Why do children play?

Theories Behind Play

Two playground supervisors check names at Englewood Recreation Dept. in Denver in 1968. Back then, children played outdoors much more than they do now.
Two playground supervisors check names at Englewood Recreation Dept. in Denver in 1968. Back then, children played outdoors much more than they do now.
Jack Riddle/The Denver Post via Getty Images

It's the end of the day, and you're exhausted, but it's sleepover night, and the kids are still running around in circles chasing their invisible tails. You may wonder: Why are they still playing? How do they still have energy?

You're not alone. Psychologists and philosophers have been pondering the reason children play for years (and probably had many sleepless nights, too). Philosopher Karl Groos argued that our penchant to play tag, climb trees and jump rope evolved by natural selection to teach us the physical and mental skills we need to survive and reproduce. So humans are hardwired to learn and have fun at the same time.

Studies on the reason children play have led to many different conclusions. The classical theories of playare largely philosophical and arose in the 19th and early 20th centuries [source: Saracho and Spodek]:

  • Surplus energy theory (Friedreich Schiller) — Humans build up excess energy that must be released through active play.
  • Recreation or relaxation theory (Moritz Lazarus) — Play restores energy lost from work-related activities.
  • Recapitulation theory (G. Stanley Hall) — Play is a cathartic activity that eliminates inappropriate primitive instincts that were passed down through heredity.
  • Practice or pre-exercise theory (Karl Groos) — Play allows children to practice adult roles and instills in them skills that will later be necessary for survival.

Modern theories of play emerged after 1920 and are supported by empirical research. They include the following:

  • Psychoanalytic theory (Sigmund Freud) — Play is a catharsis that allows children to express their feelings and dispel negative emotions to replace them with positive ones.
  • Arousal modulation theory (Daniel Berlyne) — Children play to regulate the level of arousal in their central nervous system.
  • Metacommunicative theory (Gregory Bateson) — Children play to learn the authenticity of life and the make-believe purposes of objects and actions.
  • Cognitive theories (Jean Piaget and Lev S. Vygotsky)— Piaget believed children use their current mental abilities to solve problems because they can pretend the world is different from the way it really is; Vygotsky believed play develops cognitive powers and encourages abstract thought.

As you've probably realized by now, there is no consensus on the reason children play — and this wasn't nearly an exhaustive list of theories.

One thing can be agreed upon, though: Play is beneficial and essential for a child's development. Through play, kids learn to make decisions, exercise self-control, respond to challenging situations and follow rules. Social play helps kids make friends, and it makes them happy [source: Gray].

But play's many benefits haven't stopped it from falling victim to our fast-paced and digitally preoccupied society.