What Is Play?

November 2, 2011 · 48 comments

in Development, Play, Toddlers

In response to All They Need Is Play, Julie asks-“How to define play? I’ve always heard children learn through self-play, but I don’t know exactly what play is? Is it referring to letting my child stomp in the mud, or go to the playground? Could you please give me some examples on how to play?

“Play is the answer to how anything new comes about.” Jean Piaget

Julie, What a great question! You are on the right track! Play can be letting your child stomp in a mud puddle, or climb at the park. But even before children reach the age where they can stomp in mud puddles, they can (and do!) engage in self directed play. Here is my definition of play: Play is the way children learn about themselves, the people around them, the world they live in, and how things work in their world. Play is the way children naturally explore, and the way they gain and practice skills they will use for their whole lives. BUT play is not done to attain any reward, or end goal. Children gain pleasure from engaging in play, and this reinforces their desire to play more.


I define play as any behavior that is freely chosen, personally directed, and intrinsically motivated. What do I mean by this? Ideally, your child chooses when, with what, and how to play, and is allowed to play with as little interference or direction as possible (with consideration for the safety of self and others) for as long as possible. Maybe because she lived in Los Angeles, the movie capital of the world (or at least the United States), Magda Gerber often encouraged adults to think of a child’s play like the making of a movie, and she advised allowing the child to be the main script writer, director, and actor.

“Be careful what you teach. It might interfere with what they are learning.”  Magda Gerber

Play is a process of trial and error, and there is no right or wrong. Children are literally inventing the world anew when they play. Well meaning, loving adults can interfere with the process, by telling or showing a child how to play. For instance, if you teach your child how to use a paintbrush, it’s not the same as putting out the brush, and just letting her figure it out. You might ask, “What’s wrong with showing my child how to correctly use a paintbrush?” Well, it shortcuts her exploration, thus limiting her creativity, and ( if she is often shown how to play “correctly”) it may eventually erode her trust in herself,  her desire to be an active explorer, and her willingness and ability to work things out for herself. Children quickly come to look to adults to show them or tell them “the right way to play,” and even to do it for them. Here’s a great example: Play dough is a material that offers an endless number of possibilities for discovery and creation. If you hand a two and a half year old a container of play dough and nothing else, and you sit back and watch, he will happily play with it for a long time, poking, twisting, rolling, pounding, etc. Eventually, after having the opportunity to explore the dough in this way over the course of many weeks or months, he will begin to “make things” with the dough. But if you jump in and start showing him how to make play dough animals, he’ll quickly lose interest in his own exploration. Of course, since he hasn’t reached the stage of being able to make animals by himself, he will ask you to make animals for him! Now who is playing? Not your child! Can we trust children to learn from their own play if we don’t make things clear and explicit for them? I think so.

“When you teach a child something you take away forever his chance of discovering it for himself.” Jean Piaget

So what is your role as a parent or teacher of young children? The idea is for the adult to create an environment that invites play and then allow the child to explore and experiment within that environment to his heart’s content, without showing him how it’s supposed to be done. This leaves your child in control, and preserves his natural, inborn desire and ability (intrinsic motivation- from within) to play. When your child plays, he is not only learning, he is learning how to learn!

To me, there is nothing more exciting than watching a baby as she discovers for herself how something works for the very first time. What is obvious to us, is not always so obvious to a baby. For instance, one of the  play objects I use in class  is an empty 10 gallon water bottle with a narrow opening at the top. I place a basket of wooden pegs of varying thickness nearby. It doesn’t take long for most young toddlers to discover the pegs and experiment with dropping them  into the water bottle, but figuring out how to get the pegs back out of the bottle is another thing entirely. This is a “problem’ that takes most children a long time to solve if no one does it for them, or shows them how to do it, and most children will happily explore different ways of solving the problem for long periods of time without becoming frustrated.

