Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) challenges us to understand play from the perspective of the child, as a positive factor in children’s lives, and from their perspective, as a “necessity of life”  (p. 469). This section of the paper discusses the foundation for viewing young children’s spontaneous free play as necessary to their subjective sense of well-being in childhood, and considers the evidence that it also contributes to a foundation for social and emotional health and resilience over the life-span.
Section 2.1 considers both recent and established theoretical and conceptual writing defining the nature and characteristics of spontaneous free play, in order to distinguish it from other play-based approaches. Understanding play from the perspective of the player and children’s purposes in play is critical to understanding its benefits to social and emotional health. Section 2.2 looks more specifically at the disruptive dimensions of play in relationship to the emerging evidence about the role of spontaneous free play in developing flexibility and adaptability, building the capacity to cope with everyday stress and anxiety. The body of knowledge coalescing around the value of rough and tumble play in healthy social and emotional development in early childhood provides a focus for understanding how children play with the ongoing social and emotional self-balancing that is fundamental to successful participation in social life.
2.1. The Nature of Play and Spontaneous Free Play in Early Childhood
“Play is a thing by itself”  (p. 45). The recognition of play as a distinct conceptual category and an irreducible concept in human culture rings true nearly 75 years after the publication of Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Huizinga emphasizes that play cannot be reduced to other terms or understood by connecting it to a functional purpose that is not play, arguing that to be understood, play must be seen as the player(s) sees it  (p. 21). Seeking always to understand the perspective of the player—the child’s purposes in playing—is critical to understanding the social and emotional benefits of spontaneous free play in early childhood. For purposes of this paper, it is important to consider some of the defining characteristics of spontaneous free play in childhood, in order to distinguish it clearly from notions of “educational play”, “guided play”, and “purposeful play”, which have crept into recent academic and policy literature, and to highlight some of the key features of spontaneous free play that speak to its value in promoting social and emotional health in early childhood.
The defining characteristic of spontaneous free play is the control of the play by the players. This is the source of some of its unique benefits for children, and most enduring challenges for adults. Children, particularly young children, are never really in control of their everyday lives. Nonetheless, the experience of being in control and making decisions in play can contribute to children’s understanding of themselves as social actors and active participants in determining the course of their daily lives. Although play is not the only experience that affords children an opportunity to make their own decisions, in spontaneous free play controlled by the players, children can explore what it means to be in control of themselves and others, without the full responsibility of being in control. Importantly, play also offers a context where children can explore being out of control, in ways that are often unacceptable outside of the play context. For the child, play and playing is fundamentally about agency, power, and control. In play, children actively explore their own social and physical power, in relationship to the world, and to other children. As each child participates with other children in the social contexts of play, exploring and testing and making decisions at the edges of their own possibility, they come to understand what it means to be in control, and what it means to be out of control. When left to control their own play, they do explore what it means to exert their own power over others, and they do take chances and physical risks. These are essential dimensions of spontaneous free play that present critical ethical challenges for adults. It is worthy of note that the notions of participation and control are deeply embedded in the language of health promotion . Active participation in community and in particular in the decisions that affect us contributes to a sense of control over the multiple factors that influence not just our physical and mental health, but also our subjective sense of well-being and belonging.
The question “What is play?” both plagues and fascinates researchers, writers, philosophers, poets, parents and educators. Children, arguably the experts on play and playing, seem to know exactly what it is and are unconcerned with trying to call it anything else. As play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith observes, “We all play occasionally, and we all know what playing feels like. However, when it comes to making theoretical statements about what play is, we descend into silliness”  (p.1).
Play has a pervasive and ubiquitous presence in human culture and across multiple animal species. We tend to associate play and playfulness with the young of a species. While the play of children, kittens, puppies, and monkeys is familiar, animal play researchers have also observed playful behavior in birds, turtles, fish and even some insects . Despite its variability and remarkable social complexity in the animal world, play seems to be more clearly identifiable as a distinct behavior in animals than it does in humans. The message “this is play”  as well as the invitation to play, is behaviourally clear in many animal species. When a puppy wants to play, it assumes a characteristic pose, lowering on its front legs and wagging its tail. The invitation to play in young children is often much more ambiguous, requiring subtle interpretation of social communication, as well as a certain kind of emotional resiliency, as the following example of two boys meeting on a public playground for the first time, illustrates:
Boy #1 (opening the conversation and for no apparent reason): You’re a baby
Boy #2: No, you’re a baby
Boy #1: You’re a ridiculous baby
Boy #2: You’re a poop stick!
Boy #1: Do ya wanna play  ?
