Research on Children’s Play: Analysis of Developmental
and Early Education Journals from 2005 to 2007
Mei-Fang Cheng • James E. Johnson
Published online: 2 October 2009
Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2009
Abstract Our review examined four early childhood
journals (Early Child Development and Care, Early Childhood Education Journal, Journal of Research in Childhood
Education, and Early Childhood Research Quarterly) and
four developmental science journals (Child Development,
Developmental Psychology, Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, and Merrill Palmer Quarterly) from
2005 to 2007. Only 57 articles out of over 1,000 (conservative estimate) included the term ‘play’ in the title, abstract
or as a key word. Of these 57 articles, only 19 were primarily
focused on play, 16 from ECE journals and only three from
developmental science journals (Z = 2.43, p.05). While
the ECE journals drew implications for practice, the
developmental science journals did not. Seven ECE journal
articles dealt with the concept of play in education and four
other ECE journal articles covered play and literacy. The
findings suggest the need for more careful use of the term
play in early education and child development studies and a
reevaluation of rationales and methods for its study.
Keywords Play research Early education
Many studies concerning children’s play have been published in early education and developmental journals, and
there have been many research reviews in secondary sources, e.g., Young Children (Nourot and Hoorn 1991) and
tertiary sources, e.g., Encyclopedia on Early Childhood
Development (Smith and Pellegrini 2008). In the educational field, play remains a topic of interest, and many
researchers have surveyed the study of play. For example,
Sutton-Smith (1983) reviewed play research articles and
books cited in Children’s Play (Herron and Sutton-Smith
1971) and in the chapter on play in Handbook of Child
Psychology (Rubin et al. 1983) from before 1900 to the
1970s. He found that there was a jump in play studies
beginning in the 1930s, and that the 1970s had the greatest
quantity of research on play, about 200 articles. This play
research can be categorized according to five aspects—
psychodynamic, correlational, pragmatic, Piagetian, and
experimental studies. Sutton-Smith also emphasized that
there were many play studies in other areas, e.g. anthropological-folkloric, animal, socio-psychological, gestalt,
historical, theoretical, and communicational fields, were not
included in his study.
Roskos and Christie (2001) more recently conducted a
play-literacy review by examining their interface based on
four criteria: (1) implicit or explicit assumption of play-literacy connections; (2) publications in the PsychINFO and
ERIC online databases and edited books (e.g., Roskos and
Christie 2000; Spodek and Saracho 1998) between 1992 and
2000; (3) presentation as a research report; and (4) emphasis
on early childhood. They used critical analysis to evaluate
these studies, challenging both what was said (i.e., the
claims) and also what was not said or addressed. Their results
showed that the major claims in 12 out of the 20 articles were
sound and complete. These 12 studies had strong evidence
supporting the claim that play can serve literacy, because
play (1) provides settings that promote literacy activity,
skills, and strategies; (2) serves as a language experience that
can build connections between oral and written modes of
expressions; and (3) provides opportunities to teach and
M.-F. Cheng (&) J. E. Johnson
The Pennsylvania State University, 145 Chambers,
University Park, NE 16802, USA
e-mail: [email protected]
Early Childhood Educ J (2010) 37:249–259
learn literacy. However, they also found that there were
limitations and unsolved issues in these studies, e.g., concerns about definitions, theories, and methodology; a lack of
progress in establishing causal connections with development; and the dominance of ‘‘play as progress’’ rhetoric.
Ahn and Johnson (2005) reviewed 37 play articles from
three child developmental journals and three early childhood education journals from 2000 to 2004. The purposes
of the study were to examine how well these studies situated play and described specified play materials. By analyzing participants, research questions, play situations, play
materials, and research methods, they found that: (1) more
than half of these studies observed children’s play during
classroom free play period in early childhood education
settings, which was good because it meant that children
could initiate their own play; (2) most studies were crosssectional rather than longitudinal designs; and (3) play
materials were not specified adequately—many studies did
not even provide information about toys. In conclusion,
Ahn and Johnson advocated better descriptions of materials
and longitudinal studies in the future.
