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How do children see play?

How do you recognize play and playfulness? And what do children perceive as being play? What makes children play? In this blog, I will try to answer these questions, backing up my ideas with research done in Finland and abroad.

Published: September 15, 2023, edited: September 15, 2023
5 min

Adults and children have different ideas of play

Our views and experiences of play and playfulness can be very different and sometimes quite stereotypical. While teachers, parents, and other educators may see a child’s play very narrowly as a series of certain actions, children might see play as any interesting, inspiring activity in which they can immerse themselves. Any environment is a potential playground, and opportunities for play are everywhere. Children also draw a distinction between any boring activity and play. For example, watching television is boring because it is passive. What is important in play is physical activity, combined with the participation of other children. Playgrounds and parks are, therefore, designed to cater to the need to facilitate many different types of activities, physical movement, and collaborative action.

Father playing with his daughters in the Flora Troll Village

Playing is an inspiring and immersive experience

Children describe play in many different terms. Play is not a specific activity but more like concentrating on an activity with great abandon and being immersed in it. Immersion is a state involving emotions, other people, play equipment, and environments. From the children’s perspective, play is, in other words, a holistic experience that does not necessarily look like play to adults. Children want to participate in domestic chores at home, in daycare, and in school because they think they are fun and interesting. Therefore, it is important to offer children the chance to participate in adults’ activities as this develops children’s sense of independent agency. While having your children help in the kitchen garden is nothing new, this activity has come to be seen through new eyes as a form of play and an opportunity to learn. Growing a plant from seed offers many moments of wonder and discovery. In the end, a ripe fruit, vegetable, or flower in full bloom will greatly reward the little gardener.

In the best case, these triggers may captivate children’s interest to such a degree that they begin developing expertise in this area.

Children sense that adults don’t value play

Several studies have also highlighted concerns that children feel that adults do not always appreciate play. Adults may interrupt children’s play and ask them to do something more important, such as eat a snack or tidy up their room. When playing a game for some reason needs to be interrupted, it would be fair to mention this to the child in advance so that they know what to expect.

Research also shows that parents, teachers, and other educators sometimes deny children the chance to play for safety reasons. Safety is naturally important, but do adults sometimes worry too much? Our own research shows that children want to experience speed and danger and feel a little giddy when playing. This helps them learn to know themselves and what they are capable of and, especially, to regulate their feelings and control their bodies.

A primary school teacher I once interviewed said she knew children who could not catch a ball or do a somersault. These and other motor skills can be practised in the garden, in a forest, and in a playground. Children can sometimes feel embarrassed about playing because they sense that adults do not appreciate it, or maybe they feel they are too old to play. Reeli Karimäki, a researcher of children’s culture, has collected 1,500 children’s descriptions of play. On the basis of this collection, it is clear that children do indeed play, but also that some of the play takes place secretly, hidden from adults. Nobody is ever too old to play. Play and playfulness is a resources that not only children but people of all ages tap into. Pokémon GO is the latest example of how eager adults are to play.

Children see play as a survival method

Children who live in deprived or otherwise difficult circumstances see play as a survival method. No matter how tough things are, children can always find a place and a way to play. Play is also an excellent activity for children with special needs.

What makes children play?

If children see play as any activity that seems interesting and inspiring and into which they can immerse themselves, what, then, are the factors that arouse and maintain that interest? These factors are also known as triggers or stimulants. In the best case, these triggers may captivate children’s interest to such a degree that they begin developing expertise in this area.

There are events taking place around us all the time that catch children’s attention. Pekka Mertala writes in his blog about his four-year-old, who kept noticing people hunting Pokémon. Her observations and her father’s explanation of the phenomenon served as an inspiration for the girl’s play. “Back home, the following started happening: my daughter took some toys from her room and started hiding them around the house. After this, she made herself a phone from cardboard (I helped her with cutting the screen; see photo).”

In another example, a child got an idea for a game from a Japanese animation that he had watched for a short time. Seeing the film only for a few minutes fed his imagination and inspired him to play. He immediately started turning his ideas into reality. He fetched a garment from the cupboard and chopped the legs short, painted his face, looked for the right tools, and completely identified with his role and imaginary environment using his facial expressions, gestures and emotions.


I started this piece with three questions: How do you recognize play and playfulness? And what do children perceive as being play? What makes children play? If you wish to share your experiences and observations about these questions, whether to do with playgrounds, nature, home, schools, kindergartens or any other environments where children play, I would love to hear from you.

The blog is mainly based on a soon-to-be-published book chapter:

Hyvönen, P. Helenius, A., & Hujala, E. (2016). Enhancing children’s competencies in playful learning and teaching. In M. Ebbeck & M. Waniganayake (Eds.), (pp. 99–116): Oxford University Press. In print.

Other sources:

Duncan, P.A. (2015). Pigs, planes, and play-doh: Children’s perspectives on play as revealed through their drawings. American Journal of Play, 8(1), 50–72.

Glenn, N.M., Knight, C.J., Holt, N.L., & Spence, J.C. (2013). Meanings of play among children. Childhood, 20(2), 185–190. DOI: 10.1177/0907568212454751

Hidi, S. & Renninger, K. A. (2006). The four-phase model of interest development. Educational Psychologist, 41 (2), 111–127.

Hyvönen, P. (2011). Tarjoaako leikkiympäristö riittävästi toiminnanmahdollisuuksia? Teoksessa E-L. Kronqvist & K. Kumpulainen (Toim.), Lapsuuden oppimisympäristöt, (ss. 52–56). Helsinki: WSOYpro. JUFO0.

Hyvönen, P. & Kangas, M. (2007). From bogey mountains to funny houses: Children’s desires for play environment. Australian Journal of Early Childhood (AJEC), 32(3), 39–47.

Hyvönen, P. & Kangas, M. (2010). Children as experts in designing play environment. In E-L Kronqvist & P. Hyvönen (Eds.), Insights and outlouds: Childhood research in the North, (pp. 143–170). Acta Universitatis Ouluensis E 107. Oulu: Oulu University Press. JUFO0.

Karimäki, R (2004). Tarinat lasten leikeissä Teoksessa P. Hyvönen, M. Lehtonen, & R. Rajala (Toim.) LAPSET-seminaarin artikkelijulkaisu (pp.71–77) Rovaniemi: Lapin yliopisto.

Kuschner, D (2012). Play is natural to childhood but school is not: The problem of integrating play into the curriculum. International Journal of Play, 1(3), 242–249. DOI:10.1080/21594937.2012.735803

Mertala, P. (2016). Blogi:

Virkki, P (2015). Varhaiskasvatus toimijuuden ja osallisuuden edistäjänä. Publications of the University of Eastern Finland. Dissertations in Education, Humanities, and Theology. no 66. URN:ISBN:978-952-61-1735-5

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Signe Siklander is a learning researcher Associate Professor, and Docent at the University of Oulu, Finland
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Signe Siklander

Signe Siklander is a learning researcher and Associate Professor and Docent in the University of Oulu.

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