The Role of Play in Human Development

The Role of Play in Human Development

Pellegrini, A.D.

New York: Oxford University Press, 2009


From the perspective of an educational psychologist, ‘play’ plays a crucial role in children’s development, especially for those who have learning and developmental disorders such as ADHD, ADD and autism spectrum disorders. During consultations with parents who reside in the region of Hong Kong I am often asked about how best to develop appropriate play skills. This book is must-read for researchers and specialists who are interested in this area. Pellegrini stresses the benefits and the role of play in education with well-referenced examples in the field of psychology, sociology and child development.


Children’s play, this book makes clear, can be a serious matter. Views are polarized between disciples who believe that all play is always good for all children, and target-driven practitioners who regard it as a distraction from achieving all-important learning outcomes. Others see it as simply not worth academic discussions (including the editors of five of the six editions of the Handbook of Child Psychology). Research on play is not constrained by disciplinary boundaries, extending from the literatures on evolutionary psychology and animal behavior to sociology and child development. This meticulously researched book is therefore welcome.


Pellegrini defines play as meeting two criteria: first, the means are more important than the ends; second, the orientation is non-functional, as in rough-and-tumble play, where there is no intention to hurt each other, although some aspects resemble genuine fighting. This implies no lack of purpose; different forms of play can have immediate or deferred benefits. Early chapters cover definitions and theories of play, and one discusses epigenetic theories, arguing that play enables children to experiment with novel behavior, which in some circumstances an change practice in adult life. This has gender implications, with fairly consistent differences in boys’ and girls’ play and games.


The discussion on the role of play in education should interest teachers who pick up the pieces after children have experienced failure and/or presented significant behavior problems at school. In pre-schoolers but not older children, pretend play is good predictors of reading-relayed measures of literacy. Unfortunately, when too many adults are present they can inhibit pretend play- a salutary reminder for those who ‘guide’ young children’s play. Pellegrini argues that play during break time (or ‘recess’) maximizes social and cognitive aspects of school performance; yet break time is apparently being reduced in the USA and the UK.


The author draws from a variety of disciplines in submitting theory, rhetoric and ideology to the test of empirical research. The book is well produced, referenced and indexed and will be essential reading for researchers and practitioners with a particular interest in play, but the wealth of detail may make it less accessible to non-specialists.