Is Playing Frivolous?

Most parents implore their children to first do their homework and their chores before they are permitted to play. “Work before play” is also a well-heeded self-edict of many adults. Are these premises correct? Could play activities actually be essential to learning and a valuable part of maturation that promotes healthy intellectual and emotional development?

Our survival instinct propels us toward activities that preserve our existence. Work is one of the main endeavors that secures our physical, intellectual and emotional wellbeing but is not the exclusive method for safeguarding our healthy existence.

In “The Genesis of Animal Play”, Gordon Burghardt lists the five aspects of play: “1. The adaptive functions of play are not fully evident at the time of play. 2. Play is a spontaneous activity done because it is pleasurable. 3. Play is an exaggerated and imitated form of adult activities. 4. Play includes many repetitive activities. 5. Animals must be well-fed, comfortable, healthy and stress-free for play to occur.”

In “The Archeology of Mind” Jaak Panksepp writes, “Why does a PLAY urge exist? It probably enables the young to learn nonsocial physical skills like hunting, foraging, and so on. It is also important for acquiring many social capacities, especially nascent aggressive, courting, sexual, competitive and perhaps even parenting skills.”

He adds, “Primates’ basic needs for social warmth, support and affiliation must be fulfilled before they feel playful again.”  He extrapolates, “It is to be expected that human children would behave in much the same way.”

It appears that primates including humans gain many practical, social and emotional skills through play with peers that enhances their development in preparation for adulthood and beyond.

Albert Einstein viewed group play as paramount to cognitive development. He stated, “Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.”

Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. summarized the value of play activities throughout life this way, “Men do not quit playing because they grow old; they grow old because they quit playing.” This quip succinctly depicts the value of play as an essential activity beyond childhood and throughout life.

Jaak Panksepp summarizes, “Play may consolidate the diverse behavioral components of different emotions under the sway of feelings of social joy, allowing children to develop habitual creative positive ways of responding to their physical and social environments. Because PLAY is so important in cementing friendships, it is a central element in allowing children to mature and function effectively outside the family arena.”

Perhaps parents and other adults should reconsider their view of play not as a frivolous activity but as an essential aspect of child development and adult maturation. We may be wise to promote playfulness, laughter, social cooperation, group physical activities and interactive sharing as valuable developmental and stabilizing activities that facilitate our lifelong skill development, interpersonal connection and human emotional bonding.


  • Encourage children to become responsible and promote their play activities.
  • Accept that play can be essential to both a child’s development and an adult’s maturation.
  • Engage in socializing and play activities for your own health, joy and interpersonal connectedness.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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