In another recent study, Oliver and Klugman (2007)
performed an electronic search using Google Scholar on
children’s play research from the 1990s to 2005. They
found that more than 1,500 play studies were published in
the 1990s, and this number increased by almost the same
pace in 2000 to 2005, with approximately 200 articles
published per year. However, cognitive and school-related
early childhood topics (e.g., No Child Left Behind, school
readiness, and early literacy) were topics that increased
rapidly, much more so than play research. They concluded
that, in order to respond to federal legislation requirements
and to build a play research agenda, play studies have to
ask new questions in two directions: (1) What works and
what does not work, before taking the chance of experimenting in the classroom? (2) How can we best incorporate
what we know about play into teacher training so early
childhood educators can make better use of play in the
classroom and show results?
Kuschner (2007) analyzed play articles in the journal of
Young Children from 1973 to 2002 to see how play was
explicitly or implicitly portrayed and why it was valued.
He identified 101 articles as play articles because they
specifically focused on the topic of play itself or on a
material typically provided for children’s play, and he
excluded articles mentioned or discussed within the context
of other topics. In other words, he selected only those
articles that by title or primary content were specifically
about some aspect of children’s play. He was interested in
underlying themes or images of play being communicated
in these articles, and his results showed that three themes
emerged: (1) Why should play be included in the curriculum? The majority of articles emphasized the value of play
for the purpose of enhancing intellectual and academic
development. (2) There was an emphasis on the universal
child; very few articles related to cultural differences,
multicultural education, or diversity. (3) Play that conforms
to the behavioral and academic expectations of school is
valued over the sometimes unruly, messy, and aggressive
play that often emerges naturally from children’s interests
and experiences. And finally, he raised the question about
whether we can support the developmental values of play
and use it in education without destroying its very nature.
Recently, two Canadian early childhood organizations,
The Early Childhood Learning Knowledge Centre (ECLKC;
Centres/EarlyChildhoodLearning) and the Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development (CEECD; website:
www.excellence-earlychildhood.ca) worked on identifying
key research on learning through play. They built a data base
of 84 play-related articles from 2000 to 2007 and asked us to
serve as consultants to check the accuracy and thoroughness
of their work. We found that there were 34 articles that were
not related to children’s play, even though some of them
included play as a key word (Cheng and Johnson 2008).
All of these studies of play studies attest to the fact that
play has been a topic of immense importance in early
education and child development research and practice
throughout the twentieth century and into the present
decade. Moreover, the Office of Applied Research, a new
part of the National Association for the Education of
Young Children (NAEYC) working with the Society for
research in Child Development (SRCD) to narrow the gulf
between what we know from research and what we are
using in practice, has focused on play in its first publication
urging this mission. A Mandate for Playful Learning in
Preschool: Presenting the Evidence by Hirsh-Pasek et al.
(2009) cites many recent studies, some published in peer
reviewed journals, but many others in books or edited book
chapters. On the other hand, since the turn of the century a
number of significant trends have conspired to demote play
in early childhood education. Roskos and Christie (2007),
for example, have noted that the rise in standards-based
education and an emphasis on learning and skill development have affected the status of play in a negative
To build on what we have learned from previous looks at
the play archives, this study extends and complements
previous reviews. We are interested in data based articles in
peer reviewed journals only. This is different from the
recent review of Young Children play articles by Kuschner
and the reviews recently conducted by ECLKC and CEECD
in Canada. The present review follows Ahn and Johnson
continuing a review of play studies in juried journals up to a
point closer to the present. In order to clarify the current
status of play in studies, the purpose of this article is to
250 Early Childhood Educ J (2010) 37:249–259
explore the focus of play study conducted by educational
and developmental researchers over the recent 3 year period, 2005–2007. Research questions include: (1) How is
play treated in studies? Is it a means or an end in the
research? (2) Is there a difference in the focus of investigation between educational and developmental researchers?
(3) What topics and themes are coming up in recent articles
about play in peer reviewed journals?
This study analyzed research articles on children’s play
published from 2005 to 2007 in eight journals, including
four developmental journals—Child Development (CD),
Developmental Psychology (DP), Journal of Applied
Developmental Psychology (JADP), and Merrill Palmer
Quarterly (MPQ); and four educational journals—Early
Child Development and Care (ECDC), Early Childhood
Education Journal (ECEJ), Journal of Research in Childhood Education (JRCE), and Early Childhood Research
The rationales to choose these eight journals are (a) they
are widely read and, if not the leading ones, (b) they are
representative of first tier peer-reviewed journals in the
fields of early childhood education and child development.
