What is PLAY?

What is PLAY?

Play is an essential and pervasive occupation of childhood (Kielhofner, 2002), and because it is particularly, impaired in children with an ASD, it is an area of special concern for occupational therapists working with these children. Along with work and self care, play comprises the essential skills needed for health functioning (Tomchek & Case-Smith, 2009). Many animal species and all children play in some way, and the ability to play (and play well) is vital to their growth and development. Early theorists proposed that the purpose of play was to facilitate development of biological, cultural, and evolutionary aspects of the human species (Hughes, 1995). Later, theorists proposed that play promoted ago development and was a means of reducing childhood anxiety (Erickson, 1963; Freud, 1974). More commonly known is Piagit’s (1962) belief that play is an important part of cognitive development. Thus play is viewed as a mechanism by which children learn about their physical and social worlds and how to effectively and adaptively interact within them. For children with an ASD, the inability to play interferes with the ability to interact effectively with objects and the environment and to develop appropriate social relationships. Frank (1963) stated that “when a child cannot play, we should be as troubled as when he refuses to eat or sleep” (p.vi).

As seen in the playground example, defining exactly what play is can be very difficult, Reilly (1974) refer to play as a cobweb, elusive and complex. We know play when we see it, but describing what it is and what makes something play or not are the subjects of much debate among professionals. Consequently, although play can be categorized in numerous ways, four major frameworks have been developed: (1) constructs of play which identify the characteristics that make something play; (2) types of play, which define the function and the nature of the play behavior; (3) developmental levels of play, which define the stages and progression of play skills; and (4) playfulness, which describes the approach that one takes towards the activity to make it play. Thus, when examining play skills of children with an ASD, occupational therapists should consider not only what or how a child plays but also the developmental level of play, the qualitative aspects of how the child plays, and what motivates the child to play (Tomchek & Case-Smith, 2009).


Although no universal definition of play exists, researchers agree on many of the characteristics, or constructs that make up play behavior. First, play behavior involves to major types of activities that may occur separately or together: (1) play with objects, which may be functional or symbolic and (2) play with others, which primarily involves aspects of social interaction. Second play is intrinsically motivated; that is, it is voluntary and freely entered into by the participant. A child engages in the behavior for the pure enjoyment of the process and for the sake of the behavior itself not because of external motivations, outside influences, or the social demand or desires of others.

Third, play requires and internal locus of control, guided by self imposed goals and focused on the means rather than the ends. Thus, play usually is considered to be different from games with rules; it is characterized by flexibility and lack of a predetermined outcome, it may be varied, revised, or altered at the whim of the player. In play, the players said the rules, and those rules may be fluid as the situation changes. As children move into cooperative play, it becomes important for them to be able to determine and follow the rules of the group activity and be flexible in accepting changes in those rules as the play demands.

Fourth, play is organism centered rather than object centered. Objects in play are often used in a manner that fits the play, not necessarily the intended purpose of the object (e.g., a pan worn on the head becomes a helmet). As such, play is generally considered to be noninstrumental; in other words, it is not engaged in for functional purposes such as dressing or self care. Play usually has a pretend, or “as if,” quality. In play, the familiar everyday environment is transformed to whatever sitting is needed to support the play.

Finally, play requires that the player is actively engaged in the process and not just a passive observer (Parham & Primeau, 1997; Rubin, Fein, & Vendenberg, 1983; Schaaf, 1990). When a child is totally absorbed in the process of play and the “just right”, or appropriate, level of challenge is matched to the interests and functioning of the child, the activity is fun (Ayres, 1979; Miller, Kuhaneck, Spitzer & Miller, 2010; Miller & Kuhaneck, 2008; Vygotsky, 1978). A state of flow or timelessness and total involvement characterize the process (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975, 1979, 1990; Coomar & Bundy, 2002). Csikszentmihalyi (1990) described the state of flow as “an activity that produces such experiences it is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even if it is difficult or dangerous” (p.71).


Many theorists and researchers have examined play in terms of types, or categories, of play. Categorization schemes often include four major categories:

  1. Exploratory behavior. In exploration, the child does not yet purposefully manipulate the object but revels in the sensory experiences it provides. True, play is thought to emerge once the child understands the object and then seeks to determine what he/she can do with it (Piaget, 1962). Thus, exploratory behavior is necessary for the development of later, more mature play behaviors. Therefore, there is disagreement about whether exploration constitutes true play behavior. Some believe that exploratory behavior differs from true play behavior because it occurs with novel objects and has the primary purpose of allowing a child to determine the properties of an object (Burghardt, 1984, 2005; Hutte, 1966; Miller Kuhaneck et al., 2009). Sensory exploration, such as mouthing, fingering and banging, commonly facilitates a child’s learning about the affordances (e.g., the qualities or properties of an object) that invite interaction.
  2. Manipulative play. This type of play involves the active use and manipulation of objects, such as a child stacking rings or nesting cups. The child takes on an active role in learning about the uses of the objects and the actions that may be done with or to them. The child further engages in purposeful experimentation to determine what the objects can do.
  3. Functional play. In this type of play, real objects are used to recreate real-life situations. Children “Play out their lives” using real objects or miniatures of real object, such as feeding dolls, playing with cars, and dressing up like mother (figure 15.1).
  4. Symbolic play. This type of play is often considered to be “true” play behavior (Figure 15.2). it involves pretending and the symbolic representation of objects and events which often require a “suspension of disbelief” to engage in the make-believe play. The child uses a stick as a sword while pretending to be a knight in shining armor.



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