Children's Play and Development

Volume 8 of the series International perspectives on early childhood education and development pp 251-265


Play, But Not Simply Play: The Anthropology of Play

  • Benny KarpatschofAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, University of Copenhagen Email author 

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Play seems to a distinctive trait for the human species. We share the inclination of this seemingly nonsensical behaviour with the other higher vertebrates, especially the mammals. All the same play is a distinctive trait for the human being, for the play found among the mammals is restricted to a shorter period of their childhood, after which the adult mammals get more important things to do than fooling around.

In contrast to its limited function in mammals as training for adult life, play is an all-embracing feature of human life. Furthermore, it is not limited to the activity of individuals or groups. Play is, as shown by the eminent cultural historian, Huizinga (Homo ludens: a study of the play-element in culture, Routledge, London, 1950), constitutive for all kinds of human culture. Huizinga revealed the paradox that this by definition totally purposeless type of activity is nevertheless an apparently universal trait known in any human culture, whatever its location in space and time. Play does, however, share this paradox with other just as useless activities, like religious worship, care for the dead, storytelling, singing, dancing and painting. And this is no random coincidence, for all these kinds of activity have indeed a basic relatedness to play.