Further, we were not interested in finding chapters on play
from edited books and non-peer reviewed periodicals so
picking up references using data bases of this type would
not fit our purpose. We know that play is a popular topic to
write about but wondered how often play articles appear
that are data-based from disciplined inquiry and have made
it through a rigorous blind peer review.
The primary focus of the four selected child development category journals is communicating research results
that advance our understanding of the development of
children. An exclusive focus on infancy through adolescence is not necessary, only that the journal is known to
publish many articles that focus on child development (for
example, JADP is a life course/span journal but the
majority of articles are on child development). The title and
the editorial policy statement of these journals are consistent with their reputation as child development journals.
The other four journals classified as early education were
also data based but dealt primarily on child development as
it occurs or is affected by early childhood education as a
setting, institution or process.
The data collection process consisted of first searching
for the key word ‘‘play’’ in the title, descriptors, and
abstracts from these eight journals from 2005 to 2007 in
the ERIC database; results showed that there were 57
play-related articles. We printed out hard copies of these
articles and each of us independently read them and later
discussed how to code and analyze them. In doing this we
were guided by a concern with answering our research
questions concerning how play is defined and studied and
to what end.
There were three steps involved in analyzing these 57
articles. First, we categorized the types of play studies
according to the way that play was featured in these
studies. The criteria to categorize the type of play-related
research included: (1) researchers of these articles indicated the term ‘play’ in the title, descriptors, and abstract,
and discussed it in the literature review, methods, results
and discussion; (2) the way that play was featured across
the sections of the article. The articles with the term ‘play’
associated with it were read carefully with special note
taken of (a) the literature cited in the introduction (e.g.,
were there other play or studies included?), of the way play
was treated in the (b) methods section (e.g., were there
definitions of play given, descriptions of play materials?),
and of the way play was discussed in the (c) results and (d)
discussion sections (e.g., did these sections include a focus
on play results and an interpretation of them?). Inter-rater
reliability was 100% since we jointly discussed the articles
until consensus was reached in coding.
Second, we calculated the percentage of each type of
study in educational or developmental journals in order to
find the difference between the two fields. Third, we conducted a content analysis based on the articles that treated
play as their main research purpose and focused on children to find the trends in recent play study. Content analysis done by the first author was checked with the second
author. A consensus was reached whenever there was initial disagreement. Few disagreements occurred and they
were easily resolved.
Four Types of Play-Related Research
After reviewing these articles carefully, we found that they
could be categorized into four types (see Table 1). Type
One studies treated play as one of the main purposes of the
study and focused on normal developing children. Type
Two studies treated play as a relevant variable in the studies
but not a major focus. In Type Three studies, play was
treated as the research context serving to study other
variables. In the last category, Type Four studies, play was
related to special children and intervention strategies.
Early Childhood Educ J (2010) 37:249–259 251
About 39% of these articles treated play as a research
context (Type Three), followed by 33% that treated play as
a major focus (Type One), 14% that gave play a minor role
(Type Two), and 14% that addressed play related to intervention and special children (Type Four).
Type One studies treated play as the main purpose of the
study and focused on normally developing children. The
researchers of these articles put play in the title, descriptors, and abstract, and discussed it in the literature review,
methods, results and discussion. There were 19 articles
identified in this category. For example, Pramling-Samuelsson and Johansson (2006) argued that play and learning
were inseparable dimensions in preschool practice, based
on their theoretical discussion and empirical study. In the
beginning, they discussed literature regarding play and
learning in detail. Then, they illustrated the prior theoretical discussion with two observations that revealed the
playful processes of interaction between children and
teachers. The purpose, method, results, and discussion of
these two observations showed that both play and learning
were inseparable dimensions in preschool practice. Clearly,
a better understanding of children’s play is the primary
purpose of this study. The articles of Type One studies are
listed in the ‘‘Appendix’’: List of Type One Articles in
Type Two studies viewed play as a related variable but
not the main purpose of the investigation, though play was
a key word. For example, Jones and Lagace-Seguin (2006)
examined the relationships among parental pessimism,
child affect, and children’s well-being. Although they listed play as a descriptor, mentioned it in the abstract, and
discussed it briefly in the body of the paper, play merely
served as an indicator of children’s well-being. In other
words, play had only a minor role in this study. We learn
much less about play itself reading Type Two relative to
Type One studies; Type Two articles were focused on
another construct, not play.
