What is Play?

The dictionary definition of play is to: “engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.”

Truthfully, it’s a disappointing definition. This simple explanation hardly covers the richness of play and what it does for our dogs and our children. If you’re a member of Doglando, or if you’ve had a child participate in a Camp Doglando session, you likely already know that we talk about play a lot.

But, what is play, if the dictionary hardly does this life-giving activity justice? Today we’re going to explore a few different definitions of play to show you just how complex, rich, and nuanced this seemingly simple pursuit should be.

Play is the gaining of life

Playing with Dogs

This is one of my personal favorite ways of thinking about play. Through play, children (and dogs!) are able to develop very strong identities.

That’s because play allows us to figure out what we’re good at and what our strengths are. Play gives living beings physical, emotional, social, and even moral capabilities. It gives us the ability to communicate, reason, solve problems, and be creative.

Think about a young child who grabs pots and pans from the kitchen – they’re learning how strong they are. If the child tries to fit different lids to the pots and pans they’re also learning how to solve problems and be creative.

In fact, play isn’t just the gaining of life. To a child, it’s what life’s all about. It’s the language they’re born speaking.

“Play is the work of children.”

I love this quote by Maria Montessori, describing play as the work of children. I’ve seen this in action with my own son. I watch him play with his “garbage truck” as he learns about his own strength and gains a sense of accomplishment.

An adult might take out the trash as a chore, but to a child the same task can be play, because they aren’t motivated by checking something off their to-do list.

Mark Twain seems to agree with this definition, too: “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”

“Play is the beginning of knowledge.”

Because living beings learn so much through play, and not always through academics, this characterization of play from George Dorsey also makes complete sense.

Think about a child carrying a bucket of water: Through that action the child learns self-control and body awareness, because his or her actions have a direct correlation to whether or not the water spills.

As Mr. Rogers once said, “Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.”

“The opposite of play is not work. It’s depression.”

Brian Sutton-Smith explained play in this way and it makes so much sense. We’ve seen a troubling rise in depression and stress in our modern world, and some experts think that a lack of play is a huge contributing factor.

According to Dr. Peter Grey, “Kids aren’t learning critical life-coping skills because they never get to play anymore.” He continues, explaining, “If you don’t have the opportunity to experience life on your own, to deal with the stresses of life, to learn in this context of play where you are free to fail, the world is a scary place.”

Play should be fluid, free flowing, colourful, full of body, and full of life. But, when kids are restricted in play, their bodies act vigorously and violently against their environments. The world becomes an overwhelming and frustrating place, and it’s no surprise that depression, stress, and anxiety are the result.

And it’s the same in dogs. When you see dogs in environments like dog parks or dog daycares you often observe very little play and amplified stress-induced behaviors.

Dogs playing with water

Dogs are more frantic and vocal, and their focus is intermittent and short lived. Outbursts are likely, resulting in observable and measurable behaviors like fear and aggression. At Doglando, when we give tours, one of the comments made most frequently is how calm and quiet the dogs are.

Let’s talk more about play

Because the topic is so important we’ll continue to write about play as it relates to children and dogs in greater detail on the Doglando blog. Next time, we’ll explore what exactly constitutes learning, and what learning looks like. Like with play, you might be surprised at how complex the notion of learning should be!