Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford

Object Play

  • Niki Christodoulou
  • Xenia Anastassiou-HadjicharalambousEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_1069-1



Object play involves playful activities with toys or other objects, instead of social or interactive play with peers.


Play is certainly an important component in the course of children’s development; in fact, it takes up an appreciable portion of their time budgets, considering that all children engage into play activities throughout their childhood. Many definitions have been put forward in an attempt to define what play is and of the different types of play available in the literature. Some have had more examination than others. For example, there is a great amount of literature on children’s pretend play, while research on rough-and-tumble play is lacking (Smith et al. 2015). In this entry, we will consider the evolutionary biological perspective on play development, we will address what playful behavior entails, and finally, we will focus on object play and tool use during the periods of infancy and childhood.

An Evolutionary Perspective

According to evolutionary biology, the desire to play in specific ways and at specific points in life is shared among a variety of mammals (LaFreniere 2011). Evolutionary biologists have long been intrigued to the origins and functions of play due to its complexity as a phenomenon in young mammals (LaFreniere 2011), not only to observe but also to define it (Pellegrini and Smith 1998). In the evolutionary biology dictionary, the term “functions” with regard to play refers to when a behavior has typically added to the survival or reproductive success of an individual (genes) over many succeeding generations (Pellegrini and Smith 1998b). Functions can also be defined in the context of beneficial outcomes during the life cycle of the individual player (Pellegrini and Smith 1998b). Evolutionary biologists interested mainly in the study of animal behavior (hereafter ethologists) generally consider play as having been acquired by our species through the process of natural selection, in order to provide deferred benefits to the individual (LaFreniere 2011). In other words, through play a child develops and practices skills crucial to survival and reproduction in adulthood (Smith 2009). Yet, play may also produce immediate benefits to the young individual, and modern ethologists acknowledge that natural selection acts throughout life cycle, a view now called life history theory (LaFreniere 2011).

Life history theory is a worldwide accepted analytical framework, used mainly in biology and evolutionary psychology since the 1970s (LaFreniere 2011). It considers an organism as an ever-changing life cycle – not as a static adult – suggesting that certain species-typical characteristics evolve to favor somatic and reproductive efforts throughout life span (LaFreniere 2011). Accordingly, Bogin (1999) postulated that because of a finite amount of time, energy, and resources available, individuals must make choices regarding their behavioral priorities and allocation of resources with respect to developmental periods and life goals suitable to those periods. For example, despite its clear costs, during the early juvenile period, play is prioritized in all social primates, while social play takes up most of the time not spent eating and sleeping (LaFreniere 2011). This fact is considered to be crucial as the main basis for concluding an adaptive function of play, because natural selection favors only behaviors whose benefits clearly outweigh the associated costs (LaFreniere 2011). Play can be costly in terms of time and energy devoted to it as it diminishes the time, effort, and energy spent on other activities.

Despite such costs, there is a natural tendency of young mammals to engage in play as long as and as often as ecological constraints and opportunities afford (LaFreniere 2011); it is in fact indispensable to the development and good functioning of a healthy adult.

Characteristics of Playful Behavior

Although many researchers have attempted to define what we call “playful behavior,” this is not an easy task. Animal ethologist Robert Fagen (1974) proposed two approaches, which can be used to define play: the functional approach and the structural approach. The functional approach suggests that play does not have a clear external goal or an obvious end in itself neither clear immediate benefits to the individual (Smith et al. 2015). In fact, a “functional” way of perceiving play is suggested – play is performed rather for its own sake and for enjoyment instead of for any other external purpose (Smith et al. 2015). Therefore, if an external goal exists such as a need to seek comfort or attention, then the behavior cannot be considered as play (Smith et al. 2015). However, it is important to highlight that, although playful behaviors do not generate any clear immediate benefits for the youth, many theorists do believe that children indeed benefited from playing; there is an ongoing controversy as to what the benefits of play exactly are (Smith et al. 2015).

The structural approach is primarily concerned with behaviors present only during play or the way these behaviors are organized during playful activities (Smith et al. 2015). These behaviors are usually called “play signals” and could, for example, take the form of laughter or the “open-mouth play face” which both signal play (Smith et al. 2015). However, it is arguable that not all play is characterized by play signals. In fact, the structural approach goes a step further and suggests that for behaviors to be considered as playful, they need to be “repeated,” “fragmented,” “exaggerated,” or “reordered” (Smith et al. 2015). Thus, if a child is just running up a slope may not be playing, but if he or she runs up and slides down the slope several times which indicates repetition, runs just halfway up which shows fragmentation, takes unusually large or small steps or jumps which suggests exaggeration, or crawls up and then runs down which indicates reordering, then we could possibly agree that this behavior is playful (Smith et al. 2015).