In Type Three studies, play was treated as a research
context in order to study other variables, although play was
included in the title, descriptors, abstract, or content. For
example, Schulz and Bonawitz (2007) investigated how
preschoolers learned cause-effect relations through
exploratory play but still included play as a key word;
actually the cause-effect relationship was the main focus of
this study. Free-play was a research context, but studying
play per se was not the research purpose.
Our content analysis revealed a fourth category of play
research. Type Four studies were all related to special
children or used play as an intervention strategy with
special or at risk child. Studies of this type had a clear
focus: either their participants were special children, or the
purpose was to compare normative children with special or
at risk children, or the study used play as an intervention
strategy. Type Four studies viewed play as a tool to assess
or to intervene with special or at risk children but did not
try to cast light on the phenomena of play itself. To illustrate, Valentino et al. (2006) compared the mother–child
play of infants from maltreating and non-maltreating
families and suggested that the analysis of mother–child
play was useful as a preverbal window into the cognitive
development and representational capacity of both typical
and atypical children.
Focus on Educational and Developmental Journals
The second step of analysis was to compare the focus of
educational and developmental journals (see Table 2). 39%
of the play-related articles appeared in the four developmental journals, and 61% of the articles appeared in the
educational journals. Play-related articles appeared more in
Table 1 Number of articles in four types of play-related studies from 2005 to 2007
Study typejournal name Type one:
a major role
a minor role
a research context
Type four: play related
to intervention and
Child Development (CD) 1 2 3 1 7
Developmental Psychology (DP) 0 2 4 1 7
Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology (JADP) 0 2 3 1 6
Merrill Palmer Quarterly (MPQ) 2 0 0 0 2
Early Child Development and Care (ECDC) 6 1 7 2 16
Early Childhood Education Journal (ECEJ) 5 0 1 1 7
Journal of Research in Childhood Education (JRCE) 3 0 3 1 7
Early Childhood Research Quarterly (ECRQ) 2 1 1 1 5
Total 19 8 22 8 57
Percentage 33 14 39 14 100
252 Early Childhood Educ J (2010) 37:249–259
educational journals than in developmental ones over the
3 years, although this is not statistically significant. The
percentage varied across different types of studies. Type
One studies appeared significantly more (Z = 2.43,
p.05) in educational journals (84%) than in developmental journals (16%). The results of comparing the percentage of journal articles from the two fields for Type
Two, Type Three, and Type Four studies were not statistically significant due to the small sample size.
Content Analysis of Type One Studies
Type One research viewed children’s play as a major
research purpose and focused on normally developing
children; analysis of the content of these studies sought to
identify their characteristics on several categories over the
3 years (see Table 3).
Analyzing the research purposes of these articles, we found
three main topics, which included the concept of play, play and
other variables, and the individual differences in play. First,
seven studies tried to clarify the concept of children’s play (#4,
#5, #6, #8, #12, #17, & #18) and were about such topics as the
following: the relationship between play and learning, the
significance of play and the play environment, children’s
categorizations of play and learning, criteria to categorize
subtypes of play, the definition and reasons for nonsocial play,
the relationship between superhero toys and play, and playful
improvisation as a tool to examine teacher–child interactions.
Second, another seven articles (#1, #7, #9, #11, #13, #15 &
#16) addressed the relationship between play and other variables, especially literacy (the focus of four articles). The topics
included how children construct shared meanings during sibling pretend play, children’s literacy-related play, and the
narratives used in play. The other three studies addressed play
and related factors—parenting styles, negative effects, social
interactions, or the delay of gratification. Third, five studies
tried to understand the individual differences in play (#2, #3,
10, #14, & #19). Four studies examined gender differences in
fantasy play, parents’ or teachers’ attitudes toward play, or
gendered toys and behaviors. One study aimed at developing a
scale to measure the play beliefs of African American mothers.