 Looking at her hand

Play (exploring) is everything your baby does. She does it naturally. Before she even plays with toys, she is “playing” and learning when she looks at her hands, or kicks her feet. She is experimenting, and learning how her body works. Everything is so new to a baby, and so everything is an experiment to try to find out how things work. She uses all of her senses when she plays. When she begins to pick up toys and taste them, bang them, drop them, and retrieve them, she is playing. When she responds to your words by babbling,  smiling, cooing, or she makes raspberries to get your attention, she is playing. As she moves, or plays with sounds, or drops and retrieves a toy, she is learning. She might repeat actions over and over with small differences.

You don’t have to hand her toys or show her what do to. You just have to provide a safe space for her to explore, and include simple objects, like balls, cups, spoons, dolls, empty containers, blocks, scarfs- toys that do nothing, so your baby can be active in discovering and creating her own understanding of the world. The very first play object we offer a baby in parent/infant classes is a cotton scarf, which we place in a peak, where a baby laying on her back can see it, and reach for it when she’s ready.This scarf is a staple of the play room from the time babies are about four months old, until they”graduate” from class at two years old. The babies use the scarfs in a variety of different ways as they grow. As your child moves from infancy into young toddlerhood, you can add a few more objects or elements (but choose wisely) to the play area, or vary the toys to  provide different opportunities for her to explore. Sand, water, climbing toys, push and pull toys, empty boxes, and (once she’s well past putting things into her mouth) play dough are some suggestions.
Purple Paisley Bandana

You don’t have to do anything but trust, watch, and enjoy. Watch to see what she’s interested in, what she does with the play objects you’re providing. Watch to see how her understanding of the world and the people in it changes and grows. Soon you will see her begin to initiate and engage in play with other children. At first, she will begin to notice other children more and more, and try to make contact, maybe by touching, or showing, or exchanging toys, then progress to playing peek-a-boo, or chase. At some point, you’ll notice she starts to engage in pretend play- pretending to “talk” on the phone, or drink from a cup, or pat her baby to sleep. As her understanding of her world and the people and things in it grows, so does her play become ever more complex, and sophisticated.

You offer the greatest gift when you allow your child to play her way, with you as a witness to her discoveries. This is what Magda Gerber called “wants nothing” time: “Most of us are used to, and conditioned to, doing something. “Wants nothing” time is different, more a time for taking in and waiting. We fully accept the infant’s beingness just by our own receptive beingness.”  We also allow, encourage and protect a baby’s natural ability to experience joy in  learning and creation, while she builds her self confidence, attention span, and more. These are the “bonuses” of self directed, or free play.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. What is your definition of play? Do you see a  difference between child led or free play, and structured or adult led play? Do you think children learn more from their own explorations, or do they need adults to teach them and show them how to play, or is it both? What gets in the way (if anything) of allowing your child to play freely? And finally (and most importantly), how many ways can you think of to use a cotton scarf?

P.S. Two excellent, inspiring resources for learning more about the hows and whys of play for young children: Janet Lansbury’s blog can’t be beat if  you are the parent or teacher (educarer) of  babies and/or toddlers, and Janet’s alter ego, Teacher Tom is my top pick if you are the parent or teacher of children age two and older.







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Mariel November 3, 2011

Hi! I have two children and I have noticed that my younger child can play by himself longer than when his sister was his age. Perhaps it’s because I had more time with my daughter and was therefore always teaching and playing with her – rather than just watching.

At 3.5 years, I am wondering how I can encourage her to play more by herself, as I think I have taught her “how to play” too much. 🙁 This statement can be said about her: “Children quickly come to look to adults to show them or tell them “the right way to play,” and even to do it for them. ” Now, I’m backtracking and hoping to encourage her to play her way. Hope to hear your thoughts!

