What is play?

Play is the universal language of childhood.

It is through play that children understand each other and make sense of the world around them.


Children learn so much from play; it teaches them social skills such as sharing, taking turns, self discipline and tolerance of others. Children’s lives are enhanced by playing creatively and by playing children learn and develop as individuals; it assists in their emotional and intellectual development and mental health resilience which are core building blocks for their transition years.

Children like to play as there is no “right way” or “wrong way”, they can use their imagination to develop games and interact with each other without being in an adult-led environment.

Play is often called the ‘work’ of children. We therefore need to encourage unstructured free play, loosely supervised, as much as possible as over programming spoils the true benefits of play.

Children’s play may or may not involve equipment or have an end product. Children play on their own and with others. Their play may be boisterous and energetic or quiet and contemplative, light-hearted or very serious.

Play is a very emotive word which means different things to different people, and has been defined in many ways. The meaning of play has been debated by philosophers and academics for centuries, and was recognised as far back as Plato who is quoted as saying ‘avoid compulsion and let your children play’! In the last century David Lloyd George stated that ‘play is a child’s first claim on the community’ (1926), and play gained wider recognition under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in which Article 31 enshrines the child’s right to play.

Play was defined by the emerging playwork profession as behaviour which is ‘freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated’. (PlayEd 1982) Students of play often quote that ‘Play is the spice of life’ – where spice represents children’s social, physical, intellectual, cultural and emotional development. In 1998 the embryonic Play Scotland produced A Play Strategy for Scotland which described play as a natural spontaneous and voluntary activity in which all of us, children and adults benefit from engaging in throughout our lives.

All of the above underlines the importance of play, and its influence on the well being and development of children in Scotland today, and for the future of its communities, but miss something of the essence of play

We asked children of all ages:

“How does playing make you feel?”

“Happy, it cheers me up”
Lia aged 9

“Happy, cheerful, you’re having fun aren’t you? You might get tired because you are running about though”
Olivia aged 9

“I feel happy, full of joy and you use up all your energy”
Patrick aged 11

“You get muddy!”
Jack aged 5

“great, because you get to be outdoors and play with your friends”
Caoimhe aged 12

Skye aged 6

“because it gives you energy”
Jack aged 5

Dara aged 7; Cameron aged 7; Nina aged 6; Blair aged 2
Says it all!!!

“Play is a process that is freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motiviated …..”

(Playwork Scrutiny Group, Cardiff 2005)

“….. the impluse to play is innate. Play is a biological and psychological necessity, and is fundamental to the healthy development and well being
of individuals and communities”

(Playwork Scrutiny Group, Cardiff 2005)