Definition of Play
Ten out of 19 articles, mostly in educational journals,
defined play by its content of the specific purpose of each
study and particular types of play, e.g., pretend play, literacy-related play, or non-social play. Three researchers
studied ‘‘What is play?’’ as a general research question.
The other six implicitly assumed that readers knew what
play was and did not provide an explicit definition or
illustrate its meaning.
Nine studies included information about time use. Two
studies reported the interviewing time, although seven
studies reported observation time which ranged from 3 min
to 4 months. Four studies observed play for months, three
were based on 3- to 15-min observations, and 10 studies
did not report time in studying children’s play.
Eleven educational articles discussed their findings not
only in relation to research practices and ideas but also in
relation to the educational implications. The major educational implications were: (a) promoting play-based learning
or interactions (#4, #6, #9, & #18), (b) revealing the narrative in play helps children construct meaning (#13 &
#16), (c) understanding the types of nonsocial play to help
the teacher decide whether to intervene or not (#12), (d)
reflecting gender stereotypes in toy choices and play
behaviors (#14), (e) relating play to the delay of gratification (#15), (f) addressing the relationship of superhero
Table 2 Number and percentage of four types of articles in developmental and educational journals
type (journal name)
Type one: play
as a major role
Type two: play
as a minor role
Type three: play
as a research
Type four: play
related to intervention
and special children
Number Percentage Number Percentage Number Percentage Number Percentage Number Percentage
DP, JADP, & MPQ
3 16% 6 75% 10 45% 3 38% 22 39%
ECEJ, JRCE, ECRQ
16 84% 2 25% 12 55% 5 62% 35 61%
Z score 2.43* 1.27 .46 .66 1.62
Total 19 100% 8 100% 22 100% 8 100% 57 100%
* p 8.05
Early Childhood Educ J (2010) 37:249–259 253
toys and play behaviors (#17), and (g) using a play measure
for early assessment and intervention (#19). Not a single
developmental article discussed educational or other
applied implications. Most educational and developmental
articles concluded by addressing research issues and
making suggestions for future research (e.g., need to study
diverse populations to improve generalizations, or the
value of conducting longitudinal designs, etc.).
We found 57 play-related articles in eight leading journals
published in the 3 year period from 2005 to 2007. It
showed that an average of 2.3 articles published per
journal per year, not as many (101 play articles/
30 years = 3.3) as found by Kuschner (2007). We
examined research studies in peer-review journals,
Table 3 Content analysis of type one studies
Research purposes Definition of play Time Educational
1 DJ (CD) Constructing shared meanings during sibling
Define ‘‘pretend play enactment’’ 15 min No
2 DJ (MPQ) Sex differences in fantasy play No definition about ‘‘fantasy play’’
Define ‘‘imaginary companion’’
3 DJ (MPQ) Mothers’ and fathers’ attitudes regarding
No definition NA No
4 EJ (ECDC) Play and learning—inseparable dimensions in
Define play and its specific character NA Yes
5 EJ (ECDC) 1. What is play?
2.What is important in play?
3. Play environment in different time periods
(both parents’ and children’s view)
It is one of the research questions Interview
6 EJ (ECDC) Children’s categorizations of play and learning
based on social context
It is one of the research questions NA Yes
7 EJ (ECDC) The role of a child’s negative affect in the
relations between parenting styles and play
Define ‘‘reticent’’, ‘‘solitary-active’’, &
‘‘rough-and -tumble play’’
8 EJ (ECDC) Criteria used by adults and children to
categorize subtypes of play
Define ‘‘pretend/fantasy play’’ NA No
9 EJ (ECDC) Young children’s literacy-related play Define ‘‘literacy-related play’’ NA Yes
10 EJ (ECEJ) Gender differences in preschool teachers’
attitudes toward children’s play
No definition 45–90 min No
11 EJ (ECEJ) Video games and social interactions No definition 2 months No
12 EJ (ECEJ) Understanding nonsocial play—definition and
Define ‘‘nonsocial play’’ NA Yes
13 EJ (ECEJ) The narratives in imaginary play and the visual
texts created by children
No definition 3 months Yes
14 EJ (ECEJ) Preschoolers’ perceptions of gender appropriate
toys and parents’ beliefs about gendered
What toys children identify as ‘‘girl’’
toys and ‘‘boy’’ toys is one of the
15 EJ (JRCE) Children’s ability to delay gratification and
Define ‘‘make-believe play’’ NA Yes
16 EJ (JRCE) Social literacy to sustain and protect the ‘‘we’’
space created in play
Define ‘‘play’’ 4 months Yes
17 EJ (JRCE) Superhero/non-superhero toys and boys’
physically active and imaginary play
Define ‘‘superhero play’’ Two 8-minplay
18 EJ (ECRQ) Improvisation as a tool to examine teacher–
Define ‘‘improvisation’’ 16 weeks Yes
19 EJ (ECRQ) To develop and validate a scale measuring play
beliefs of African American mothers
No definition NA Yes
DJ developmental journal, EJ educational journal
254 Early Childhood Educ J (2010) 37:249–259
although Kuschner examined play articles from Young
Children, which aims at communicating latest information
for early childhood practitioners. In other words, play
articles in Young Children are more practice-based
information related to teacher experience and not reports
of evidence-based research.
