10 Play Theory

Carrie Lewis Miller

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” ~George Bernard Shaw

Play theory generally refers to cognitive development in younger children. Building off of Vygotsky’s theory of cognition, Play Theory hypothesizes that play is an important component of both language development and understanding the external world as children play, and role play, situations to find solutions. The social interaction of children’s play increases their learning as they experiment, fail, receive feedback, revise their strategies, and reattempt play.  Problem-solving, therefore, is an essential part of play that allows the child to hone their performance during play. Imaginative play is also important to cognitive development because it allows children to enhance their language and problem-solving skills.

If we look at game mechanics and the elements that are present in most games, we will see an overlap with play theory.  Experiment, failing, receiving feedback, revising strategies, and reattempting play are all components of games.

What differences do you see between play and games?

Although Play Theory is generally used in reference to Early Childhood Education, clear parallels exist between Play Theory and Game-Based Learning.   Play, whether it is gameplay or other forms of play, creates an environment of low-pressure learning, allowing for failure to become a learning opportunity.  Play creates trust and relationships, increasing cooperation and collaboration.  Play also enhances creativity and innovative thinking through problem-solving and the use of imaginative strategies.  In adult learning experiences, play can create an environment of “fun, spontaneity, relationship and connection, silliness or goofiness, creativity, and imagination. Furthermore, play and playfulness were most frequently manifested in the classroom through risk-taking, storytelling, and physical activities” (Tanis, 2012, p. iii).


Tanis, D. J. (2012). Exploring play/playfulness and learning in the adult and higher education classroom.


Recommended Supplementary Material

  • Mercer, T. G., Kythreotis, A. P., Stolte, T., Robinson, Z. P., George, S. M., & Haywood, S. K. (2017). The Use of Educational Game Design and Play in Higher Education to Influence Sustainable Behaviour. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 18(3).





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Game Based and Adaptive Learning Strategies Copyright © 2021 by Carrie Lewis Miller is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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