Homo Ludens or Homo Faber


Human nature- Two views


  • Homo Faber- Frederick Engels  (we are naturally workers)
      • First we make tools to meet our biological “needs.”
      • As we make tools, we transform our environments- we make an artificial world
      • We then adapt to this new environment, finding new “needs” that we have to work for, need that are as artificial as the cities we live in
      • We continue working, altering our artificial world, again and again.
      • We continually remake ourselves.
      • Work is the human act of self-creation


  • Homo Ludens  Johann Huizinga Joseph Pieper (We are naturally players)
      • Culture grows out of human play- like a plant, evolving naturally
      • Human purpose, or need satisfaction (work), only servers to prepare a place to play.
      • We work to play.
      • Play is for itself- it has its own purpose and meaning, involving contact (playing) with The Other (Nature, History, God)
      • Play transformed the work-a-day world, indirectly- play spills out of the “playground,” altering and informing the non-play world around it.
      • Culture (work, economics, etc) is a product of playing
      • Through play, humans are given the world and an understanding of themselves.

Play theories

Play is not a new concept among social scientists. Plato and Aristotle were among those who emphasized the meaning of play. During classical times play also had a central role in human life. In time the great educators Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Froebel, among others gave new meaning to it, treating play as an important part of children’s development and education.

Play theories can be divided into two categories. The classical theories are influenced by the Theory of Evolution. They tell us why the child is playing. The modern theories see play as more integrated with the development of the individual. The newest theories of play, developed over the past ten decades emphasise communication, cognitive adaptation, play as flow, and play as giving excitement and richness to life. For students it is important to learn these theories and to learn to interpret play through them, to compare them and to adapt them to our view of children.

A. Classical theories of play

Surplus theory (Schiller, Spencer)

In the surplus theory play is seen as an outcome of surplus energy that is no longer needed for basic survival. Hence play results from an organism having more energy or vitality than is needed for its biological maintenance. According to Schiller "play is the aimless expenditure of exuberant energy". Schiller saw play as a product of a human "play drive". (Surplus energy has been widely criticised: play is not always aimless, there is no such thing as stored-up energy or play drive).

Pre-exercise theory (Groos)

In Groos’ play theory, play is an impulse to practice incomplete hereditary instincts. During play and imitation the organism learns to master the senses of survival (sense, touch, hearing, motor kinaesthesis...) that will be needed later in serious work and action (social skills, symbolic capacities etc.). Because of the complexity of human beings they need a long time to practice and develop these skills needed in adulthood. The origin of play is biological (not social, societal, cognitive or emotional): an instinctive need of practise and preparation for life’s serious duties. Conscious aspects and will don’t have an important role in play. The basic force behind play is a need that is satisfied with the aid of play, which gives rise to feelings of pleasure.


Relaxation theory (G.T.W. Patrick)

According to the relaxation theory play releases us from those forms of mental activity which are fatiguing in our everyday working life. So the result of play (or sport and games etc.) is a satisfied, relaxed child/adult. Play and sport are thus a necessary recuperation from work. Play is a typical natural and instinctive activity for children.

Recapitulation theory (Hall)

It is necessary to the individual’s complete growth that she should pass through several stages of racial history. Play is the recapitulation of the various phylogenetic stages that have preceded man on the evolutionary scale. Through play, man recapitulates the behavioural traits that made survival possible for his ancestors, that is, climbing, swinging, throwing, catching, running, yelling... .The role of play is in weakening or modifying past skills that have become inappropriate and disruptive for the present stage of development. Through play man’s primitive instincts find expression and do not interfere with his cultural and progress.

Note : The theories above are mostly based on Levy’s ideas (1985). Classical theories are not very valued by some theorists. However, according to Levy, classical theories hold many valuable aspects which may benefit future empirical research on play behaviour. For example Groos’ theory of play is said to be one of the most coherent theories of play integrating play holistically to the child’s psychic and physical development. Awareness of classical theories may offer more tools to educators in understand children’s and adults’ playful behaviour.

B. Modern theories

Psychoanalytic theory

Modern theories offer different kinds of explanation for play. In psychoanalytic theories (Freud, Erikson) there are many forces underlying a child’s play: memories, wishes, needs and forbidden impulses. In play the child has the possibility to handle difficult or traumatic experiences by repetition. The child can experience a sense of being in control of the things that happen to him by playing. Play provides the opportunity to fulfil the need to be grown up and the need to acquire an active role. Being able to do something gives the child a feeling of mastery. Play releases a child from reality.

Piaget’s theory of play (cognitive, constructive theory)

Piaget sees play as integrated to the growth of intelligence that is accomplished through interaction with the environment. That happens through two complementary processes: assimilation (play) and accommodation. The child passes through specific sequential age-related stages in his cognitive development that are also seen in play behaviour (from the sensorimotor stage of play to the formal operation stage of play). Gradually, as the child develops, his play takes on less and less of a fantasy quality and becomes more realistic. By playing, the child can interact with the environment, mould it by his own activity and thus acquire some understanding of it. Play can give the child the important experiences learned by exploration. The child’s cognitive capacities are developed by play, including problem solving, language learning and symbolic thinking. In addition, Piaget emphasizes the affective impact of play. In particular, in role play the child can go through earlier emotional experiences. It is possible for a child to acquire an emotional understanding of his environment by playing.