Lisa November 10, 2011

Dear Mariel,

Your question deserves a whole post in and of itself, so I’m working on one! Some quick suggestions: Try stepping back a little at a time. You may find it easier to step back a little when your daughter is playing outside, or with other children. Try doing some project of your own, while she plays nearby. For instance, if you are gardening, or knitting, or cooking, she can play nearby doing her own thing. Try narrating what you see her doing, as opposed to jumping in to direct her. If she tells you she can’t do something, or she wants you to do it for her, try gently encouraging her by saying things like: “What other ways can you think of to ___________?” “You almost had it. I bet if you try again, you’ll be able to do it.” Give the least amount of help necessary to help her if she gets stuck. Play a game where you take turns deciding what to do and how to play, and when it’s her turn to decide, she gets to direct every aspect of the play. If you’ve got them, put away all electronic toys, and toys that can only be used in one way, and leave out open ended toys. Water, sand, paint, chalk, almost all art experiences, are wonderful for a 3 and a half year old. Put the materials out and let her go to it. If she says she wants you to paint too, you can say, “Today, I’d like to watch you paint.” I hope some of these ideas help. If you have specific scenarios/questions, I’d love to hear, because then I can give you specific strategies.

Anna @ The Imagination Tree November 3, 2011

What a wonderful article, so well said! I will share this on my FB page. We have just started a “30 days to hands on play” challenge for our readers, with open ended play suggestions for each day. This is a great article to go along with that and refer them to. Thank you!

Ruth Churchill Dower November 3, 2011

Couldn’t agree more, Lisa, this is spot on. Very happy to recommend this blog to our network members at http://www.earlyarts.co.uk. It’s very in keeping with our principles to support arts and early years professionals in developing creative, playful child-oriented environments.

jeanne November 3, 2011

Fantastic, thorough, rich post dedicated to Play. Thank you, Lisa! I will be forwarding, sharing and tweeting 🙂

Lisa November 11, 2011

Jeanne, Ruth, and Anna,

Thank you all! And Anna, I’ll definitely be checking in and sharing some of the “30 days to hands on play” ideas. YEA for play!

Rachelle | TinkerLab November 3, 2011

Beautiful post, Lisa, and one that I wish I had read before my first child was born. Like Mariel, I think I may have been quicker to facilitate or explain things to my older child than the younger one and hope you’ll share some thoughts on how we can “go back” and reconcile with the lost time. But I also notice that my 3 year old’s vocabulary is huge and conversational skills are huge, and wonder how much of this is a direct result of all the time we spent chatting with each other. But we’ll never know, though, will we? 🙂 However, I’ve always been a big proponent of giving children space to figure things out for themselves, experiment with materials, and explore on their own time. The Magda Gerber quote struck a chord with me — “Be careful what you teach. It might interfere with what they are learning.” To really learn, or understand, something (not just repeat it), we often have to experience it for ourselves. If I’m interested in introducing my child to color, I’ll get more mileage from giving her different paint colors to mix and experiment with than if I give her a color wheel and explain that “red and yellow make orange.” And for your last question, here’s one thing we did with a scarf: http://tinkerlab.com/2010/11/sensory-play-for-babies/ 🙂

Lisa November 10, 2011

Hi Rachelle,

Thanks so much for reading and commenting! I’m so glad the post resonated for you! You can’t go back, and you don’t need to! You may choose to experiment with stepping back a little at times- the example you gave was wonderful. You might want to set out different colors of paint, and let your daughter experiment with mixing them.You may choose to ask questions or comment on what you see when you’re little girl shows you her painting: “Oh I notice a lot of orange. But we didn’t have any orange paint today. How did you make that orange color?” Or, you might simply ask her about her process, “Tell me about your painting.” I’m glad you mentioned vocabulary and conversational skills, because that gives me an idea another post! I didn’t focus much on it in this one, but the parent or teacher is not just the creator of the play environment, and a silent observer during a child’s play. There are lots of opportunities for adults to interact and talk with children while they’re playing; I just encourage allowing the child to be the initiator or leader, and the adult the follower in a play situation. Sometimes during play, adults can comment on what they see and it will help the child move past a stuck place, open up a new avenue for exploration, or (in the case of conflict between children) help them to resolve it. So yes, parents and teachers have an important part to play in children’s play, and in supporting the development of relationship, vocabulary, and conversational skills!

