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Theories of Children’s Play


Child psychology is a specific science, which logically occurred due to the same reasons as pediatrics. Child psychology is not a simplified version o adult psychology, where it represents independent and even more complex science than general psychology. In that sense, analyzing such aspects as child play, where most people might assume that it is merely an amusement and free past, it can be concluded that children are developing and their sensible playing activities are comparable to adults’ serious activities. Many scholars focused on aspects of child’s play in terms of their characteristics and came up with various theories regarding the origins, properties, and functions of various forms of play. In the light of the aforementioned, this paper analyzes selected theories, evaluating the classical and the traditional theories of play in childhood.

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Play definition

Play can be defined in many various ways, among which approaches defining play based on what it does not represent (e.g. play does not work), but the chosen definition will be based on what play represents. In that regard, play is an activity that is motivated by satisfaction, concerned with an activity rather than goals, controlled by children themselves, can be nonliteral, can be free of rules or modified by players, and require active engagement by the players. (Saracho and Spodek, 1998).

Classical theories

The classical theories of play were initiated in the nineteenth century and “strive to explain the reason that play exists and its function.” (Saracho and Spodek, 1998) These theories are mainly based on philosophical mediation rather than experimental research and observation, which are the basis of child psychology. The theories can be related to four distinct concepts after which each theory was named, i.e. relaxation, surplus, recapitulation, and pre-exercise.

The relaxation and the surplus theories are based on the perception that play is merely a regulation of child energy. Both theories in that regard, contradict each other, where the surplus theory focuses on physical activities, in which play discharges excessive amounts of energy, while relaxation theory argues that play is used to restore the energy. The recapitulation and pre-exercise theories, on the other hand, relate the play to instincts, where the Recapitulation theory corresponds to the evolution theory in which children through play activities recall their past (an emphasis on physical activities). On the other hand, pre-exercise theories assert that in play children develop their physical and mental abilities and in such a way prepare themselves for adult life. In the latter, it can be seen that those theories are more general covering other types of play in addition to physical activities. Despite the deficiencies in these theories, they are important in terms of their provision of the basis on which modern theories were based, as they brought the attention to play as a phenomenon that should be studied and analyzed rather than random activities. (Saracho and Spodek, 1998).

Traditional theories

Traditional theories of development were related to children’s cognitive development. The most noted theorists examining this relation were Jean Piaget and Leo Vygotsky. Piaget’s view on the relation between play and a child’s development is based on the processes of assimilation and accommodation. Normally, children assimilate the information taken from the world and assimilate them to existing mental models. When they are unable to incorporate the information, they accommodate the mental structures to better accept the information. In that regard, when playing, “assimilation assumes primacy over accommodation” (Weiner et al., 2003), where there are three stages of play, i.e. sensorimotor, symbolic, and games with rules. Each stage is in sequential order representing children’s development.

Vygotsky’s opinion, in that matter, perceived that play is an extension of cognitive development; “children have a “zone of proximal development”, a range of tasks between those that can be mastered only through the mediation of adults or more competent peers. “(Weiner et al., 2003) Accordingly, Vygotsky considered social interaction with more competent others critical to cognitive development. Thus, this interaction made Vygotsky’s theory generally more acceptable as it is applicable through different social and cultural contexts. Piaget’s theory in that matter was questioned, in terms of its applicability, as the data used in observation was limited to specific social and cultural contexts. If Piaget’s theory emphasized more on the development stages, while Vygotsky’s on their socio-cultural aspects, the psychoanalytical theories such as Freud’s were concerned about the unconscious aspects of play. These theories generally emphasize that children either reflect their negative experiences, dramatize the past, present, or future, or imitations of life.


In that regard, it can be seen that classical and traditional theories differ in terms of their view on the motives of play. Classical theories put emphasis mostly on physical activities, while traditional theories acknowledge the development process in children.

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  1. SARACHO, O. N. & SPODEK, B. (1998) Multiple perspectives on play in early childhood education, Albany, State University of New York Press.
  2. WEINER, I. B., REYNOLDS, W. M. & FREEDHEIM, D. K. (2003) Handbook of Psychology: Educational psychology, John Wiley and Sons.

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