Theorizing about play: Critique and direction

Lynn A. Barnett

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper presents a review of the extant theoretical models of play behavior. Play theories can be clustered insofar as they suggest different motivations and presuppose distinct underlying mechanisms for playful behavior. The biological view sees the motivation to play as instinctually determined and suggests a genetically inherited predisposition to emit playful responses. The play theories discussed under this heading stress the importance of homeostatic mechanisms and the transformation of energy states as determining when play will occur. The play theories subsumed under the environmental view focus on the typology of play activities and suggest that play is only a subclass of behavior to which the principles of environmental contingencies and reinforcement in learning also apply. Cognitive explanations impart the causation to play as a function of the information‐processing mechanisms of the individual. Within this framework play is defined as a state of mind rather than an activity and it is the player's perception of his environment, in interaction with cognitive processes, which determines the characterization of a playful response. Although the theoretical models of play are discussed within these three perspectives, it is suggested that it is more useful to view these three headings as lying on a continuum, since a review of the theories shows a gradual transition and later cognitive‐based models still presume an internal biological drive. The difficulties with each perspective are discussed and a synthesis is provided which extrapolates some of the tenets of each of the models, as well as presenting an alternative and interactive view of play behavior.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)113-129
Number of pages17
JournalLeisure Sciences
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1978


  • Biological base of play
  • Cognitive explanation of play
  • Environmental base of play
  • Play
  • Psychology
  • Theories of play

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Science (miscellaneous)
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Tourism, Leisure and Hospitality Management


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