Human play is arguably more varied and complex than animal play. There are many forms of childhood play and an equally diverse array of functions of human play as are emerging in the study of animal play. It is this sheer diversity of types and functions of play that make it difficult to define. Burghardt notes that the diversity “obscure[s] the commonalities of all forms of both human and animal play”  (p. 341). Play defies definition and eludes categorization at every turn; the more we try to pin it down, the more it moves—play is playful—it is a “hobgoblin” .
Traditional play classification schemes fall apart in the face of a sustained episode of young children’s spontaneous free play, which is by nature combinatorial , and may exhibit multiple forms, types and stages simultaneously. A recent observation of a group of five year old boys deeply engaged together in block play confirms that children continually slip in and out of solitary, onlooker, parallel, associative and cooperative play  as it suits their purposes, developing their own ideas and seeking out the possibilities and fun that results when their playfulness intersects with the play narratives and constructions of other players. Their play embraces aspects of object play, sensory-motor play, construction play, symbolic play, and games with invented rules . The disruptive dimensions of play that are the subject of this paper—the rowdy, rambunctious, nonsensical, irrational, elements of rough and tumble, and order and disorder, both physical and verbal—are characteristic of spontaneous free play. These are better understood as dimensions and qualities of the spontaneous free play experience rather than forms of play, dimensions that coexist simultaneously and fluidly, forming, reforming, appearing and disappearing spontaneously, as any free play episode unfolds.
In early childhood education, children’s play is often described using some variation of the characteristics of play identified by Rubin, Fein and Vandenberg in 1983 , based on a review of psychological research on play. Play is variously described as voluntary, freely chosen and intrinsically motivated; controlled and directed by the players; possessing a non-literal, “as if” quality; being free of externally imposed rules, taking place ‘to the side of’ or ‘outside of’ the rules of ordinary life; undertaken for no immediate goal or purpose, and focused on means rather than ends; characterized by active engagement, deeply absorbing and satisfying for the players; and, generally speaking, producing a positive, pleasurable affect for the player. While this definition of play is in many ways explanatory, it does not capture essential elements and nuances of spontaneous free play from the perspective of the player. For example, the idea that play is free of externally imposed rules suggests, quite rightly, that children are able to make their own rules in play. What it does not adequately describe or explain is the meaning of play and playing that pushes the edges, challenging and even breaking the rules of ordinary life. The popular YouTube video  of a wild polar bear returning night after night to play with a husky sled dog is a stunning example of play that breaks the rules of ordinary life. Young children routinely challenge the rules in play, for example climbing up the slide rather than sliding down it is a playful approach which breaks the rules of how young children are expected to use slides in most early childhood care and education programs. The notion that children play to experience pleasure is also limited; when children play they feel powerful. Jumping from a playground platform is a total body encounter with gravity and an experience of the power of flying.
Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist and play advocate, adds depth to our understanding of the nature of spontaneous free play from the player’s perspective. He lists the following as properties of play: “apparently purposeless, voluntary, inherent attraction, freedom from time, diminished consciousness of self, improvisational potential, [and] continuation of desire”  (p. 17). The notion of a diminished sense of self is echoed in Csikzentmihalyi’s discussion of play as the “flow experience par excellence”, a “the merging of action and awareness”  (p. 37–38). A similar notion appears in Gadamer’s philosophical treatise on play: “Play fulfills its purpose only if the player loses himself in play”  (p.102). Along with the idea of being free from time in play, this notion may speak to the role of play in reducing stress, by taking the player outside of him/herself, into another reality, even for brief periods of time. The improvisational nature of play is thoroughly explored by Keith Sawyer in his study of preschool pretend play , a quality of play may be linked to its capacity to enhance adaptability and flexibility in response to rapid change.
Brown’s notion of the players’ “apparent” purposelessness in play and their desire to continue the play is essential in understanding young children’s purposes in spontaneous free play, particularly as it challenges the commonly held notion that spontaneous free play is goalless or purposeless. The players do have one key purpose, and that is to keep the play going, particularly if it is accompanied by pleasurable affect and feelings of power. Keeping the play going is the source of incredible creativity and spontaneous innovation in play. We observe young children introducing surprising novelty into story lines and character roles, in order to sustain the play or include more players or combine their play narrative with another group. Sutton-Smith proposes that these “quirky twists” are characteristic of play and may be connected to its potential to contribute to “adaptive variability”  (p. 229). Spontaneous free play can only take place in an environment where spontaneity is possible. It must be possible for play to “erupt” and take off in unusual directions, for metal pots to be hats in one moment and drums in a marching band in the next. It is common in young children’s play that these spontaneous narrative directions are non-linear, irrational and difficult for adults to follow. The phenomenon of group glee  in toddlers and preschoolers is another spontaneously disruptive and common feature of free play, one which produces a strong sense of social bonding and belonging. The shared humor of very young children is not obvious to adults and other outsiders. For the player, these experiences nourish feelings of subjective well-being in the here and now, and are now acknowledged as some of the immediate social and emotional benefits of children’s spontaneous free play  (p. 114).