However, our rate of 2.3 is greater than Ahn and
Johnson’s (2005) 1.2 articles per journal per year studying
six journals (three child development and three early education) over 5 years, 2000–2004. The rate change from 1.2
to 2.3 play articles per journal per year may reflect a
lessening of the adverse influence of the mega-trends noted
by Roskos and Christie (2007) on the status of play in early
childhood education and development. Roskos and Christie
noted that the new science of early education and the
concern with early literacy and standards become more
important than play as we entered the twenty-first century.
Searches for play studies from social-behavioral or
educational databases most assuredly will find many more
articles than we did. However, we should not assume that a
located citation with play in the title or abstract or listed as
a key word is in fact primarily focused on play. Our findings suggest that electronic searches may yield overstated
interest in play. Even in the review of the 57 play-related
articles in our study, 39% of these articles, seemingly
aiming to study play, were found to treat play as a research
context, but not the focus of the research. Only one third of
the articles (19 out of 57 articles) had play as the primary
focus of research. As noted earlier, the findings from the
researches conducted by the ECLKC and the CEECD were
even more telling. Forty percent of the articles listed as
play-related were not primarily or even substantially about
play. Play studies that are located in data base need to be
scrutinized to discern how play is treated and if it is really a
focus in the publication. We should not be misled by the
number of play studies initially identified when doing a
Examining educational and developmental journals
from 2005 to 2007, we found that play served different
roles; we called them major role, minor role, as a context,
or related to special children and intervention. Twenty-two
out of 57 articles used play as a research context to study
some other phenomenon without a significant difference
between educational and developmental journals. Play as a
context seems popular in play studies. This finding is
consistent with Power’s (2000) who reported a shift in the
child development field after 1980 in the study of play from
‘a topic of interest’ to ‘a context to study’. In addition to
these 22 articles, eight out of 57 articles are related to use
play as a minor role; another eight are related to special
children and intervention. These three types of studies
stand for 66.7% of total play studies. It means that more
than half of the studies used play as a tool to study other
topics, rather than study play itself. The finding is consistent with Roskos and Christie’s (2001) play-literacy
reviews. They concluded that there was a dominance of
‘‘play as progress’’ rhetoric which implies play serves
developmental and educational purposes. Moreover, in
Oliver and Klugman’s (2007) review, they found that
cognitive and school-related early childhood topics
increased rapidly, much more so than play research. So
they suggested that play studies have to ask new questions
in order to respond to federal legislation requirements and
to build a play research agenda. All these studies, including
ours, found that an instrumental view of play dominates,
not play as something that belongs to children, similar to
the findings of Kuschner (2007).
We found that Type One studies appeared significantly
more in educational journals than in developmental journals. Perhaps researchers who submitted studies to educational journals are more interested in studying the topic of
play itself. Both educational and developmental journals
published research related to intervention and special
children. Studies related to special education emphasize
both children’s development and education.