Vygotskyan theory of play

Vygotsky and other Soviet psychologists regarded play as a basic activity in the socialization process. Through play, they maintained, cultural meanings and basic social norms are transmitted to the child. The rules in children’s symbolic play are based on societal rules; for example, a child enacting a mother in play would follow rules similar to those observed in that child’s society. In this way symbols become defined according to societal norms. Through play the child learns to transform his or her motives and needs into socially acceptable modes of dealing with reality. In this process, symbolic thinking and the development of language are important ingredients. The theory explains play and the child’s development in play not only as an individual but as a collective process. The conflict between the child’s wishes and possibilities and reality makes the child play. Central to play is the child’s possibility to employ imagination and representations in his actions to solve the conflict, which is when real play begins. The prime movers of the play are the child’s emotional and social forces. Play has an important role for the child in helping him to fulfil his inner needs, wishes and aims.

Interactionist theories (Mead)

Play is seen as an important part of children’s personal and social development and the whole socialization process, which is seen as an ongoing, never-ending process by which persons of any age attempt to make society real through the process of self-objectification. This is the process in which the sense of self is developing. In play, children enter into an interactional relationship with their playmates, objects and the whole world around them. In play, children participate in social situations: they take the attitude and roles of another; produce a joint line of activity; collaborate in understanding and making the world meaningful; produce social order among other children (network of identities and social relationships). Communication and language are important parts of that dialogical process.


Communication theory (Bateson)

Play has an important role in the learning process. According to Bateson, the meaning of play is to teach a child to learn. This happens best by communicating with other children during play. In social, symbolic play children not only learn the roles of the social world but also in a deeper way they learn about the concept of roles: what a role generally means, that different roles exist etc. Bateson emphasizes the meaning of metacommunication in play. This means children have to communicate, that their behaviour is not real, that they are pretending (through gaze, laughing...). By metacommunication children get to know how to interpret play behaviour and how to act in certain situations, in certain roles. In play, children learn that they have got the ability to frame and reframe roles through metacommunication. Metacommunicative messages are critical in the organization of play, in initiating, maintaining, negotiating and terminating play. In communication theory play is seen as a form of communication, a matter of negotiations and argument. "Play is saying" as Catherine Garvey has it.

Ecological and cultural-ecological frameworks to play

Play is seen as the dominant activity of children in all cultures. It is an activity that both affects and is affected by cultural influences. Play is seen as an expression of culture, as an important context in which interaction and learning crucial to a child’s development occurs, and as an indicator and expression of the child’s development. Behaviour can be understood only in relationship to the natural context in which it is occurs. Ecological theorists emphasize the importance of the setting in children’s play behaviour. Play settings possessing similar attributes will elicit similar play behaviour responses from different individuals.

Arousal Seeking (Ellis, Iso Ahola)

  1. Individuals strive to maintain an optimal state of arousal, the most efficient state of the individual.


These are only some examples of theories of play. You can now see how many different explanations there are when talking about play and how important it is to get to know these different perspectives in order to gain a holistic picture of what play is.


Characteristics of Play

  1. Absorbing
    • Huizinga- "Play casts a spell over us"
    • Today’s example?

2. A means of self expression

    • What do you like to do?

3. A quality of freedom, make believe, or escape

    • Limitations of real world are eliminated through the mind.

4. Intrinsically rewarding

    • Self contained. Work for one person may be play for someone else.

5. Pleasurable

    • Must be enjoyable or we won’t do it.

6. Voluntary

    • A matter of choice (free, spontaneous)

Theories of Play

  1. Biological
    • Motivated by instinct
    • Darwin: Play was automatic, homeostatic, to balance fluctuating physiological systems.
    • Surplus Energy: Aimless expenditure of exuberant energy.
    • Tensions, both mental and physical released through play.

Relaxation Theory

1. Recuperate from the fatigue and tension of daily life.

Pre-exercise Theory

  1. Play helps refine, or perfect, skills necessary for survival.
  2. Stimulus to play is instinctive.

Recapitulation Theory

  1. Play and activity mirror the cultural development of the race.
  2. Through play the history of play is relived.


Environmental Theory

  1. Behavioristic
    • Play reinforced by praise, recognition, status, and prestige.
    • Player was seen as a puppet controlled by environmental circumstances and secondary reinforcement.


Psychoanalytical Theory

  1. Freud: Certain events caused physical, neurological, emotional tension. Play is a cathartic, a means of reducing tension.

Cognitive Theory

  1. Play is a function of information processing mechanism of the individual.
  2. Assimilation/Accommodation Theory
  3. Piaget
  4. Assimilation occurs when an object, or information, is adjusted to an individual developmental level. This assists the individual in adapting reality to personal needs.
  5. Accommodation is the opposite of assimilation. An individual’s personal adjustment to the reality of an object or piece of information by adjusting to the reality of the external world.

Four Phases of Intellectual Development

Arousal Seeking

  1. Individuals strive to maintain an optimal state of arousal, the most efficient state of the individual.
    • Bored workers tend to make games up.
    • When traveling, what do you do to stay awake and alert?

Composite Theories of Play (Ragheb - 1971)

  1. Play is a complex phenomenon with variables and manifestations.
  2. Most theories approach from a single topic perspective (physiological, psychological, sociological).
  3. Can look at separate developmental stages without explanations being limited to one stage.
  4. Theories can explain behavior in general without play being the focus.
  5. Play not accepted as a separate behavioral class.

Developmental Aspects of Play

  1. Play is positively related to:
    • Creativity
    • Imagination
    • Physical Activity
    • Verbal Skills
    • Problem Solving
    • Peer Interaction
    • Social Judgment

Social and Psychological Development

  1. Children learn how to cooperate and interact.
  2. Lack of play stunts social, sexual roles as adults.

Adult Involvement

  1. Can hinder or help development
    • Example: Little league

2. Parallel play

    • Same play, no interaction

3. Co-play

    • Side by side playing the same game

4. Play Tutor

    • Adult initiates new game and instructs the youth or child.