Skip to Main Content

The Study of Play (April 2019): Getting Started

By Charles Kroncke and Ronald F. White

Getting Started

Since ancient times, scholars the world over have debated questions related to the facts and values associated with human play. Beginning in the 1970s, playtime scholarship in the Western scholarly tradition has been dominated by the social sciences. Given the vast number of works published since then, those embarking on study of playtime may have a difficult time knowing where to start. Most contemporary playtime scholars acknowledge a few seminal early-20th-century authors whose works have endured the test of time, been reprinted, and continue to influence contemporary scholarship. Most historiographers cite as foundational Dutch historian and social theorist Johan Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, first published in Dutch in the early part of the century and recently reprinted. Readily available online, Huizinga’s book is a good jumping point because it connects play to all aspects of human culture, including history, religion and politics. Among the recent works that might serve as an introduction to playtime literature, David Elkind’s The Power of Play (variously subtitled Learning What Comes Naturally and How Spontaneous, Imaginative Activities Lead to Happier, Healthier Children) offers a fine initial exposure to the study of childhood play. A psychologist with a longtime particular interest in childhood play, Elkind provides a broad-based view of the main themes associated with childhood play, including childhood development, the use and abuse of toys, screen play (television and video games), play versus work, and the role of parents and teachers. He argues that the rise in the work-play dichotomy and the rise of play as recreation involve three developmentally relevant dispositions: play, love, and work.

Collected works can serve as broad introductions to state-of-the art scholarly research. The most comprehensive collection of recent scholarly work on play is The Handbook of the Study of Play, edited by James Johnson et al. This two-volume set provides a representative collection of rigorous essays on playtime scholarship. The thirty-nine essays are divided into four sections—“Disciplines” and “Influential Minds” (volume 1) and “Applications” and “Challenges” (volume 2)—and the text is bookended by an overview and an epilogue. Joining this valuable set are two other excellent collections, The Oxford Handbook of the Development of Play, edited by Anthony Pellegrini and released in the “Oxford Library of Psychology” series, and International Perspectives on Children’s Play, edited by Jaipaul Roopnarine et al., which offers a global perspective.

Encyclopedias can serve as broad introductions, and the two-volume Encyclopedia of Play in Today’s Society, under the general editorship of Rodney Carlisle, does just that. Including contributions by 130 authors from twenty-two countries, it too offers a global perspective on the various manifestations of play. Also excellent is Play and Playground Encyclopedia, an online resource that includes a rigorous annotative bibliography, play topics, news, and events.