The Definition of 'Play'


What does it mean to play? For some children play may involve kicking a ball around outside with their peers for a good game of soccer. For other children, play might be an activity performed alone–painting on an easel or creating mixed media art. The act of play itself can take many shapes and forms, but it is the meaningful action of and outcome from play that defines it as a benefit for children.

The definition of play begins where rules and conformation end. Where a child is granted the freedom to imagine new rules, motions, communications, and ways of storytelling that revolve around their interests and experiences without being told they are “right or wrong.” Play begins as a creative outlet in the absence of the supervision, functional direction, or approval of others.

The Rules of Play

For a formal definition of play, most educators turn to a definition from Dr. Kenneth Rubin:

“Play is characterized as behaviour that is (a) intrinsically motivated; (b) focused on means rather than ends; (c) distinct from exploratory behavior; (d) nonliteral (involves pretense), (e) free from externally imposed rules; and (f) actively (not just passively) engaged in by the players.”

Source: The Handbook of Child Psychology, Rubin (1983).


1. Play should be self-chosen and self-directed.

Children should want to voluntarily engage in the activity for it to qualify as ‘play’. Children choose how to play, what they want to play, and with whom they wish to play. Their options may include independent play or learning activities which do not involve other peers, or group play, which contributes to social sharing and group dynamics.

To be self-chosen and self-directed, children should be able to determine when they wish to start or finish the activity, and experience the freedom of having no-rules of engagement, or establishing their own special rules to govern group play (and the means by which to enforce them).

2. Play should be imaginative.

Imagination is a key development factor for children, and it needs to be exercised and embraced in order for a child to develop critical thinking skills, creative expression, and problem solving abilities. Wherever possible, children should be provided with materials and opportunities to express their imagination, without being led in a specific direction or toward a planned creative outcome by adults.


3. Play should not be stressful or performance orientated.

If children feel that there is an expected outcome from their play, then the activity cannot accurately be defined as “play.” If there is a learning outcome implied, the child is not free to engage in self-directed play with the freedom of accomplishing nothing more than enjoying their own personal discovery or skills. Outcome expectations can be counted as educational but not a creative free-play activity, and any related pressure to that outcome is considered a stressor.

4. Play should actively involve the child in more than one sensory method.

Children retain lessons far easier when the learning process engages two or more physical or cognitive abilities. So, the more emotional and sensory involvement in the act of play, the greater the value is. From toddlers through the age of twelve years, children enjoy hands-on and sensory learning, which is why many playgrounds include musical instruments, sand or water play activities, physically challenging obstacles or structures, and much more.

When it comes to designing professional quality playground equipment, all of the beneficial cognitive development elements of play are included to ensure a variety of activities suitable for every age group and ability levels. From the speed at which the slide travels to the variation of climbing obstacles, from musical instruments to independent learning panels, playground designers aspire to engage all children in creative, free-play. We bet you didn’t know that that much thought and science went into the design of every play structure! Ask your playground expert for more information.