Content analysis showed that the concept of play, the
relationship between play and other variables, and the
individual differences in play were the three main purposes
of Type One studies. The concept of play was a popular
research purpose. Many educational researchers (i.e.,
Howard et al. 2006; Pramling-Samuelsson and Johansson
2006) addressed the importance of play itself rather than
the usefulness of play. Moreover, some researchers
emphasized the relationship between play and other variables, especially literacy (i.e., Ahn and Filipenko 2007;
Ghafouri and Wien 2005; Saracho and Spodek 2006). This
focus reflects the phenomenon of ‘‘preparing the child for
the future.’’ These researchers tried to connect play with
development or learning. Other studies examined in individual differences in play; some research investigated
gender differences in parents’ and teachers’ play beliefs
and some research was on children’s play behaviors comparing boys and girls.
As for the definition of play, 10 studies defined and
discussed specific types of play according to their research
purposes, and three studies tried to define what play is or
what boys’ toys or girls’ toys are. The other six articles did
not discuss the definition of play at all. Compare their
findings with Roskos and Christie (2001) who reviewed
play-literacy literature between 1992 and 2000 and found
that play was loosely defined as any activity that happened
in a play center or in the presence of play materials. Put this
next to Rubin et al. (1983) who argued that play was a
comprehensive concept that could be defined as disposition, as observable behavior, and as context. Given that it is
difficult to conceptually define play comprehensively, it
Early Childhood Educ J (2010) 37:249–259 255
should perhaps not be surprising that the majority
researchers of studies we reviewed in the present study
decided to operationalize specific types of play according
to their own particular research purposes.
The time that researchers of Type One studies spent on
measuring children’s play varied from 3 min to 4 months
in these studies. Only four studies observed children’s play
for months. Since play occurs when adults provide children
with a rich environment and ample time, those studies that
measured play in minutes have questionable validity. Other
studies involving the use of questionnaires to measure play
did not report play time.
Although 11 articles in the educational category discussed how to apply their findings to educational practices,
most of the Type One studies identified research implications only. Researchers of education but not the researchers
of development articles wrote about the implications of
their findings for practice. Suggestions included promoting
play-based learning, revealing the narrative in play to help
children construct meaning, understanding types of nonsocial play explaining how and when to decide to intervene, recognizing gender stereotype in toys choices and
play behaviors, using play to foster delay of gratification,
mediating the impact of superhero toys on play, and using
play as a method of assessment and/or intervention.
Interestingly, our results are consistent with Sigel and
Kim’s (1996) review which reported that the usefulness of
the research was discussed only twice in a large set of
articles from two major developmental psychology journals. Evidently a disconnection between research and
practice remains. To be sure, research should follow scientific rules. Still, for practitioners research studies are
often viewed then as not user friendly (Sigel 2006); this
could improve by researchers’ more explicitly drawing out
relevance of their findings for practitioners. Underuse of
research in educational practices is due to the gap between
researchers’ and practitioners’ conceptual frameworks,
research problems and worldviews (Pepper 1970/1942).
Responding to the increasing call for applying research to
practice (e.g., Hirsh-Pasek et al. 2009) would seem to
require that researchers take the first step.
For instance, Strokes (1997) has articulated the importance of ‘‘use-inspired basic research,’’ which means
grounding research in practice in order to meet societal
needs. He suggests that the study of practice is enhanced by
the rigor that characterizes basic research methods, and that
government would effect change if it supported useinspired research. Sigel (2006) advocates the same view
and proposes a ‘‘proximity index’’ to examine the distance
between the readiness for findings to be used and the
understanding of the meaning and the comprehensibility of
the research report. He elaborated that scientific research
requires moving away from linear models and comfort with
complexity and change in order to apply the research into
practice. Thus, the usefulness of research needs collaboration from both researchers and practitioners and initiatives by researchers.
Conclusions and Recommendations
This study reviewed play articles from educational and
developmental journals between 2005 and 2007. The purposes were to discover the types of play study and to
compare the difference between the two research fields and
the main themes emerging from the content analysis. To
summarize the major findings: (1) There were four types of
play study, which included play as a context, play as a
major role, play as a minor role, and play related to
intervention and special children. Researchers tended to
treat play as a context to study other phenomenon more
than the other three types. (2) Type One studies appeared
significantly more in educational journals than in developmental journals. (3) Several themes emerged from the
content analysis of Type One studies, such as the concept of
play itself was a major research purpose in seven studies,
play and literacy in particular received research attention,
the definition of play varied according to the research
purpose, a short time to collect play data results in questionable ecological validity, a focus on play-based learning
for early childhood practitioners was common in educational journals, and there was a lack of educational implications for practitioners in child development journals.
