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1. a. Active bodily exercise or movement; brisk and vigorous action of the body or limbs, as in fighting, fencing, dancing, leaping, etc. Also fig. Now only in HAND-PLAY n. In Old English freq. as the second element in compounds.
b. The action of lightly and briskly wielding or plying a weapon in fencing or combat. Freq. as the second element in compounds, as lind-play, sabre-play, sword-play, etc.
c. Ornithol. The mating display of a male bird; (in quots.) the elaborate courtship display of the male capercaillie. Obs.
2. In form plaw. An act or example of boiling; effervescence; ebullition. Obs. (Eng. regional (E. Anglian) in later use).
3. a. Action, operation, activity, working (often implying rapid movement, rapid change, or variety). Freq. with of. Recorded earliest in to keep (a person) play at sense 3b. Usually of something abstract, but formerly also of a person or concrete thing.
b. to hold (also keep) in play: to keep (a person, military force, etc.) occupied or engaged; to distract, delay, or keep at bay (an enemy) by doing this. Also to keep (a person) play.
c. to bring (also call, put) into (also in) play: to bring into operation, make active, begin to exercise. to come into (also in) play: (chiefly of a thing) to come into operation or effect, become active. The precise sense in quot. 1568 is unclear.
d. (In later use perh. influenced by sense 9d.)
(a) out of play: not in operation or effect, inactive; (formerly also) unoccupied, out of employment or office (obs.).
(b) in (full) play: in operation or effect, active; (formerly also) actively engaged or employed (obs.).
e. to make play.
(a) To act effectively, produce an effect; to hasten or hurry on, make good progress; spec. (Horse Racing and Hunting) to exercise pursuers or followers.
(b) To keep an adversary engaged. Cf. sense 3b. Obs.
(c) to make (great) play with (also of): to use (an idea, circumstance, etc.) freely and with a view to advantage; to make much of, exploit.
f. at play: (of a process or factor) in effect, action, or operation; at work.
4. a. Rapid, brisk, or light movement, usually quickly changing or intermittent; elusive change or transition of light or colour; light motion about or impact upon something.
b. Play of light or colour (see sense 4a). Obs.
5. a. Free action; freedom, opportunity, or room for action; scope for activity.
b. Free or unimpeded movement, esp. from or about a fixed point; the proper or possible movement of a mechanism or a part of a living body. Now chiefly used for the movement of muscles in the human body.
c. Esp. in a joint, mechanism, etc.: freedom or room for movement; the space in or through which a thing can or does move.
d. slang (orig. U.S.). Attention or patronage; a show of interest; publicity.
  • II. Exercise or action for enjoyment or recreation, and related senses.
6. a. Exercise or activity engaged in for enjoyment or recreation rather than for a serious or practical purpose; amusement, entertainment, diversion; (in later use esp.) the spontaneous or organized recreational activity of children; (colloq.) an instance or period of such activity. at play: engaged in playing. In early use also occas.: profligate indulgence, revelling (obs.).
b. Enjoyment, pleasure, joy, delight; a source of delight. Obs. (Sc. in later use).
c. Sexual activity or dalliance; foreplay; amorous recreation. In Old English in hight-play (cf. HIGHT n.3).
7. a. A particular sport, game, pastime, or recreational activity. Now chiefly Psychol. In Old English also as the second element in compounds.
b. Chiefly Sc. A rural entertainment or festivity; a country fair, esp. one involving games, pageantry, drama, etc. Obs.
8. a. Jest, fun, sport; trifling. Freq. in in play: in jest, as a joke.
b. play of words n. an act of playing or trifling with words; the use of words merely or mainly for the purpose of producing a rhetorical effect. Now rare.
c. a play on (also upon) words n. a pun; a playful use of (esp. similar-sounding) words to convey a double meaning or produce a humorous effect. Cf. wordplay n. at WORD n. and int. Compounds 2.
9. a. The activity of playing a sport or game; physical recreation, sport. ball play: see BALL n.1 Compounds 1; child's play: see CHILD n. 18; boys'-play: see BOYS' PLAY n.
b. Manner or style of playing; skill in playing.
c. Cards. The laying of a card, esp. with a particular strategy in mind; an action or manoeuvre in a game.
d. Sport. in (also out of) play: (of a ball, etc.) available to be played (or not played) according to the rules of the game; being within (or outside) the boundaries of the playing area; (hence) the playing area, the pitch.
e. Business. The state or position of a company open to a takeover bid. Usu. in in (also into, out of) play.
10. a. An act or proceeding, esp. of a treacherous, crafty, or underhand kind; manner of action, method of proceeding; a trick, dodge, racket, scam. Now chiefly U.S. slang.
b. A magic spell; a conjuring trick. Obs.
11. The playing of a game or games for money, a prize, etc.; gaming, gambling; betting. Obs.
12. Sc. while the play is good (also best): before the situation becomes serious, dangerous, or unpleasant. rare.
13. a. Eng. regional in later use. The condition of being absent from work, esp. through unemployment, illness, or as the result of industrial action; a holiday. Obs.
b. the play n. Sc. holiday from school.
14. Cards. In the game of beast: the pile of cards picked up by the player who has won the most tricks. Obs. rare.
15. a. slang (orig. U.S.). An attempt to achieve or gain something; a move, a manoeuvre, a venture; spec. (a) Baseball an action in which a player is put out; (b) N. Amer. Sport an attacking move in a team game; (c) an attempt to sexually attract another person. Freq. in to make a play (for).
b. Oil Industry (orig. U.S.). An investment or development opportunity; a commercial venture the success of which depends upon speculation.
16. a. A dramatic or theatrical performance staged before an audience; an acted representation of an action or story; (now also) a drama broadcast on television, radio, etc. In early use also: a display or spectacle; dramatic or theatrical performance; acting (obs.) In recent use sometimes contrasted with musical (MUSICAL n. 3b).
b. In extended use: a performance, a proceeding; a piece of action in real life. Obs. rare.
c. a play within a (also the) play: a play acted as part of the action of another play. Also with the, usually with reference to Shakespeare's Hamlet.
d. as good as a play: very entertaining or amusing.
17. A literary composition in the form of dialogue, intended for performance before an audience.
  • IV. The playing of music or a musical or other recording.
18. a. Performance on a musical instrument. Cf. PLAYING n. Obs.
b. colloq. The act of playing a record, video cassette, compact disc, etc.
19. [Partly < PLAY v. (see sense 21c at that entry), and partly short for play button at PLAY v. Compounds 2.] The control on a tape player, video recorder, etc., used to initiate playing.