The two approaches, although logically different, could be considered to be theoretically in parallel and complementary to each other; after all, the child running up and down the slope has no clear, immediate goal except from enjoyment (Smith et al. 2015).

Finally, another approach suggests that play or playful behavior can be identified through a number of different criteria but always in conjunction with the two previous approaches (Smith et al. 2015). No criterion is adequate enough to define playful behavior, but the more criteria are present, the higher the agreement will be on that a behavior is play (Smith et al. 2015). Based on this premise, Krasnor and Pepler (1980) proposed a model, which suggests that playful behaviors are characterized by a form of “flexibility,” “positive affect,” “nonliterality,” and “intrinsic motivation.” Flexibility refers to the form and content of play where objects are being put in different combinations and roles are being performed in new ways – these are the structural characteristics of play (Smith and Pellegrini 2013). Positive affect refers to visible signs of enjoyment such as when children smile and laugh during their time while playing (Smith and Pellegrini 2013). Nonliterality deals with elements of “pretend” during play (Krasnor and Pepler 1980) such as acting out hypothetical scenarios. Lastly, intrinsic motivation refers to the fact that such behaviors are conducted for their own sake with participants being mostly interested with the behaviors themselves (i.e., “means”) rather than the action (i.e., “ends”) of the behavior (the process is more important than any goal) (Pellegrini et al. 2007).

The play criterion approach does not aim to produce an unequivocal definition of playful behavior. It does, however, identify a continuum of play, that is, from nonplayful to playful behavior, as well as how different theorists agree on what to call playful behavior (Smith et al. 2015). As it has been discussed so far, the main “play” criteria for young children are flexibility, enjoyment, pretense, and no specific goal while doing so.

Play and Exploration

The play criteria, as discussed above, distinguish “play” from “exploration.” Play and exploration were often classified together in earlier writings perhaps because both of them were not goal-directed neither guided through reinforcement (Smith et al. 2015). Yet, it is also true that for young infants, during the sensorimotor stage of their development (see Sensorimotor Play - Newborn Behavior), the difference between exploration and play is harder to make, as, for very young children, all objects are unusual (Smith et al. 2015). Once children enter their preschool years, however, the difference is easier to make (Smith et al. 2015). This was illustrated by an experiment conducted by Corinne Hutt (1966) by creating a unique toy – specifically a box where children could sit on, with a lever that could make the sound of a buzzer. Young children around the age of 3–5 years were rather thoughtful when the novel toy was introduced to them by touching it, by feeling it, and by trying out the lever – they were in fact trying to figure out what the novel object could do or in other words “exploring.” Soon after, this changed as the child would regularly relax and sit on the object performing frequently with the lever – perceived as more playful behavior. Based on these observations, Hutt proposed that children typically continue from thorough exploration of different objects to more playful activities.

In addition, exploration in relation to play is characterized by fast heart rate, reduced distractibility, and flat affect (Pellegrini 2016). On the other hand, when playful behavior occurs, there is low heart rate, children are more relaxed, high level of distractibility, and positive affect (Hutt 1966). Exploration was identified as relatively thoughtful and paying attention to details, typically asking, “what does this object do?” – while play was characterized by a variety of behaviors typically asking, “what can I do with this object?” as well as being relaxed while using the object.

Further, exploration usually predates different forms of object use and play in human animals (Belsky and Most 1981). Influential work from Belsky and Most (1981) showed that toy exploration was the main activity of children aged 7.5–10.5 months, with no signs of playful behavior, while from around 9 to 10.5 months of age, they identified objects as they manipulated them. At 12 months, object play became into view, along with exploration and naming of objects. Indeed, all types of play follow exploration – animal behaviorists suggest that children’s play does not only involve objects but rather ranges also along social and locomotor dimensions (Burghardt 2005). The latter two are being more closely interrelated; for example, play-fighting or rough-and-tumble play has both social and physical dimensions (Pellegrini and Smith 1998a). Most child developmental research, however, has mainly focused on object play dimensions (Smith et al. 2015).

Play with Objects

Jean Piaget’s (1952) theory of cognitive development suggests that young children’s perception and understanding of the surrounding world depend on their motor development – a fundamental skill necessary for the young child to associate visual, tactile, and motor representations of objects. Specifically, the infant has to understand that objects exist even when they cannot be seen, touched, heard, or sensed in any other way – what we call “object permanence” – and this understanding comes through touching and handling objects in different ways (Siegler et al. 2017). Piaget gave a comprehensive description of the varied ways in which children make use of and manipulate objects, including play (Smith et al. 2015). Although initially this is best expressed as exploratory, as the child progresses through the sensorimotor stage, which usually lasts from birth until 2 years of age, exploratory behaviors are repeated and thus perhaps enjoyed – two criteria for playful behavior to be present (Smith et al. 2015). These behaviors become also more flexible, such as that some of them would easily be characterized as playful (Smith et al. 2015). Piaget suggested that this behavior could also be called “practice play,” in terms of manipulating and bumping objects together and laughing (Smith et al. 2015).

