Sunday, January 16, 2011


Why do people play? As a child, it seems only natural to while away one’s time playing, yet one does not know why. Maybe, because, to a child, play seems like worth and is worthwhile. Or, after the initial instincts of survival, such as consumption of food and going to sleep, the pleasure centers of the brain are some of the first to become developed, resulting in a child’s wanting to engage in pleasure, or in other words, to play.

Why then, do adults still play? It is a common observation that, the older one gets, the less one engages in play, yet it seems that play itself never truly goes away. There are even such phrases as “toys for the big boys”, implying more complex ways to engage in play. Hot Wheels evolve into Ferraris, and video game guns to actual, live firearms. This then implies that play is not merely for the child and is something that, once learned, is perhaps never let go, but only adapted into other forms.

Confusing, is it not? That such a simple thing as play, something that all humans know of and have engaged in since before any of us can remember could be so difficult to define, and perhaps even fully understand. Scientists and philosophers have actually attempted to study this everyday phenomenon and give it a universal definition, but only seem to have made the concept more and more complicated as time passes by.



Children Play ...
The 19th century brought us the Surplus Energy Theory, which assumes that energy is produced at a constant rate and can be stored. However, energy storage capacity within humans is limited, and so excess energy is released in the form of play. A variation of this theory also suggests that some responses available to the human body, such as running wild, yelling out loud, and so on, are rarely utilized, and so must be released after a period of deprivation, in the form of play.

The primary criticism of this is that children (and sometimes even adults) play even when fatigued. They play for the activity itself, and not because of some energy that needs to be expended or some response within themselves that they rarely use. In fact, in this day and age, fatigue is often the reason for many individuals to engage in play. After a long day’s work, many individuals will just plop down onto their couches, put on their favorite video game, and play their fatigue away.


Another classic theory of play is the Instinct Theory, in that it is in our instinct to perform certain acts that our ancestors developed, yet we now rarely utilize, such as climbing the monkey bars. These skills are imprinted into our genetic code and must be utilized in some form or another. The problem with this theory is that it appears to classify play in very limited activities, such as those in a playground or possible sports setting. As time passes, however, more and more ways to play become invented, such as the aforementioned example of video games, that are obviously not imprinted within our genes as instincts.


The Preparation Theory states that one plays in order to prepare oneself for later responsibilities in life, so it classifies play as a sort of make believe reality that children engage in to develop real-world skills. As mentioned, people do not stop playing even upon reaching adulthood, which is pretty much the major thorn in this theory’s side.


There is also something called the Recapitulation Theory, which is similar to the Instinct theory in that man apparently has to act out all of the behaviors learned through the many years of evolution. However, since many of these behaviors are no longer relevant in modern society, they have to be utilized in other ways, such as in play. The criticism against this is also the same as in the Instinct theory, where some modern ways to play, such as video games, were not learned through our species’ evolution.
... and so do adults!


The final Classic Theory of play is one that is possibly the most relatable amongst all of these, which is the Relaxation Theory. It states that people play in order to recuperate from other activities, such as work. Though many can relate to this, it is not without its criticisms. It does not explain why very young children still engage in play, since they have no responsibilities that need recuperating from, such as work.



More recent theories of play include the Generalization Theory which states that there are skills or experiences we have learned in the work environment that we want to utilize in other times of the day. Again, like the Relaxation Theory, it does not explain why very young children play, since they have not experienced working environments yet.


The Compensation Theory is pretty much the opposite of the Generalization Theory. It states that there are needs people have that are not met in the working environment, but are met during play. It has the exact same criticism, however, in that it, again, ignores the circumstances of very young children.


The Catharsis Theory states that play is a way to release aggression that all humans have, but in a sanctioned environment. The primary criticism is, of course, that not all forms of play are ways to release aggression, such as in chess, or other activities people may enjoy that require relaxation and concentration.
Do people play sports to release aggression?


The Psychoanalytic Theory states that people engage in play to escape some sort of past unpleasantness, either by reenacting it in a positive manner, or performing activities that make one forget them. It, however, ignores that fact that not all people play in order to escape some dark, past trauma. Many play because they simply want to, and not because of any past negativity.


The Developmental Theory states that play is a result of the growing intellect of a person during maturity. The older one gets, the more complicated play seems to become. However, it does not take into account that, despite the fact that intellect can grow only so far in humans, play can still evolve and become further complicated, partly because of the advancements of technology.


The Learning Theory states that play is mostly a reaction of sorts to a person’s environment, in that a person learns from his or her environments during as they mature, and these learned behaviors are manifested in play. The theory, however, ignores a person’s instincts and how they contribute to play.



The most modern theories of play include the Arousal – Seeking Theory and the Competence Theory. The latter states that play exists to enhance the arousal of a person within certain environments. This is most applicable to thrill seekers who enjoy such things as Extreme Sports, sky diving, base jumping, and the like. This theory appears to have the least amount of criticism, outside of the fact that there is still very little research pertaining to it compared to the others. Its best aspect is that it recognizes that arousal levels and related reactions are different for each individual, which explains different forms of play and their settings.


The Competence Theory states that play is based on the need to produce certain effects within the environment, such as an increase in a certain type of skill. It is perhaps the most relatable to those who have turned their preferred modes of play into something more serious, such as professional athletes. The primary criticism against this Theory is that, like the Arousal – Seeking Theory, it lacks research.


I suppose if I would relate my personal experiences to the theories stated above, I would first of all go with the Relaxation Theory. One of the modes of play I primarily engage in is video games. I have utilized it to recuperate the stresses of reality, whether it be school or work, and still do to this day. Currently, though, I apply this theory primarily to the graduate classes I am taking, since they may sometime become stressful in their own way. I counter this by relaxing with my current favorite video game and eliminate any stress that I may have.

Another theory that I believe applies to me is the Competence Theory. I started my blog as an interesting experiment to see if I would enjoy it and possibly make something of it. Now, I find that it is an excellent way to increase my skills as a writer and as communicator to others, and one that I genuinely enjoy. I enjoy it so much that I indeed can classify blogging as a form of play for myself. This goes the same for my aims and goals for personal fitness, whether for myself or for others. I have always been interested in fitness and genuinely enjoy reaching higher physical levels. Thus, I try to learn as many skills health and fitness skills as I can throughout my life out of a genuine sense of interest.

Why do you play?
One final theory I can relate to is the Arousal – Seeking Theory, which I experience when I am performing my exercises, especially on the heavy bag. When I practice my martial arts techniques, I imagine that I am one of my movie idols, such as Bruce Lee, and it excites me, though in reality I know that I am nowhere near that level of skill. Nonetheless, I feel a high sense of arousal and enjoyment when I perform martial arts, and thus it feels like yet another form of play for me. I also feel similarly when I go the distance on my other exercises, such as going all out in Tabata Intervals or in my strength training. There is a certain limit to physical training that many people are afraid to go near, yet something that I am always excited to try and exceed.

As you can see, there are many ways to view play, and each theory need not be viewed on its own. Every person is different, whether because of age, or culture, and so one may find that one or two out of these many theories apply to them the best though it may be entirely different to others.

Why do you play?

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Hello, I'm Noel Blanco and I write Fitness Philippines. I have been involved in physical fitness for more than 10 years now and am currently taking up graduate studies on Exercise and Sports Science at the University of the Philippines. You can contact me at
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