With reference to relevant literature, in what ways do you consider play, whether formal or informal (or both) important to the development of the children and young people.


By Zoe Mc Carthy

In the following essay I will be looking at the importance of both formal and informal play and the impact it has on the development of the children I work with. By formal play I am referring to adult led play, which is generally more structured and rule based, i.e. board games, sports etc. When studying informal play, however, I will be thinking about child led play, which will generally be more imaginative, make-believe, spontaneous play which an adult can join, following the child’s lead. The children I work with at The Mulberry Bush School are emotionally traumatised and so the importance of play will be relating specifically to this group. I will try and highlight how play can also have a significant role in allowing children to cope with trauma.

For all children play is important, and is an integral part of development;

“children’s …play has been hypothesised to contribute to the cognitive, motor, and social development of children, including the development of perception, attention, memory, problem-solving skill, language, communication, creativity, logical operations, emotion regulation, self-regulation, social skills, gender roles, social relationships, conflict resolution, coping with stress, and so on.” (Power, 2000)

This highlights the numerous different ways that play is an important aspect of children’s development. For emotionally traumatised children it can be especially useful to focus on play in order to help them achieve these skills as they may have missed important developmental steps in their learning at a young age. In general, play develops over four stages. From 0-2 years children engage in solitary play, where the child is content to discover their surroundings in isolation and will move between activities regardless of others. This moves on to parallel play from 2-3 years which is when children may be aware of each other but are absorbed in their own task so there is limited co-operation. From 3-4 years children use associative play, gradually becoming aware of one another. They can also start to use basic verbal communication with each other and are able to, occasionally, use each others toys.

From the age of 4 years and upwards children can engage in co-operative play. This means they can build their social skills, learning to take other people’s needs and wishes in to account in a game. For a child to be able to play, and so achieve each of these milestones, they need to feel relaxed and to be in a safe environment. For many traumatised children this safe environment will have been lacking. This therefore stunts their ability to explore their surroundings in play and so prevents them from moving on to the other stages of play that would otherwise have occurred naturally with age. In order to achieve the many skills mentioned by Power, play is integral to children’s learning and therefore important to the development of the children that I work with.

Different children will have various preferences for play. Formal play is preferred by some children who like concrete rules to follow. The children may also find the structure of games reinforced by adults can be very containing and allow them to feel safe enough to play. This ‘formal’ play allows adults to input ‘scaffolding’ and role model turn-taking, sharing, patience, listening etc. for the children. In this context, Vygotsky’s theory can be applied when he discusses the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ and ‘More Knowledgeable Other’. The ‘More Knowledgable Other’ in this case would be the adult playing with the child. The “Zone of Proximal Development’ is the difference between what the child is capable of achieving on their own, and what they can achieve with the help of an adult. Vygotsky believed that;

“with appropriate help, children can often perform tasks that they are incapable of completing on their own. With this in mind, scaffolding – where the adult continually adjusts the level of his or her help in response to the child’s level of performance – is an effective form of teaching”. (Vygotsky, 1978)

This formal play is a good opportunity for the adult to develop their relationship with the child which is particularly significant in my work with traumatised children who struggle to trust that adults can keep them safe and allow them to have fun and engage in play.

In order to have a positive impact on the children at the Mulberry Bush it is important to develop relationships. This allows the adult to gain an understanding in to the child’s communications and their motivation for certain behaviours, therefore making it easier to find the best way of working with this. For the child, it allows a certain level of trust and feeling of containment which is especially important for them to function in their day to day lives. Play performs a vital role in the building of this relationship. In an extract from ‘The Handbook of Play Therapy and Therapeutic Play’ an adult discusses a particular example of their work with a traumatised child. He writes;

“If I had not been able to find a way of communicating with Tom through playing it might not have been possible to make a relationship with him”. (McMahon, 2009)

In this instance play provides a safe way for the child to enjoy a positive experience with an adult in a way that feels natural and easy, with the emphasis being on the child playing, rather than actively trying to build a relationship with an adult. The safety net that play provides, allows for communication without a feeling of being overwhelmed by the child as they are able to communicate in indirect ways.

“I felt that in this case being involved in the play and the working through of his anxiety the play was far more beneficial than a verbal interpretation”. (McMahon, 2009))

Although formal play is important to the development of the children I work with, I am particularly interested in the benefits of informal play, which is child led, and provides a great opportunity for the child to communicate their thoughts and feelings in a non-verbal way. For many traumatised children, who have missed stages in their development, observing their spontaneous play is a good way of assessing where they are at emotionally, so that an appropriate level of play can be encouraged by the adult to help the child succeed at each developmental level. For example, children aged, for example, nine years old, may still benefit from chew toys, blankets, being held and rocked like a baby and engaging in toddler like, sensory activities, such as using their hands to paint. As Linnet McMahon writes,

“Regressive play forms a crucial part of primary experience. It can help to restore missed sensory experiences”. (McMahon, 1992)

These sensory experiences are also important in helping the child find ways of regulating themselves. For the children I work with this aspect of play is very important as they need to be in a calm, regulated state in order to achieve the most basic tasks such as getting dressed or eating breakfast.

