Play is, first and foremost, an expression of freedom. The joy of play is the ecstatic feeling of liberty.
Play is not always accompanied by smiles and laughter, nor are smiles and laughter always signs of play; but play is always accompanied by a feeling of “Yes, this is what I want to do right now.” Players are free agents, not pawns in someone else’s game.
People who begin to feel that their needs or desires are not being met in play will quit, and that is why children learn, in play, to be sensitive to others’ needs and to strive to meet those needs.
It is through social play that children learn, on their own, with no lectures, how to meet their own needs while, at the same time, satisfying the needs of others.
Let me elaborate on these characteristics, one by one, and expand a bit on each by pointing out some of its implications for thinking about the purposes of play.1.
Play is self-chosen and self-directed; players are always free to quit.It is a means of creating and preserving friendships.It also provides a state of mind that, in adults as well as children, is uniquely suited for high-level reasoning, insightful problem solving, and all sorts of creative endeavors.These characteristics seem to capture our intuitive sense of what play is.Notice that all of the characteristics have to do with the motivation or attitude that the person brings to the activity.By “most people” I don’t just mean most scholars who study play.Even young children are most likely to use the word play for activities that most fully contain these five characteristics.Play can blend with other motives and attitudes, in proportions ranging anywhere from 0% up to 100% percent play.Pure play occurs more often in children than in adults.If one player attempts to bully or dominate the others, the others will quit and the game will be over; so players who want to continue playing must learn not to bully or dominate.People who don’t agree to a proposed change in rules may likewise quit, and that is why leaders in play must gain the consent of the other players in order to change a rule.