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‘I wonder why our dog has been so naughty?’ Seeing things differently from the perspective of play. Dr Elizabeth Wood Professor of Education CSCY Seminar 24.1.13. Play and playfulness help to make us the most complex and successful primates on the planet.

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‘I wonder why our dog has been so naughty?’

Seeing things differently from the perspective of play.

Dr Elizabeth Wood

Professor of Education

CSCY Seminar 24.1.13


Play and playfulness help to make us the most complex and successful primates on the planet.

Play is not just for children, play is for everyone.

Forms of play are infinitely varied: free play, organised games and sports, community play (such as festivals, street parties, carnivals), risky/extreme play.

Reasons for play are infinitely varied:

relaxation, exuberant dispersal of energy,

quiet contemplation, competition, rivalry,

co-operation, mastery, practice, rehearsal,



Anthropological theories

Play is liminal: it occupies a threshold or space between reality and unreality, sense and nonsense, seriousness

and playfulness, past - present – future,

risk and safety.

Play involves pushing boundaries (deep play,

adventurous play, edge work, dizzy play, risky play).


Cultural and sociological theories -

  • Play as a form of cultural appropriation – children learn about social norms and rules, about symbols, tools, cultural repertories of practice.
  • BUT Corsaro argues that
    • ‘children come to collectively produce their own peer worlds and cultures’ (1997: 24)
  • Which raises issues about children’s power, autonomy, meanings, symbols, rituals, imaginative capabilities, performance and identities.

Philosophical theories of play

People are able to imagine things they never were and never will be...

play should be understood as one of the special places for the conjuring of possibility.

Henricks (2009)

Play is a mode of existence, a state of mind and a state of being

Adventures in frivolity

Play is a thing unto itself, a rebellion of the moment against longer-term patterns and commitments

Stepping sideways into another reality


Play as a heuristic device

Identity – possible selves

Freedom, choice, control,

Playful participation in social and cultural practices

A sense of being, belonging and connecting

Risk, subversion, contestation

Spontaneity, flow


Free play activities create opportunities for exercising and Children affirm group and individual agency by acting with imagined power (Wood, 2013b).

  • Children actively drive their own and each others’ development through observation and creative imitation, performing different roles and relating to others in ways that they are not yet fully capable of performing (Holzman, 2009).
  • In play ‘children are capable of doing so much more in collective activity than in individual activity’ (Holzman, 2009, 30).

Playing involves imagination and pretence: the ‘what if’ and ‘as if’ qualities of play.

  • Playing with feelings,
  • mood states, identities,
  • possibilities, ‘self-as-other’.
  • Invitations
  • Invocations
  • Incantations

2.0 Alice: He’s in his kennel … Hey Lucy, he’s going to come out. Hey come on dog, wake up.

3.0 Alice assigns roles: You’re Hermione and I’m Hermione’s mum, and Richard is Hermione’s dad.

I wonder why our dog has been so naughty.

(To two boys) You two play about and eat sweets as bones. I need a doll.

The boys play in role, hiding bones in the washing machine. Then Richard decides to join them as a dog, not as the dad, which gives rise to some re-negotiation of roles:

Cg: Richard’s turned into a dog.

Alice–Cg: But he can’t.

Richard–CgsI’m a doggy.

Alice-SG: No turn him back to Hermione’s dad, we want somebody to marry.

6.0 Cg–Cbs: Marry me marry me. Abracadabra. Make Richard turn into a boy.


The girls chase Richard around the role play area, with Alice again in control:

Hey Lucy there’s a big surprise for you. These wands will turn Richard into a grown up … I’vegot off his doggy hair.

Cb–Alice: I’ve put on real hair.

Alice–SG: He’s standing up like a real person.

8.0 The girls are getting really excited now and spoke in much louder voices:

Cg–Alice: The spells aren’t working.

Alice–Cg: I know, magic drink.

They pick up bottles of coloured water and pretend to mix a drink.