Play is a rite and a quality of mind in engaging with one's worldview. Play refers to a range of voluntary, intrinsically motivated activities that are normally associated with pleasure and enjoyment.[1] Play may consist of amusing, pretend or imaginary interpersonal and intrapersonal interactions or interplay. The rites of play are evident throughout nature and are perceived in people and animals, particularly in the cognitive development and socialization of those engaged in developmental processes and the young. Play often entertains props, tools, animals, or toys in the context of learning and recreation. Some play has clearly defined goals and when structured with rules is entitled a game. Whereas, some play exhibits no such goals nor rules and is considered to be "unstructured" in the literature.

Concerted endeavor has been made to identify the qualities of play, but this task is not without its ambiguities. For example, play is commonly perceived as a frivolous and non-serious activity; yet when watching children at play, one can observe the transfixed seriousness and entrancing absorption with which they engage in it. Other criteria of play include a relaxed pace and freedom versus compulsion. Yet play seems to have its intrinsic constraints as in, "You're not playing fair."

When play is structured and goal orientated it is often presented as a game. Play can also be seen as the activity of rehearsing life events e.g. young animals play fighting. Play may also serve as a pretext, allowing people to explore reactions of others by engaging in playful interaction. Flirting, is an example of such behavior. These and other concepts or rhetorics of play are discussed at length by Brian Sutton-Smith in the book The Ambiguity of Play. Sometimes play is dangerous, such as in extreme sports. This type of play could be considered stunt play, whether engaging in play frighting, sky-diving, or riding a device at high speed in an unusual manner.

