6-1 | Probing Play: What Does the Research Show?
Guest Editors' Foreword
From the ancients to well-known thinkers in the Western canon, play has
been touted as essential to what makes us human and to children’s well-being.
Many people can recall playtimes when they jumped farther than they thought
they could, created a make-believe cave world under their covers, or eagerly learned their multiplication tables in school because a stopwatch and a classmate made it playful. Although we all enjoyed play as children, and believe we can identify it when it happens (Smith and Vollsedt 1985), play nevertheless remains a broad construct difficult to define (Burghardt 2011). Most definitions attribute to play an element of fantasy, the “what-if” that allows children to imagine things as they might be, free from reality. Yet some play, like board games and much physical play, also includes nonfantastical activities. Another element of play is enjoyment. Although children need not be laughing or even smiling when they play, they are immersed in it and enthralled by it. Csikszentmihalyi (1997) characterizes this aspect of play as “flow,” which has the effect of shutting out surrounding distractions and honing attention. The affect accompanying play may be related to another of its features: play is voluntary, and children need no coaxing to engage in it. Whether children are conjuring “pretend school” with stuffed animals, digging to China with friends, or engaging in sidewalk games with bottle caps, their play allows them to use their imaginations and, paradoxically, as the Russian researcher Lev Vygotsky argued, to “instantiate” the rules of the real world. Play occurs universally (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1989) among children even in cultures where adults do not explicitly encourage it (Gaskins 2013). Less obviously, play influences children’s thinking and reasoning and their emotional and social development.