Anna November 3, 2011

Dear Lisa,

This is a wonderful, thoughtful and eye-opening post. I especially love: “Play (exploring) is everything your baby does. She does it naturally.” All too often we are inclined to “teach” children to play, to show them how, when and where to play – only recently my husband heard this on the playground: “Come on, get off the slide, it’s time to enjoy (sic) the swings now!”. hmmmm

I also love how you point how unknowingly we shift the playing that the child does to merely watching how we demonstrate the ‘play’… so many great things about this post, I will have to keep coming back to it. THANK YOU>

Lisa November 10, 2011

Dear Anna,

Thank you for reading, but I feel I should be thanking you! Your posts are always such an inspiration to me, and always so beautifully expressed. It’s so wonderful to “hear” your experiences and perspectives as you endeavor to raise your little boy with this lovely philosophy. Yes, we adults often have to resist showing or teaching little ones how to play. It is so, so amazing to watch them as they play, discover, and learn in their own time, and their own way. I think sometimes it’s hard for parents to step back because they get so excited about sharing things with their babies, and also, in our society there is so much fear- it’s hard for parents to trust that they are doing enough, and that what their children are doing at any given moment is exactly what they “should” be doing, and it is enough. We value “doing” more than being it seems…which is why I love the name you chose for your blog, it’s such a good reminder :” Every Moment Is Right!”

Hillary November 4, 2011

Thank you for a wonderful and sensitively written blog. I believe the more we value play as the very intelligent process it is and appreciate what children are processing when they play, then the more time we’ll give to it. I tried to touch on play and intelliegnce in one of my earlier blogs after watching a documentary about dolphins- arguably the most intelligent mammals AND the most playful. They are fantasatic natural ambassadors for play! http://www.toysnaturally.co.uk/blog/woodyouplaydeepthinking.html

Lisa November 10, 2011


Thank you for sharing! Dolphins are fantastic natural ambassadors of play, and one of my favorite animals. When I was an undergraduate in college, I was living in Florida, and I was lucky to spend some time studying dolphins. I was fascinated with the research that was being done in a facility in the Florida Keys that paired children with special needs with dolphins for play time. The relationships that developed between the children and the dolphins was amazing to witness, and the interaction with the dolphins seemed to help autisic children develop their play and social skills, which are two areas that these young children often struggle with.

Dana Gorman January 28, 2012

Thank you for this article. I will be adding it to my top references for my workshops on Learning Through Play. I posted it on my facebook page as well. You have hit the nail on the head and done a fantastic job explaining the importance of choice and exploration. I have to find the article for you that references NASA and how the new astronauts can do the math and science calculations well, but they aren’t offering any new ideas for space development. The types of school environments they have come from are killing their creativity. Love the highlighted quotes as well.

Pixie February 27, 2012

Thanks for this beautiful, well written post Lisa! I am glad and lucky to have read this post, as I have an eight months old and your post is a great insight for the new parents like us! Will be sharing.

Ruby February 1, 2013

I’ve been reading your blog and Janet Lansbury’s as well, trying to understand my role when it comes to my 16 month old’s play. Sometimes it feels like I have to be somewhat involved – like if I set out certain toys and put others away, or if I try “invitations” like they do at PlayAtHomeMom3, or even if I take her outside and maybe fill up a container with water or rice. My real question is this: if you suggest that parents should not model how to use items, then what about older siblings who do the modeling? I have read & heard from parents of 2 or more kids that the younger ones often want to copy what they see the older ones doing. How can you keep them from learning this way? Also, do we not teach them how to manipulate certain household items when they see us use them, whether it be a fork, a toilet, a chair? How is this different from playing with playdough in front of / along side them? Do you suppose there is a time when kids are a little older, say over 3, where they might enjoy or appreciate some specific modeling? What if they ask for help or ideas? I feel so awkward not knowing how to conduct myself as she plays, constantly worried that I am going to somehow stymie her creativity.

