17 Important Classical Theories Of Play In Early Childhood Development

Classical theories of play in early childhood development emerged during the 19th and 20th century. As regards the present day’s context, according to many research studies on play done across the world, there is a very sharp decline in play being the central aspect of a child’s life, especially during the early years.

Educationists, doctors, parents and researchers have realised that play is almost completely disappearing from the lives of toddlers and young children, and there is an urgent need to bring it back to the fore.

This is one of the many reasons why early childhood centres across the world are looking at including play as an important part of the curriculum. But to plan a curriculum that involves learning that happens through play requires a relatively deep and wide understanding about play as a concept.

So let’s have a brief look at the history of play and theories of play, first with an introduction to play.

In this article:

  1. What is Play in Early Childhood?
  2. Key Benefits of Play in Early Childhood
  3. History of Play in Early Childhood – The Western Perspective
  4. History of Play in Early Childhood – The Indian Perspective
  5. The 17 Classical Theories of Play in Early Childhood Development

What is Play in Early Childhood?

Play, in simple terms, can be defined as an activity which gives a feeling of joy and it’s basically all about having fun.

However, it takes more beyond this simple definition to understand what play really is, as it needs to be looked at from different perspectives.

At a broad level, play in early childhood development can be understood by looking at it from 3 perspectives:

  • Play as a medium of learning, where adults play a role in creating activities and play situations for a particular learning outcome
  • Play as a spontaneous activity, where the child is in complete control of the situation
  • Therapeutic play, where the child is helped to overcome physical and psychological challenges through play

Key Benefits of Play in Early Childhood

  1. Play has value, as it teaches children to be social and enhances their social skills
  2. Enhances creative, critical thinking and problem solving skills
  3. Helps in building healthy, emotional, cognitive and physical development in a child

History of Play in Early Childhood – The Western Perspective

Tracing history of play dates back to the BC period, specifically to the time period of four famous philosophers, namely Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and Xenophanes. Apart from their many famous work across different subjects, these philosophers also explored and shared their insights about the meaning of play (in children) and what it means in their lives.

At a broad level, play, according to these philosophers; is a way through which both thought process and human expression can be understood. The Greek philosopher Plato mentioned sometime around 360 BC that play builds childhood, which is a form of learning, and the knowledge acquired thorough it will be used for later in life.

Play was understood in 3 ways:

  • Agon – meaning contest/conflict
  • Mimesis – meaning mimicry
  • Chaos – meaning order and disorder of nature (unpredictability)

Play has gained importance and prominence only around the middle of the 20th century. Until then, play was never considered as a key and central aspect for learning in children.

History suggests that many 17th century philosophers strongly believed play is a medium through which leaning does happen, so much so, that they started a revolution that compelled people at large to change their views on the concept and importance of play.

During those times, children themselves were never given any importance, let alone the importance for learning in children during their early childhood.

The famous English Philosopher John Locke was the first to acknowledge children and childhood as an important and separate stage of development, and viewed play as an important and necessary part of childhood. He also termed children as ‘born players’ and felt play as vital for their health and spirit.

The 18th century philosophers Immanuel Kant, Jean Jack Rousseau, Friedrich Von Schiller and Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi brought to the fore the importance of play and the value that is attached to play during childhood.

French philosopher Jean Jack Rousseau was the first to talk about play and was instrumental in influencing the ideas of other philosophers about the importance of play and its relation to childhood education.

Play, according to Rousseau, gave freedom to children and a way to release pent up energy and emotions. Play is vital for development of the senses and also helps children experience the world through sensory experiences and to be in connection with things. Rousseau emphasised on the concept of learning by doing, rather than learning by reading. Rousseau was also the first to explain the process of human development.

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, a Swiss writer, philosopher, also known as the “Father of Modern Education”, was influenced on the work of Rousseau and valued play as central to human fulfilment. Pestalozzi believed in the power of ‘head, heart and hand’ and also felt the need for a curriculum which is child-centred, developmentally appropriate and links home and school.

Friedrich Frobel, a German philosopher who proposed The Kindergarten Curriculum, was affected by the work of Pestalozzi and started the very first school for children following the Kindergarten approach.

History of Play in Early Childhood – The Indian Perspective

If literature regarding play from the western civilization dates back to times BC, literature regarding the same from Indian Civilization dates much before the west. In fact, the concept of play as per Indian civilization can be dated back to 2500 BC, which is the Indus Valley Civilisation period.