There are many different theories of play, trying to answer why it is that children play. Schiller (2008) argues that play is the result of burning off surplus energy, he said;

“Play is the aimless expenditure of exuberant energy…children and young animals, not concerned with self-preservation, have surplus energy and they expended it through play”. (Schiller, in Play Therapy Theories, 2008)

This may certainly have some truth to it but it only accounts for play being a physical release whereas I believe that in children’s development, play can help their emotional and mental growth, as well as their physical well- being. Similarly, Karl Groos (1901), wrote that play was ‘pre-exercise’, an extension of survival skills. Again this is a theory which focuses solely on the physical benefits of play rather than including the other important elements of development that play can assist with. Another theory is by Moritz Lazarus (1883) who argued that play was a way of relaxing from the pressures of daily life. This is an important part of play, to allow children to relax and switch off from reality. Particularly for emotionally traumatised children it is a necessary release, although for all children this is vital for enjoyment in their lives.

“Playing is integral to children’s enjoyment of their lives, their health and their development. Children…whatever their age, culture, ethnicity or social and economic background, need and want to play, indoors and out, in whatever way they can”. (Play England, 2015)

Donald Winnicott was a paediatrician and psychoanalysst who felt that play was central to the therapeutic experience for children. He believed that through play, children are able to bridge the gap between their inner world and the outer reality. This was often helped by the use of a transitional object, i.e. a teddy bear or blanket. This gradual comprehension of the world as it is versus the child’s inner world is an important developmental step for children. Some of the children I work with may still be learning to cope with this concept and so play, again, can provide help by engaging the child and allowing them to explore their outward reality without fear or anxiety. This ability to play is therefore important to a child’s development. Winnicott wrote;

“Put a lot of store on a child’s ability to play. If a child is playing, there is room for a symptom or two, and if a child is able to enjoy playing, both alone and with other children, there is no very serious trouble afoot”. (Winnicott, in Lanyado, 1987)

Sigmund Freud believed that play is crucial in helping children come to terms with an emotional experience by providing ‘an avenue for wish fulfilment and mastery of traumatic events’. (in UWE 2007) Freud was also convinced that children are able to express aggressive or sexual impulses in a safe way through play. For Freud, play was something cathartic that could help children deal with traumatic events and was therefore able to help them develop, and move on from their difficult past. Play is more than a physical exercise but adds to cognitive development, and could help with emotional and even moral growth. It is this emotional development which I feel is of particular importance for the children I work with. In order for play to effectively contribute to a child’s emotional development it is also important for the adult to understand the communication behind the child’s play so that they can then help the child make sense of their past and make sense of themselves. It is one of the most fundamental tasks of my work with traumatised children, to understand their behaviour as communication. Play is one of the best ways to allow a child to communicate, without it feeling overwhelming or making them struggle to put difficult feelings in to words. It is because of Freud’s understanding of play as a cathartic exercise that a psychoanalytical approach to child analysis developed which used play as a means of understanding a child’s unconscious motivations.

Melanie Klein continued and added to Freud’s theory in her own work. Klein believed that toys provided children with a vocabulary with which to express themselves. In the same way that free association is used with adults, so play can be a way of gauging a child’s thought process. Klein thought that ‘in order to understand the internal world we need to pay attention to what the child is expressing in symbolic terms’ (in UWE 2007). This theory is particularly relevant for the children I work with, who have suffered from emotional trauma, and who may find it particularly difficult to consciously think about and express past experiences. In this sense play is therapy for the children. In ‘The Handbook of Play Therapy’ it reiterates this idea;

Children who have had a difficult or distressing time, or who have suffered a painful separation or loss, may use play to help them come to terms with their experience. Unlike adults who can run things over in their minds, children need to externalise their thoughts through play”. (McMahon, 1992)

This highlights the importance of play for the particular children I work with, in helping to overcome their painful experiences, which in turn helps them to continue to develop emotionally, mentally, and physically. It is important, however, I think, to understand that play is in itself a therapeutic, healing activity for children. I believe play is supportive, regardless of whether an adult is able to observe and understand the child’s unconscious thought processes which may be directing their actions.

By taking in to account the numerous theories for play, I think that play is of the utmost importance for the development of the children I work with, with the potential to have a positive impact on their physical, mental and emotional development. Play can be a good influence for children in many ways. For the children I work with I think that the role it has in helping to develop relationships is particularly important, as well as being a means of communication, and most importantly for the child, it is in itself a healing process.

“Play is not a mindless filling of time or a rest from work. It is a spontaneous and active process in which thinking, feeling and doing can flourish since they are separated from the fear of failure or disastrous consequences…In the process we change ourselves and our view of the world. We dare to change because our autonomy is not threatened or challenged. On the contrary, the process of playing gives the glorious sensation of increased autonomy. Play can be deeply satisfying”. (McMahon, 1992)

As McMahon writes, play is certainly more than ‘a mindless filling of time or rest from work’, but an activity which is itself worthy or recognition. I hope I have made clear the various ways in which I believe play, both formal and informal, to be important for the development of the children that I work with. I believe that a quote from Winnicott best sums up the importance of play in the following;

“On the basis of playing is built the whole of man’s experiential existence”.                              (Winnicott, in Lanyado, 1987)



Groos, K. (1901) The Play of Man, New York, Appleton.

Lanyado, M. (1987) Asymbolic and symbolic play: Developmental perspectives in the treatment of disturbed children, Journal of Child Psychotherapy, DOI: 10.1080/007541788708254804.

McMahon, L. (1992) The Handbook of Play Therapy, London, Routledge.

McMahon, L. (2009) The Handbook of Play Therapy and Therapeutic Play, London, Routledge.

Power, T.G. (2000) Play and Exploration in Children and Animals, London, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

The Mulberry Bush Training. (2007) Who Will Play With Me?, University of the West of England.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wellesley. (2008) A (very) Brief History of Play and Play Therapy Theories, http://www.geocities.com/Wellesley/9158/play.htm?20089



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