What is play?
One is often asked to define play, but this is an overwhelming task. Play is as vast as love and just as difficult to contain in a definition. In the U.K., there are professional playworkers who support children’s play in adventure playgrounds and many other spaces. They have found a way to describe play that is very helpful:
Play is a set of behaviors that are freely chosen, personally directed, and intrinsically motivated.
The urge to play lives strongly in all of us and does not die out during our lifetimes, although we often lose sight of it. When I conduct play workshops for adults, the most common remark afterward is, "I had no idea that was still alive in me." It is important to realize that the play urge lives in us all, no matter what our abilities or disabilities may be, and no matter what our age or other circumstances. It is there, although often buried by the external demands of life. We may feel safe playing games with rules—card and board games and sports—but we rarely release our inner urge to engage in free, open-ended play.
Play is therefore most easily seen in children who have fewer inhibitions than adults. Play bubbles up from within them like a refreshing wellspring. But like a wellspring in nature, the play urge can become clogged by debris. In that case, help is needed to free it, just as a spring in nature may need to be cleared so that the waters can flow freely again. Once play flows freely, ideas arise and children develop play scenarios that they create and direct themselves. This makes play a different activity than sports, which are directed by adults with adult-written rules, or video games, which are created by adults. Real play is created by the children themselves.
Children use play to make sense out of the world and find their places in it. Through play, they digest all their experiences in life and make them their own. As a 7-year-old recently said, "At recess, I remember everything I learned."