As Piaget’s theory suggests, young children during their first 2 years of life are primarily focused on the activities of their own body (Siegler et al. 2017). Once their attention shifts from basic body reflexes to the events of the surrounding world, the stage is set for the appearance of object play (Hughes 2010). Except from the infant’s interest in the world around them, however, there is another requirement for object play to occur; the motor skills are needed to allow the infant to grasp and handle play objects (Hughes 2010). As mentioned above, Piaget suggested that during the first 2 years of life, children develop their motor skills, and this is when children start engaging into play with objects.

Object play refers to playful behavior involving the use of different objects such as building blocks, jigsaw puzzles, cars, dolls, etc. (Smith and Pellegrini 2013). For instance, when babies engage in play with objects, they usually mouth objects and then they drop them down, while toddlers manipulate the objects such as assembling blocks, or sometimes they pretend play such as feeding a doll (Smith and Pellegrini 2013). In fact, when children are pretending using objects, at first, they imitate someone else’s use of those objects (Pellegrini 2016). Over time, young individuals learn how to use other more abstract objects to portray other objects (Pellegrini 2016). Accordingly, object play is also evident when children use objects in varied ways (Pellegrini and Hou 2011) such as using a pencil to represent a hammer. Play with objects gives the opportunity to children to create new combinations of actions as well as to advance their problem-solving skills (Smith and Pellegrini 2013). Indeed, of all the possible uses of objects, play with objects is most highly akin to creativity (Pellegrini and Hou 2011).

In modern societies, object play typically involves toys which are made to favor children’s play by being created based on mass media prototypes (Smith 2009). There is a huge production not only of simple toys and objects such as building blocks, jigsaw puzzles, cars, dolls, and toy animals but also of toys used for pretending and fantasy activities, such as farm sets, castles, trains, action figures, and action objects based on either older but ongoing or current TV series or films such as Star Wars (Smith 2009).

As mentioned earlier, before babies, toddlers, and children engage in object play, they must explore the object first (Hutt 1966). In this initial exploration, young individuals extract characteristics of and uses for novel objects, and individuals then use this information as a basis for play bouts (Pellegrini et al. 2007). To illustrate, imagine a child entering the nursery school for the first time, being introduced to a completely new setting (Pellegrini et al. 2007). The child will allow substantial amount of time during the very first few weeks of their experience, to explore the physical and social environment of the nursery school – being a passive onlooker (Pellegrini and Goldsmith 2003). Exploration is used not only to become familiar with a new setting, but it is also needed to identify any potentially dangerous aspects of an environment and discover how to stay away from them (Spinka et al. 2001). Once a child determines that the novel environment is safe, then play can occur (Pellegrini and Goldsmith 2003).

In addition, establishing an accurate time frame for object play during childhood is challenging, considering that object play is usually conflated with other forms of object use (Pellegrini 2016). In a study by Belsky and Most (1981) where object play was clearly differentiated from other forms of object use, they concluded that it begins around 1 year. Further studies concluded that by 3–5 years of age in American and UK preschool settings, object play increases and then declines (McGrew 1972; Pellegrini and Gustafson 2005; Pellegrini and Hou 2011).

Object play becomes increasingly social as the child grows (Rubin et al. 1983). To illustrate, they concluded that less than 2% of preschool and kindergarten children’s play is solitary, while 12% and 28% of preschoolers and kindergarteners, respectively, is social (Rubin et al. 1983). Therefore, not only does object play expand throughout childhood, but it also becomes progressively social. Finally, it should be noted that any benefits of object play should be compared against those of instruction, keeping in mind different external influences such as the age of the child, the type of task, and whether learning is for particular skills or a more general developmental acquirement (Smith and Pellegrini 2013).

Gender Differences in Object Play

Evidence about gender differences in object play as well as in the overall frequency of object play between young boys and girls during the sensorimotor period is lacking (Belsky and Most 1981). However, studies have suggested that the nature and choice of toys do vary, especially after the sensorimotor stage. For instance, Smith and Daglish (1977) found that at 1 and 2 years of age, boys engage more into active play and forbidden play such as playing with wall sockets, pulling curtains, or climbing on furniture and used more transportation toys. Girls, on the other hand, engaged more into play with dolls and soft toys. These kinds of conclusions are also illustrated in other studies with children aged 2, 3, or 4 years, both at home settings and in nursery classes; boys tend to prefer activities such as throwing or kicking balls along with transportation toys, while girls tend to prefer dolls and dressing up (Smith 2009).