The importance of intersubjectiveattunement

John–SG: I wanna do something. I’m getting the fire out.

Cg–John: Come and get my money.

John–Cg: Anyway we don’t need any money we’re firemen.

John–Cg: There’s no fire any more.

John–Cb: Let’s throw the water on … People are dead.

John–SG: The people are dead. We’re here to put the fire out.

Cb–John: I know but I need to spray the girls.

John–SG: We’re not here for the money we’re here for the fire.


Henricks (2010) argues that the qualities of play are transformative and consummatory. Play activities are transformative because they represent the efforts of people to assert themselves against the elements of the world, to alter those elements, and in doing so learn about the nature of reality and about their own powers to operate in those settings.

From this perspective rules become intrinsic to the purposes and meaning of play as children test themselves against the rules (2010: 192).

Play is consummatory because the players operate inside the boundaries of space and time that mark the play occasion; they are preoccupied with the quality of their experience, and the goals that lie within the event, and they are fulfilled or completed within the boundaries of the event (Henricks 2010: 193-4).


Play can be ....

Chaotic, unpredictable, noisy, messy, anarchic, challenging to established rules and authority, subversive,

revolutionary, exuberant, wild....

BUT there may also be order within

the apparent chaos.

(Wood, 2008: 2010)


Play is deeply connected to the different cultural repertoires that children bring from their homes and communities, including popular cultures, TV and film characters, everyday events.

  • These influences are evident in their own play cultures, and the different ways in which they represent their knowledge and experiences.
  • Children do things in play that they have not be taught explicitly by adults, and thereby learn what knowledge, skills and dispositions are relevant to managing and sustaining play.
  • Children’s motivations to play are focused on becoming a more skilled player, developing play repertoires, and engaging in more complex forms of play.

There are differences between adult-structured play, and the structures that children create for themselves in their spontaneous play.

Sutton-Smith argues that many theories are used to justify the hegemony of adults over children, which isrevealed in the ways in which the theories provide rationalization for the adult control of children’s play: to stimulate it, negate it, exclude it, or encourage limited forms of it. (1997: 49)


Seminar activities:

In small groups, discuss your own play biographies, from your earliest ‘play memories’ to some of the activities you would identify as play or playful in your present lives.

Which theories help to explain selected events from your play biographies?

Is play always fun? Is play always free? What do you think is meant by the ‘dark side’ of play?


Broadhead, p., Howard, J. and Wood, E. (2010) Play and learning in the early years: from research to practice, London, Sage.

  • Corsaro, W. (1997) The Sociology of Childhood, Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.
  • Henricks, T. 2009. Play and the rhetorics of time: progress, regression and the meaning of the present, in D. Kuschner, (ed) From Children to Red Hatters: Diverse Images and Issues of Play, Maryland, University Press of America.
  • Henricks, T.S. 2010. Play as ascending meaning revisited: four types of assertive play, in Nwokah, E.E. (Ed) Play as Engagement and Communication, Play and Culture Studies, Vol 10. Maryland, University Press of America.
  • Holzman, L. 2009. Vygotsky at work and play, London, Routledge
  • Levinson, M.P. (2005):  The role of play in the formation and maintenance of cultural identity: Gypsy children in Home and School contexts, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 34(5), pp.499-532.
  • Sutton-Smith, B. (1997) The Ambiguity of Play, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wood, E. (2008) Everyday play activities as therapeutic and pedagogical encounters, European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling, 10:2, 111-120.

Wood, E. (2010) Reconceptualising the play-pedagogy relationship, in L. Brooker & S. Edwards, Engaging Play, Maidenhead, Open University Press.

Wood, E. (2013a) Play, Learning and the Early Childhood Curriculum, London, Sage.

Wood, E. (2013b) Free choice and free play: troubling the discourse. International Journal of Early Years Education (Spring 2013)

Youell, B (2008) The importance of play and playfulness, European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling, 10:2, 121-9.