We should be careful not to suggest that our results
represent the whole picture of the study of play or interest
in play. Beyond our chosen educational and developmental
journals, other research journals and books exist about
play. For example, Pellegrini and Bohn (2005) discussed
recess play in the journal of Educational Researcher.
Raessens (2006) mentioned about computer games in the
journal of Popular Communication. The NAEYC publishes
the journal of Young Children which addresses the topic of
play frequently as does the childcare magazine, Child Care
Information Exchange. Moreover, several international
journals in early education exist that frequently publish
articles about play. For example, the Korean Society for
Early Childhood Education publishes the International
Journal of Early Childhood Education. Furthermore, many
recently edited books (i.e., Goncu and Gaskins 2007;
Singer et al. 2006; Sluss and Jarrett 2007; Zigler et al.
2004) and authored and co-authored books (i.e., Edmiston
2008; Hirsh-Pasek et al. 2009; Rogers and Evans 2008;
Singer and Singer 2005) have focused centrally on play and
have addressed different aspects of play. In other words,
children’s play is alive and well and is a prominent topic
receiving attention from researchers and practitioners alike.
256 Early Childhood Educ J (2010) 37:249–259
Nevertheless, our study suggests that caution is needed
because of the way the term ‘play’ is used in both early
childhood education and child development literatures.
When researchers put the term in their titles and abstracts
but are not really investigating play in their studies many
readers may be lead astray; many readers may think that
play is receiving more research attention than it actually is.
Moreover, our review suggests that play has not been a
strong research focus resulting in publication in peer
reviewed journals. Leading research journals such as Child
Development and Early Childhood Research Quarterly
usually publish studies supported by grants from foundations or government agencies. Play’s reputation is such that
as a construct it lacks acceptable levels of reliability,
validity and clarity. Accordingly, play research projects
rarely, if ever, receive significant funding from outside
sources. Consequently, play studies are not usually large in
scope and are seldom published in juried journals, especially first tier ones, as we have shown in this study. As a
telling illustration, the flagship research journal of the
NAEYC, Early Childhood Research Quarterly, has
published an average of one per year or only 8 studies
dealing primarily with play from 2000 to 2007 based on the
present results and those of Ahn and Johnson (2005).
Perhaps, rationales and methods for empirical investigation of play in its own right, or as essential factors in
development and early education, need to be better
developed before play will be taken more seriously by
scientific communities. Basic and applied research focused
on play can be aided by new technologies and research
instruments in the future. Also helpful would be more
precise and testable conceptual models from biology and
psychology. Until such scientific advancement occurs, the
status of research on play may not improve very much and
play will remain an ‘ugly duckling’ in child development
research even as many regard it as a ‘beautiful swan’ in
See Table 4.
Table 4 List of type one articles in eight journals
Items Journal name Number of type one
articles/number of total
play-related articles in the journal
Title of the play article
1 Child Development (CD) 1/7 Howe et al. (2005)
Developmental Psychology (DP) 0/7
Journal of Applied Developmental
2 Merrill Palmer Quarterly (MPQ) 2/2 Carlson and Taylor (2005)
3 Gleason (2005)
4 Early Child Development
and Care (ECDC)
6/16 Pramling-Samuelsson and Johansson (2006)
5 Vickerius and Sandberg (2006)
6 Howard et al. (2006)
7 Legace-Seguin and d’Entremont (2006)
8 Turnbull and Jenvey (2006)
9 Saracho and Spodek (2006)
10 Early Childhood Education
5/7 Sandberg and Pramling-Samuelsson (2005)
11 Bacigalupa (2005)
12 Luckey and Fabes (2005)
13 Ahn and Filipenko (2007)
14 Freeman (2007)
15 Journal of Research in Childhood Education (JRCE) 3/7 Cemore and Herwig (2005)
16 Ghafouri and Wien (2005)
17 Parsons and Howe (2006)
18 Early Childhood Research Quarterly (ECRQ) 2/5 Lobman (2006)
19 Fogle and Mendez (2006)
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