In an attempt to distinguish play from nonplay behaviour in animals, Burghardt  (pp. 345–346) identifies several dimensions of play that shed further light on understanding spontaneous free play in early childhood. He describes the voluntary nature of play as being intentional, which further complicates our understanding of play as purposeless. Burghardt notes that the purposelessness of play in the animal world is specific to immediate survival needs. The purposelessness that adults observe in children’s play may not be shared by the child(ren). The players may be pursuing purposes that are neither immediately obvious nor purposeful from an adult perspective. Burghardt goes on to describe the exaggerated, novel, repetitive and incomplete behavioral patterns characteristic of animal play, which are reminiscent of young children’s playful ways of moving. While an adult will walk efficiently, a small child walking from the house to the car will adopt a gait that includes elements of hopping, skipping, and galloping. This expressive and playful approach to movement has been aptly described as “galumphing” , and is characterized by exaggeration, reordering and repetition of sequences of behaviour. Spontaneous free play frequently involves intentional, systematic and novel complication of behavioural patterns, building a combinatorial freedom and flexibility in the behavioural repertoire, arguably rendering both animals and humans more adaptable .
The following description of free play introduces the notion that some of the more disruptive qualities of play may be defining features of the spontaneous free play experience from the players’ perspective, whose main purpose in play quickly becomes to keep playing.
In spite of the complexity and diversity of play behaviour, there is general agreement by specialists in the field that play is controlled by children rather than by adults, and that it is undertaken for its own sake and not for prescribed purposes. The term “free play” is often used to distinguish this from organized recreational and learning activities, which also have important roles in child development. However, the characteristics of free play—control, uncertainty, flexibility, novelty, and non-productivity—are what produce a high degree of pleasure and, simultaneously, the incentive to continue to play  (p. 25). These qualities of free play produce the affect that the player is seeking, and which have the potential to contribute positively to children’s health and sense of well-being. They are also the qualities that lead to play that is frequently suppressed by adults because it tends to be disruptive  (p. 17). Interestingly, these are also the qualities of animal play that are understood to contribute to its adaptive value .
Children value play. It is significant in their lives. The awareness that children may have purposes in their spontaneous free play that are neither readily apparent, nor important to adults, is key to understanding the potential of play to contribute to the subjective experience of well-being in childhood. A critical difference between spontaneous free play and other play based approaches lies in the participation of the adult. Children make a very clear distinction about what is and is not play based on how adults participate . In spontaneous free play, the locus of control remains with the players. Adult efforts to guide and direct play—either out of necessity or in the service of a developmental or learning agenda—generally interrupt the flow of the play for the player(s). The idea that the benefits of play accrue most directly from play where the frame is both set and sustained by the players themselves presents significant challenges to adult sensibilities and to the expectations of early childhood educators. For children, play must be spontaneous free play in order to be experienced as play. This means it is controlled and directed by children, even when adults are playing. Other kinds of play based approaches are neither experienced as play by children, nor defined by them this way.
Many of us have been teaching with the mistaken notion that children are listening—and thus learning—when they are sitting still and looking at us. In reality, children may be learning more when they are engaged with materials or moving their bodies. If children are interested in the activity they are doing, it presents an opportunity for rich conversation with teachers or other children. For many children, pretending involves vigorous movement, perhaps even chasing or running. Too often I hear teachers say that these boisterous children never settle into play, but rather spread chaos throughout the room. We need to find a way to stop interrupting this activity, even allowing for this play inside, and we may see even the most active children involved in rich, complex pretend play.
There are many ways to incorporate movement into the teacher-led portions of a preschool or kindergarten day. Children develop literacy skills by acting out a story, as well as by having a book read to them. They can learn number concepts playing a game throwing or kicking balls into a goal, just as easily as sitting at a table with small counters. Running provides plenty of opportunities for learning the basics of potential and kinetic energy (think of running uphill vs. downhill) or momentum.
Allowing rough and tumble play does not mean that bigger children run roughshod over smaller children. In my classroom we follow the basic guideline: “We Take Care of Each Other”, rather than using a long list of rules. If Sandra and Kenneth knock over Latifa’s block building while they are playing, they are not taking care of Latifa. If Sandra and Kenneth move to the mat where no one is building, they are taking care of each other. If Kenneth says, “Stop,” Sandra needs to stop. If Kenneth decides to resume the roughhousing, he will let Sandra know. It’s not a question of whether the play itself is right or wrong, but rather a question of whether children are respecting each other.