In social play children learn to negotiate with others, how to please others, and how to modulate and overcome the anger that can arise from conflicts – Peter Gray (Free to learn)

Kenneth H. Rubin is a Professor of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology and Founding Director, Center for Children, Relationships, and Culture at the University of Maryland. Rubin’s area of research work has been mainly related to child and adolescent social development, peer and parent-child relationships.
Rubin and his co research associates have been working in understanding children’s social, dramatic and cognitive play. The research studies conducted in this area lead them to findings which were very similar to Mildred Parten and Sara Smilansky explanations about play. The studies also lead to successful combining of Parent and Smilansky categories of play.

The results obtained from Rubin’s and his associates studies clarifies of children’s play in accordance to their developmental milestone. By combining Parten’s and Smilansky’s play categories Rubin and his associates proposed the below theory of play outlined in the table below;


FUNCTIONAL PLAY Child plays by self with or without objects Child plays parallel to others with or without objects Child plays with a group with or without objects
CONSTRUCTIVE PLAY Child plays by self constructing or creating something. Child plays parallel to others constructing or creating something. Child plays with a group constructing or creating something.
DRAMATIC PLAY Child plays by self in pretending type activity. Child plays parallel to others in pretending type activity Child plays with a group in pretending type activity

By Dr Srividya K.



“In play, children work together to change the rules to meet the situation they face, which is powerful social experience.” – Joan Almon

Mildred Bernice Parten Newhall, was an American Sociologist and a researcher at the University of Minnesota Institute of Child Development. Parten is very well know for her research on social play among children from the age group of 2-5 years during the late 1920’s. She observed children in a one minute time frame and recorded their behaviours which lead to explaining the different types of play occurring in different age groups. The observation lead her to explaining that play also varies in complexity as the age varies and also depends on the type of interaction the children have among them. Based on her observations Parten categorized six stages of play; Unoccupied, Onlooker, Solitary, Parallel, Associative and Cooperative play.

Unoccupied play behaviour is observed among children from 2-3 years of age, where the child is not involved in any form of play and will be randomly moving around watching or not watching other children in play.

Onlooker play behaviour is usually observed in toddlers where the children are not involved in any play activity but will be very keenly observing and enjoying other children at play. Unoccupied and Onlooker are almost similar.

In solitary play the child or children play by themselves; all alone and do not involve any other children. There is no interaction happening in this stage of play.

Parallel play involves 3 or 4 children playing together with or without the same toys, without any interaction.

Associative play is that stage of play where the child plays by interacting with other children. The child is in a group, sharing materials and interacting but will not be involved in any common activity. Here the child is learning to associate with others.

Cooperative play is the most social form of play where a group of children are involved in a common activity with a lot of interaction, striving to achieve a goal, with different members involved in various roles leading to a meaningful outcome.

Parten’s findings suggests that the children involve in complex activities as they grow and mature and play becomes more complex with age. The stages identified by Parten does not overall disappear as the child matures, she in fact observed that glimpses of earlier stages of play is sometimes observed in children of higher age groups.

By Dr Srividya K.



Play is the highest form of research – Albert Einstein

The above quote has a very deep meaning and reflects Einstein’s depth of understanding on play as being vital to human development. Earlier the classical theories looked at play from a very philosophical perspective, and viewing play as a form for release of pent up energy. The contemporary theorists view of play is according to the likes of Einstein’s quote. Play was viewed by the contemporary theorist from a developmental perspective.

According to Sandie Rollins’s, Sigmund Freud looked at play from a therapeutic perspective. Freud in his book on “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”, describes play as a mechanism for the child through which the child tries to master previously experienced traumatic events. Anna Freud viewed play as both adaptive and defensive for dealing anxiety.

Bruner, 1972 stated that play had a major role of rehearsing, where the child rehearses actions pertaining to real life situations in a safe, risk-free environment, where the child is preparing himself/herself to face the difficult situation in a less stressful way. 

 According to Dewey, play is a subconscious activity that helps an individual develop both mentally and socially. It should be separate from work as play helps a child to grow into a working world. As children become adults, they no longer “play” but seek amusement from their occupation. This childhood activity of play prepares them to become healthy working adults.

Maria Montessori, postulated that “play is the child’s work.” Montessori believed in sensory play, where the child learns through play from hands on experiences, with the help of a teacher helping the child play to learn. 

According to Lewin and Buytendijk’s Infantile dynamics, play happens because cognitively the child is unable to judge the difference between the real and unreal world. The child plays because it’s pre-wired in the not to show any other forms of behaviours other than play. Later, Piaget explain play as occurring in stages in his theory of cognitive development. The stages are;

  • Functional play, (sensori motor stage), wherein the child explores his surroundings with the help of his senses and gains an understanding of the environment, which is play for the child.
  • Symbolic play (pre operational stage), the child is trying to represent things around symbolically.
  • Games with rules (Concrete operation stage), the child at this stage is ready to play more constructive games involving rules.
According to Vygotsky, play is a means by which the child is trying to learn to be social. Children encounter others while playing, where they learn to interact using language and role play.

It’s very clear from the above discussion that various theorists viewed play from different perspectives like therapeutic according to Freud, sensory according to Montessori, intellectual according to Lewin and Piaget and social according to Vygotsky. All these theories are just a bird’s eye view, there are many more theories of play which explains play from even more different perspectives.

By Dr Srividya K.