Tool Use

According to Bruner (1972), the design features that object play entails make it an appropriate and suitable way of developing tool-using skills. Object play, although highly enjoyable in itself and intrinsically motivated, offers repetition in the practice of a range of relevant skills (Smith 2009).

When considering the early development of tool use in infancy and childhood, the extent to which young children can indeed explore different objects’ functions should be kept in mind (Deák 2014). Ideally, a common definition of “tool use” suggests that individuals make use of objects not attached to the environment or being part of individuals’ bodies, in the service of a goal, for example, getting food (Shumaker et al. 2011). To illustrate, using a fingernail to twist a screw would not be considered as an example of tool use but using a screwdriver would (Pellegrini 2016). Tool use is an activity that encourages children’s learning on how to use tools according to cultural conventions, such as using a fork (Pellegrini 2016). As mentioned above, using tools appears relatively early in human ontogeny, with an increasing progression in terms of skills from infancy to childhood (Cutting et al. 2011).

Object functions depend on the physical layout and properties of objects such as their material, part configuration, and markings (Deák 2014). These object properties are related to tool use, and this is explained through the concept of affordances as suggested by Gibson (1982). An affordance is the extent to which an organism can interact with an object based on the object’s properties (Gibson 1982). For example, to humans a cup affords containment of liquids or solids smaller than the mouth of the cup such as flour as well as tracing circles on paper (Deák 2014). Here, it is important to mention that affordances are inherent to the object-organism interaction rather than to the object alone, as they are characterized by a distinct organism’s potential for interacting with those properties (Deák 2014). Individual humans can achieve different affordances from the same object too of course such as a skilled player can exploit more affordances on a guitar when compared to an inexperienced person. This concept is relevant when we examine the early development of tool use, because in reality most objects or tools are designed to afford actions of adults and not of infants and young children (Deák 2014). As a result, infants must learn how to use tools and objects in a world with a setup engineered for adults (Deák 2014).

Unfortunately, infants and young children are not frequently or sometimes not at all allowed to explore object affordances or in other words to explore what they can do with a particular object. This is not only because of young children’s physical limitations but also by the limited accessibility to these objects as adults usually design children’s environments in such a way that they prohibit children’s access (Deák 2014).

However, as infants grow and develop so do their sensory and motor abilities, and these are the necessary skills needed for the development of tool use. Infants aged 6–12 months old readily manipulate novel objects in order to explore their functions and properties – squeezing soft objects or banging hard objects (Bourgeois et al. 2005). As explained above, it is through exploration that children become familiar with novel objects, and once they do so, they enjoy their interaction with them. Exploration is a progressive, embodied, multimodal process that progressively allows children to adapt their reaching and refine their abilities to specific and similar novel objects, in other words, to detect new affordances (Deák 2014). Refinement can be gradual in the sense that younger infants learn how to use a type of tool, for example, a spoon, after a substantial amount of time of experience. Consequently, it has been suggested that tool-using skill depends on infants’ and young children’s experiences with objects (Deák 2014). The reason why tool use learning is protracted is partly because young children need time also to consolidate their newly acquired sensory and motor skills.

Further, as Tomasello (1999) suggested, tool use is supported by social interaction, with adults having an important role in children’s tool use learning. Specifically, infants and young children shift their attention to objects as a consequence of interaction or observation of adults using objects and tools (Deák 2014). For instance, when adults hold objects, children in turn become interested in those objects and reach out for them, to examine and learn about them (Tomasello 1999). Thus, it is suggested that social learning and sensorimotor development are combined in an attempt to favor tool use learning in infants and young children.

In summary, as the young child moves from infancy to childhood, their tool use skills depended on active, sensorimotor development. Through the acquisition of their sensory and motor abilities, infants and young children are able to explore novel objects and gradually learn how to use them in different ways, just like adults.


This chapter has presented a short introduction about the evolutionary biological basis of “play development” as studied among a variety of mammals. As it has been suggested, it is through play that children develop and practice skills crucial to survival and reproduction in adulthood. While play can be costly in terms of time and energy devoted to it as it diminishes the time, effort and energy spent on other activities, there is a natural tendency of young mammals to prioritize and engage in play activities during the early-juvenile period. Importantly, play allows the young individual, after they have determined that a novel environment is safe, to generate play behaviors and explore different object functions they can afford performing in terms of their age and current skills. Overall, research suggests that play is indispensable to the development and good functioning of a healthy adult while it is through the acquisition of their sensory and motor abilities that young children can develop their tool-use skills and learn how to use novel objects in different ways.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Niki Christodoulou
    • 1
  • Xenia Anastassiou-Hadjicharalambous
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.University of NicosiaNicosiaCyprus

Section editors and affiliations

  • Menelaos Apostolou
    • 1
  1. 1.University of NicosiaNicosiaCyprus