The value and meaning of play from the Indian perspective is very different from western context. In the Indian perspective, play has been explained at 2 levels:

  1. Macro
  2. Micro

Kabir Das, Rabindranath Tagore and Ram Dass suggest that child’s play are the antecedent of philosophy. Most of Indian literature highlights play as something that is physically engaging, but nothing from the learning perspective.

However, the Indian history from 2500 BC to the 16th century AD describes a rich heritage of sports and games, proving that play was considered very important – only from a different perspective.

The 17 Classical Theories of Play in Early Childhood Development

Friedrich Schiller’s Surplus Energy Theory suggests that a human being has a lot of energy built up, which can be released only through active play. Therefore play is a medium of releasing this pent up energy.

Moritz Lazarus’s Relaxation or Recreation Theory postulates that play is a form of a de-stressor which helps in restoring all the lost energy.

Karl Groos’ Practice or Pre-Exercise Theory opines that play helps in survival for the future, as it is a medium to practice important behaviours.

Stanley Hall’s Recapitulation Theory argues that play acts as a catharsis in eliminating primitive and unnecessary instinctual skills and is not a medium for survival.

Appleton’s Growth Theory is in tune with Groos’, believing pay is a way of learning behaviours for survival.

Lange & Claparde’s Ego-Expanding Theory conceptualises that play is nature’s way of balancing and exercising of the ego and the rest of the personality in an expressive manner. Exercising the ego enhances cognitive skills of the individual and also helps in the emergence of additional skills.

Sigmund Freud viewed play from a therapeutic perspective and describes play as a medium through which the child tries to master previously experienced traumatic events.

Anna Freud viewed play as a mechanism to deal with anxiety.

Jerome Bruner opined that in play, the child rehearses actions pertaining to real life situations in a protected environment, preparing himself or herself to face real life situations of the future (which is incoherence with Groos’ theory).

John Dewey views play as a sub-conscious activity that helps a child to develop both mentally and socially. Play helps a child to grow into a working world. This childhood activity of play prepares them to become healthy working adults.

Maria Montessori postulated that play is child’s work. Montessori emphasised sensory play where the child learns to pay by experiencing the world through their senses with the help of a teacher.

Kurt Lewin & Fredrick Buytendijk’s Infantile Dynamics says that play happens because cognitively the child is not in a position to judge the difference between real and unreal. The child plays because it is already pre-wired not to show any other forms of behaviour other than play.

Jean Piaget, in his Stage Theory of Cognitive Development explains play as something that progresses in stages. The stages are:

  • Functional Play (Sensory Motor Stage) is where the child explores his surroundings with the help of his or her senses, and gains and understanding of the environment. This behaviour, for the child, is play.
  • Symbolic Play (Pre-Operational Stage) is where, as the name suggests, the child tries to represent real things symbolically in play.
  • Games with Rules (Concrete Operation Stage): At this stage, the child’s cognitive functions are more advanced and hence is ready to play more constructive games involving rules.

Sarah Smilanski’s work on play is influenced by Piaget’s Stage Theory. Along with 3 stages of play of Piaget’s, she added the fourth stage, namely Dramatic Play.

Lev Vygotsky says that play helps a child to learn to be social. Since they encounter others while playing, learning to interact with them using language and role play becomes a very important aspect of play, therefore enhancing social development.

Mildred Parten Newhall observed children and explained that different play stages occur a developmental stages. Mildred Parten’s Stages of Play Theory categorised play in the following 6 progressive stages:

  1. Unoccupied
  2. Onlooker
  3. Solitary
  4. Parallel
  5. Associative
  6. Cooperative

Kenneth H Rubin and his co-research associates worked on a study to understand children’s social, dramatic and cognitive play and the results led to combining Parten’s and Sara Smilansky’s play categories, forming Rubin’s Stages of Dramatic and Imaginary play.


The concept of play and the 17 classical theories of play in early childhood development goes a long way in helping you gain a better understanding about the need for incorporating play and supporting learning in children through play during their earlier years.

Additionally, understanding play from the theoretical perspective helps the educator and the parents to understand the developmental stage a child is in (as regards play), therefore enabling them to involve children in play activities that are developmentally appropriate for their age.

Disclaimer: The content in this page and across this website are for informational and educational purposes only. In case of any concerns about your child’s growth and development, please contact your professional child healthcare provider.