Childhood and play

Play is freely chosen, intrinsically motivated and personally directed. Playing has been long recognized as a critical aspect of Child development. Some of the earliest studies of play started in the 1890s with G. Stanley Hall, the father of the child study movement that sparked an interest in the developmental, mental and behavioral world of babies and children. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) published a study in 2006 entitled: "The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds". The report states: "free and unstructured play is healthy and - in fact - essential for helping children reach important social, emotional, and cognitive developmental milestones as well as helping them manage stress and become resilient" [5] Many of the most prominent researchers in the field of psychology (including Jean Piaget, William James, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Lev Vygotsky) have viewed play as endemic to the human species; indeed, the attributions projected upon an imaginary friend by children are key to understanding the construction of human spirituality and it pantheon(s) of deification (and demonization).

Play is explicitly recognized in Article 31 of The Convention on the Rights of the Child (adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations, November 29, 1989). which states: Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.

Parties shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activities.

Childhood 'play' is also seen by Sally Jenkinson (author of The Genius of Play) to be an intimate and integral part of childhood development. "In giving primacy to adult knowledge, to our 'grown-up' ways of seeing the world, have we forgotten how to value other kinds of wisdom? Do we still care about the small secret corners of children's wisdom?"[6] Modern research in the field of 'affective neuroscience' has uncovered important links between role playing and neurogenesis in the brain.[7] Sociologist Roger Caillois coined the word "ilinx" to describe the momentary disruption of perception that comes from forms of physical play that disorient the senses, especially balance. In addition evolutionary psychologists have begun to expound the phylogenetic relationship between higher intelligence in humans and its relationship to play.

Stevanne Auerbach mentions the role of play therapy in treating children suffering from traumas, emotional issues, and other problems.[8] She also emphasizes the importance of toys with high play value for child development and the role of the parent in evaluating toys and being the child's play guide.

Sudbury model of democratic education schools assert that play is a big part of life at their schools where it is seen as a serious business. They maintain that play is always serious for kids, as well as for adults who haven't forgotten how to play, and much of the learning going on at these schools is done through play. So they don't interfere with it. Hence play flourishes at all ages, and the graduates who leave these schools go out into the world knowing how to give their all to whatever they're doing, and still remembering how to laugh and enjoy life as it comes. [9]


  1. Garvey, C. (1990). Play. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  2. Nachmanovitch, Stephen, Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art. Tarcher/Penguin 1990.
  5. Ginsburg, Clinical Report, doi:10.1542/peds.2006-2697.
  6. Jenkinson, Sally (2001). The Genius of Play: Celebrating the Spirit of Childhood. Melbourne: Hawthorn Press. ISBN 1-903458-04-8.
  7. Panksepp, Affective Neuroscience 98
  8. Dr. Toy's Smart Play Smart Toys (How To Raise A Child With a HIgh PQ (Play Quotient)). Stevanne Auerbach. 2004. ISBN 1-56767-652-9.
  9. Greenberg, D. (1987) "Play," Free at Last - The Sudbury Valley School.

Further reading

  • Caillois, R. (2001). Man, play, and games. Urbana and Chicago, University of Illinois Press (originally published in 1958; translated from the French by Meyer Barash).
  • Huizinga, J. (1955). Homo ludens; a study of the play-element in culture. Boston,, Beacon Press.
  • Jenkinson, Sally (2001). The Genius of Play. Hawthorn Press
  • Sutton-Smith, B. (1997). The ambiguity of play. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.
  • The Genesis of Animal Play: Testing the Limits Gordon M. Burghardt [1]
  • Wenner, M. (2009). "The Serious Need for Play" - Free, imaginative play is crucial for normal social, emotional and cognitive development. It makes us better adjusted, smarter and less stressed, Scientific American.
  • Gray, P. (2008-2009). "Social Play and the Genesis of Democracy", "The Value of Play I: The Definition of Play Provides Clues to Its Purposes", "The Value of Play II: How Play Promotes Reasoning in Children and Adults", "The Value of Play III: Children Use Play to Confront, not Avoid, Life’s Challenges and Even Life’s Horrors", "The Value of Play IV: Play is Nature’s Way of Teaching Us New Skills", "How to Ruin Children's Play: Supervise, Praise, Intervene", Psychology Today.