it is only solitary play observed by others). Additionally it is an activity, which to a large extent is “pretend” or not real, and so in a sense it is “acting” and has no significance in reality and  not subject to censorship, inhibition and guilt. Consequently play offers evidence of wishes and anxieties which are usually repressed.

While Rycroft argues that child therapists have used play as the equivalent of “free association” in adult therapy and although children can free associate and generate fantasies, it has been considered that the free associating method is likely to provoke anxiety in children and to be less tolerable to them over a period of time. So play has been seen as an effective medium of expressing feelings and conflicts. Dwivedi (1993) argues that through play children are able to project feelings and conflicts on to play characters.

.Play is often the most significant kind of communication between an infant and a parenting figure as well as between children. Between children it can be non-verbal and can be loaded with feelings and actions, while adults tend to communicate more by transferring these into language and concepts. The predominant means of communication between children also varies according to their age. Young children often express emotion through play, while children in the latency period (roughly between 5 and 12 years) may do so by constructive or destructive action, which is accompanied by language. Older children and adolescents and adults tend to use language more often as a means of communicating feelings. If play is to be a therapeutic tool for workers with children and young people then they may have to take these differences into consideration.

It would seem that young children need to express their fantasies through play and are able to do so with tangible objects like dolls, soft toys representing animals and other characters, as well as materials such as plasticene, sand and water. Along with many other things these have all been used by children in their play to project their fantasies and conflicts.

Of course there are many theories about playing or child play and a number of these suggest that play is a fundamental childhood experience which allows the individual to cope with the present and prepare for adulthood. Peter Slade (1963) for instance described play as an essential part of young life through which the child thinks, relates, works, remembers, tests, and creates, as well as developing concentration. Ian Petrie reinforces this view when he suggests that play is “a medium through which children may internalise experiences and come to terms with their world; and through play children may practice skills” (Petrie 1974 p.6).

For Winnicott (1971) play is central to the development of the individual. For him there are three stages of play in childhood. He suggested play starts in the baby’s movement towards separation from the mother in what he calls the playground which is the potential space between the baby and the mother. This is a stage of relative dependence where the child’s need to fantasise has to be encouraged in order to create a world of his or her own. According to Winnicott the next stage of play is where the child begins to play alone, in the presence of someone. In this stage Winnicott thought that a responsible person must be available when children play, but that this does not mean that they need to enter the children’s playing. Winnicott proposed a last stage of play in which children allow the mothering figure to introduce her own playing and her own ideas for play that are not the child’s. Winnicott believed that this prepared the way for individuals to be able to play together in a relationship.

In Winnicottian theory, play is a central concept not only in developmental terms but also in therapeutic terms. He believed that play is one of a number of ways which lead to the unification and general integration of the personality. He thought that it is only in play that the child or adult is able to be creative and is able to use the whole personality. (Winnicott 1971)

Clearly there is a difference between spontaneous and directed play. The latter may be described as play activity, which is introduced to the child by a peer, an older child or an adult. For those young people who have not been encouraged to play spontaneously, other forms of play can be too threatening for them. These are often emotionally abused children and young people who have not received the stimulus of sufficiently consistent and interested care from their parenting figures. Bettelheim suggested that for such young people occupying time becomes a problem. Because they have not experienced the potential for creativity, and the emotional safety – safe because it is not real – in spontaneous play, they find it difficult and threatening to make autonomous decisions on how to spend time. To release their tensions, they must either set out on some frantic entertainment, which tends to be destructive, or they become depressed. This depression, Bettelheim (1950) argues, is in part, due to an inability to select an activity which would resolve their problems of firstly how to spend time in an enjoyable and positive way, and secondly how to discharge the tension they feel as consequence of their fear of any new situation or activity. This may offer one explanation of why transitional periods during a young person’s day, getting up, going to school, moving from work to play, sitting down to a meal, going from waking to sleep often seem to be threatening times for emotionally troubled young people.

Making new situations less threatening to young people is very much part of the work of those who offer support to emotionally troubled young people and this can often be achieved through play. Bettelheim (1950) warns that it is important that a young person takes part in play, games, and activities in order to prepare for positive roles, and that they are not spiralling deeper into a delusional power states related to their anxieties and fears. Of course encouraging such fundamental changes may be possible only when the young person feels secure in his living situation and safe in his relationship with his special worker. Nevertheless play and shared activity play a crucial role in building up a secure relationship.

For all those concerned with the care of children and young people the relationship between play and work, and indeed what is play and what is work have been areas of debate. In the 19th century many children were employed to work and since then succeeding labour laws sought to protect them from this. By the 1950s influential opinion had moved towards assuming that no demands should be placed upon children to join in the world of work. Children should be freed to play. This is echoed in group care practice where in nurseries and playgroups, there is no expectation that the children should pick up playthings at the end of a session. In the family home parents often do the work themselves rather than insist that the children carry out chores which give them responsibilities in the routine of family life. It has been argued that this has led to older children and young people showing little interest or even disdain for their social environment, ether at school or out in the streets.

In recent times there has been a trend towards finding a more obvious bridge between play and responsibility. Maier (1981) argued that work and play are not separate in the development of the child, and that by encouraging children to work, they are not denied important experiences provided by play. It was argued that play directed thematically for children in group situations encouraged cognitive development.

In conclusion there is a simplistic sense in which it is possible to argue that therapeutic play brings the inner world to the world of reality. Directed play brings the world of reality to the inner world. Experience of work with children and young people may however show that both forms of play and all that lies between have their significance.


 Bettelheim, B. (1950) Love is not enough, New York: Collier Books (1963) pp215-216

Bettelheim, B. (1950) Love is not enough, New York: Collier Books (1963) pp116-117

Dwivedi, K.D., (1993) “Play, Activities, Exercises and Games” in Group Work with Children and Adolescents: a handbook. Dwivedi, K.D. ed., London: Jessica Kingsley, pp 117 – 135

Maier, H.W. (1985) “Primary Care in Secondary Settings: inherent strains” in Group Care for Children Ainsworth, F. and Fulcher, L.C. eds. London: Tavistock. pp 21-47

Petrie, I., (1974) Drama and Handicapped Children, Birmingham: Educational Drama Association, Rodney Drew and Hopwood Ltd.

Rycroft, C. (1972) A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, London: Penguin Books, pp133- 134

Slade, Peter. (1963) “Drama with Handicapped Children” in Creative Drama, vol.3, pp 83 – 89

Winnicott, D.W. (1971) Playing and Reality, London: Routledge, pp 39-48.

Winnicott, D.W. (1971) Playing and Reality, London: Routledge, pp 53-85.