Play is one of the most defining features of childhood in Western society. It is something that all children have in common and what makes a child's world different from adults. In answering the question, this essay will first examine the different opinions held by theorists as to why children play. I will then look at role play, which is one of the many types of play that children engage in. Finally I will look at children's play as a social process using examples from other cultures and then briefly consider the reasons that children themselves believe they play.
It is wrong to assume that children have always played. Historian, Aries (1962 in Book 1 Understanding Childhood Chapter 2) claimed that childhood was a social construction and that the view of childhood as a separate state did not occur until around the 16th and 17th century - before this, children were economically useful and not valued for the simple joy that children can bring.
This was further illustrated by Mayhew (1861 in Book 1 Understanding Childhood Chapter 1), who's observations from his meeting with the watercress girl led him to state that she had been deprived of her childhood. This was largely due to the fact that the girl's work responsibilities did not allow time for play and she had no knowledge of parks or anything associated with play. From this it could be deduced that Mayhew felt children should play. Mayhew's example also showed that play is a social construction, as although it was clear that the 'watercress girl' did not play, the fact that Mayhew suggests this is abnormal may simply be constructed from his own opinions that childhood should be a time of play.
One of the first attempts to explain the importance of play came from...