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Nature and role of play in early childhood

“…we play not because we

are children, but

we are given our childhood

so that we can play”

(Groos, 1916, p. 72)

Not only play therapists, early interventionists, social workers or sociocultural researchers like for example Göncü (1999) have focused in the last four decades on child play but also all major developmental theorists like Piaget, (1962), Vygotksy, (1976), Bruner (1972) or Erikson, (1977). Today, therefore the essential role that play possesses in the development of an infant during childhood has been acknowledged by most theorists and developmental psychologists strive to help mentally ill children with different play therapy techniques.

Despite the fact that there is neither a satisfactory definition of play nor consent about its purpose, as maintained by Bundy (2001), one can describe and define children’s play behaviour as pleasurable, personally directed, intrinsically motivated and voluntary activities which are conducted in a safe, spontaneous, goalless context (Hughes, 2001) and which involve “much repetition and variation as the child explores the range of possibilities of behaviour” (Butterworth & Harris, 1998, p.140) in contents and intents where the child possess a sense of control. Child play is both performed in solitary or in social groups and it is always more intrinsically then extrinsically motivated even when children are eagerly and seriously engaged in play activities which are rule governed. It also may to serve to explore inanimate objects or to explore human relationships and social roles.

Thus, child play is not only a straightforward term for simple actions but includes manifold activities with manifold purposes. It also has many diverse facets as it for, instance, represents reality in as-if or what-if term (symbolic nature of play) while at the same time connecting or linking different experiences (meaningful nature of play). As it includes so many diverse aspects many definitions have arose in the past with each definition providing a different understanding and interpretation of children’s play. In general, the play theories are divided into classical theories of play (e.g. Hall’s Recapitulation Theory, 1920; Groos’ Pre-Exercise Theory, 1984) and modern theories of play (Mellou, 1994). Classical theories of play originated in the nineteenth century and tried to explain the existence and purpose of play (Mellou, 1994). However, this brief paper intends to investigate and discuss the nature and role of play in early childhood with reference to theories of development and will focus on contemporary theories (e.g. Psychoanalytic theory, Cognitive theories) which were mainly devised after the 1920s and which try to explain the role of play in child development (Saracho and Spodek, 1995).

Psychoanalytic Theory

Freud (1938) and colleagues developed the Psychoanalytic theory of play which arose through therapies which examined repressed memori