According to Scholarpedia, The Encyclopedia of Play Science outlines the current understanding of the breadth and depth of behavior. Play experts are studying the many aspects play more than ever before, and the Encyclopedia brings them together in one place. All entries cover the diverse elements of play including biology, cognitive psychology and neuroscience.

The Encyclopedia of Play is organized and maintained by the National Institute of Play. These articles solely reflect the opinions of their authors.

Scholarly Research

Play and ADHD

Jaak Panksepp and Sheri Six

Free play, where children develop their own activities, is increasingly recognized as a fundamental component in children development. Studies prove that periods of play improve social skills, inhibition and attention in humans as well as animals. Activities such as running, jumping, play fighting and wrestling are especially important in developing the areas of the brain that are deficient in children with ADHD. Stressing more opportunities for play could be an effective non-medicinal method to minimize disruptive behavior and facilitate brain development in children diagnosed with ADHD.

Rough and Tumble Play

Sergio Pellis and Vivien Pellis

Rough-and-tumble play, or play fighting, is a form of play in which partners compete with one another to gain some advantage. In order for play fighting to remain within the definition of play, there must be an element of cooperation as well as competition. Most play and play fighting occurs amongst juveniles as a tool for development of the social brain. Play fighting continues through adulthood where it functions to serve immediate purposes, such as calming social discord, reducing stress and testing out relationships within a social group or strangers.

Definitions of Play

Peter Gray

Play is not necessarily defined in terms of a single quality, but instead incorporates a collection of characteristics of varying degree. The following defines the characteristics of play:

  • Play is self-chosen and self-directed.
  • Play is intrinsically motivated—means are more valued than ends.
  • Play is guided by mental rules, but the rules leave room for creativity.
  • Play is imaginative.
  • Play is conducted in an alert, active, but relatively non-stressed frame of mind.

Evolution of Playgrounds

Dr. Joe Frost

Playground is a broadly defined term that can be applied to various sites of play including but not limited to school playgrounds, park playgrounds and camp playgrounds. German educator, Fredrik Froebel originated the playground. He was known for stressing the importance of play in child development as well as establishing the first kindergarten. The Germans influenced American visitors, and in the 1880s, sand gardens were placed throughout Massachusetts. These created the first organized and supervised playgrounds in America and leveraged the first serious play movement for young children in the country. At the beginning of the 20th century, the second stage of playground development evolved identified as, “model playground.” Then, playgrounds were built around the country, resembling those implemented decades later.  Playgrounds are continuously expanding today and often incorporate a variety of spaces and materials that cultivate a magical and imaginative platform for a broad range of people.


Peter Gray

The hunter-gatherers use play and humor to establish their highly equal mode of existence. Almost all researchers note the high value they place on individual independence. They live in bands of 20 to 50 people with resemblance to modern child play groups. Hunter-gatherers bring a playful approach to work often engaging in productive work. Productive work is a necessity to sustain their lives and seen as playful because it is social, challenging, manageable and flexible. Hunter-gatherer societies are relatively playful, enjoyable and easy-going societies to live within.

Adult Play and Sexual Selection

Garry Chick

Play is enigmatic, yet from an evolutionary perspective, can most often be explained through natural selection amongst juvenile animals. Play and other youthful behaviors are thought to contribute to survival and reproductive success which are then inherited by future generations. In adult play, women use play for playfulness to indicate youth and health, qualities that are important to men. Adult males, in contrast, seek playful females as a signal of youth and health.

Technology and Play

Jeffrey H. Goldstein

The world of electronic media, games, mobile devices and toys has revolutionized the meaning of play. The merging mediums create a seamless blend of entertainment, information, education and play. Mixing technology and toys has been an ongoing concept throughout history. Electronic toys and games are an outlet for children to familiarize themselves with technology and learn to use it. These devices not only enable children to be the decision-maker and learn through trial and error, but provide them with opportunity to experiment with various ways of learning and thinking.

Consequences of Play Deprivation

Stuart L. Brown

The urge to play is embedded within human nature. However, the status of play is diminishing as playtime outside has decreased by 71% in one generation in the U.S. The significant decrease can be attributed to the high achievement standards, which require more time spent on homework and in class.

Movement as a Way of Knowing

Dr. Maxine Sheets-Johnstone

Stretchable. Elastic. Energetic. Discrete. Boisterous. Movement comes in all shapes in sizes. Infants and children engage in all sorts of movement throughout the ongoing process of learning about themselves and their bodies. Children fall, crawl, totter, break things, romp and yell for help and comfort. These mischievous behaviors are the source of fundamental human concepts such as near and far, hard and soft, jagged and pointed, weak and strong, open and closed and so on. Movement and play go hand in hand and are an outlet for creativity. Putting movement in your life may invigorate your life and give you a greater sense of fun and enjoyment.

The Benefits of Recess in Primary School

Dr. Anthony D. Pellegrini and Dr. Catherine M. Bohn-Gettler

Despite traditional practice throughout primary school, recess is being reduced or eliminated in replacement for instructional time to increase achievement.  Research has proven the many physical, cognitive and social benefits of recess during the school day including positive classroom behavior and increased achievement. The variety of activities children partake in during recess promotes physical fitness and helps to reduce childhood obesity and other similar health complications. Recess is an outlet for children to engage in unstructured free play, where they can cultivate valuable skills such as interacting with others, negotiation and problem-solving.

Children’s Play and Culture

Robyn M. Holmes

Children around the world play. However, evidence proves variability in play across multiple cultures. Culture shapes children’s play activities and interactions. Children’s every day experiences, like playing with peers and interactions with teachers and caregivers, is where they learn about their cultures values, skills and abilities.