Lisa February 4, 2013

Hi Ruby,

Such great questions! I would encourage you to just relax and enjoy your daughter, and not worry so much about getting things right or wrong! There’s no harm in engaging in play with your daughter at times, if it is also enjoyable for you!

I do wonder why you feel you have to be involved if you set out certain toys, or an “invitation”, or even containers with water and rice? Could you not just wait to see if your daughter discovers the new materials, and then watch to see how she chooses to interact with them? Are you afraid she won’t know what to do, or she might hurt herself? If she ignores an “invitation” this may just indicate that she’s not yet ready or interested in this particular experience, and then you can offer again at another time. Water, rice, and playdough are all open ended play materials, meaning there is no right way or wrong way to experience or use them, so why not wait until your little girl shows an interest, and then wait to see how she chooses to interact with the material? This is real open ended, free, imaginative play.

In terms of older siblings modeling play, I see no problem or conflict here, because older siblings are also children, and children do inspire each other, and younger children may try to copy older siblings, but it’s different when the learning is child to child, as opposed to parent to child. And yes, children learn from adults when they observe us using household items like forks, chairs, and toilets, and this is perhaps what motivates them to also try (or learn to use) these items in the accepted way when they are ready. But, they also learn not just from watching and imitating adults (or older siblings), but from having long, uninterrupted, un-directed, play times to experiment with many different items, and to use them in their own way, even if it’s not the accepted or “correct” way.

For instance, I currently have a small toddler playgroup in my home, and many of the play items are common household items, like cups, spoons, brushes, brooms, and napkins, but the children are allowed to discover and then use these items in any way they wish, without comment, demonstration, or judgement. They eventually use the dust pans and brooms in the typical, accepted way, and they observe me using the dustpan and broom to sweep up after snack, but I don’t intentionally give them a “lesson” in what these items are for, or how they “should” be used.

When I use playdough alongside young children, I am careful to observe how they are using the material, and copy them! I want to meet them where they’re at, not “teach” them, or superimpose my ideas on their play.

I do think there are times when older children appreciate some specific modeling, but not until they are much older than age three. If they ask for help or ideas, I tend to intervene as little as possible, and try to understand what it is they are trying to do or create, and offer the least amount of information needed to allow them to proceed in their own way. I turn the question back to them: “What is it you have in mind? I wonder what would happen if you tried…”

I have tried to answer your questions as best I can in a brief way, but what I really want to do is encourage YOU to keep asking questions! I don’t think you have to worry too much about squashing your daughter’s creativity when you are obviously such a thoughtful, conscientious mom!

I also want to offer you a few links that speak to your questions and that I think you might enjoy. I suggest reading everything that Janet Lansbury has written about play and young children, but this post particularly speaks to your questions: “Are You Putting The Kibosh On Creativity?”, and if you haven’t read these posts on free play from Mamas In The Making, you are in for a treat! http://mamas-in-the-making.com/tag/free-play/.

RaisingCreativeChildren July 3, 2015

Thanks for the post – so happy to see the quotes by Piaget interwoven with your perspectives. For whatever it’s worth we’ve been inspired by the way that play is embraced and supported in a lot of elementary general music classrooms and also in the work of MIT’s lifelong kindergarten group. We see music education as a natural place where play can occur wherever the setting may be!

Joe September 21, 2016

Thank you for your beautifully written and eye-opening blog. I learn a lot from reading it and cannot wait to share it with my peer mommy-friends. But some of them may not be able to read English. Can I translate this article into Chinese and show it to them?

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