The National Institute for Play unlocks the human potential through play in all stages of life using science to discover all that play has to teach us about transforming our world.


Play Science - the Patterns of Play

This page presents descriptions of many of the elemental forms of play - "patterns of play." Like the periodic table of the elements organizes all matter into an understandable framework for chemistry students, this page presents seven patterns of play - that to most people are unrelated behaviors - as elements of a larger, holistic framework.

Improved scientific clarification of these patterns will require the integration and basic research we expect to sponsor and help guide. Though these patterns are supported by much more scientific literature, we offer only a sample of references here.

 Attunement play


When an infant makes eye contact with her mother, each experiences a spontaneous surge of emotion (joy). The baby responds with a radiant smile, the mother with her own smile and rhythmic vocalizations (baby talk).  This is the grounding base of the state-of-play. It is known, through EEG and other imaging technologies, that the right cerebral cortex, which organizes emotional control is “attuned” in both infant and mother.
View the simple sequence of playful interactions that create the powerful effect of attunement.

Sample References:

Schore, A.N. (1994). Affect regulation and the origin of the self: The neurobiology of emotional development. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Schore, A.N. (2000c). The self-organization of the right brain and the neurobiology of emotional development.  In M.D. Lewis & I. Granic (Eds.), Emotion, Development, and Self-Organization, (pp. 155-185). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Schore, A.N. The seventh annual John Bowlby memorial lecture. Minds in the making: attachment, the self-organizing brain, and developmentally-oriented psychoanalytic psychotherapy. British Journal of Psychotherapy,17, 299-328.

Damasio, A.R. (1998). Emotion in the perspective of an integrated nervous system. Brain Research Reviews, 26, 83-86.



 Body Play & Movement


If you don’t understand human movement, you won’t really understand yourself or play. If you do, you will reap the benefits of play in your body, personal life and work situations.  Learning about self movement structures an individual’s knowledge of the world - it is a way of knowing, and we actually, through movement and play, think in motion. For example the play-driven movement of leaping upward is a lesson about gravity as well as one’s body. And it lights up the brain and fosters learning. Innovation, flexibility, adaptability, resilience, have their roots in movement. The play driven pleasures associated with exploratory body movements, rhythmic early speech (moving vocal cords), locomotor and rotational activity - are done for their own sake; pleasurable, and intrinsically playful. They sculpt the brain, and ready the player for the unexpected and unusual.

Sample References:

Ito, Maseo, (1993) Movement and Thought Identical control  mechanisms by the cerebellum. Trends in the neurosciences 16, 448-450

Sheets- Johnstone, Maxine, (1999) The Primacy of Movement, Johns-Benjamin Vol. 14, Advances in Consciousness Research

Forencich, Frank, (2001) Play as if Your Life Depended Upon It. ISBN: 0972335803



 Object Play


Along with other special patterns of play, the curiosity about and playing  with “objects” is a pervasive innately fun pattern of play, and creates its own “states” of playfulness.  Early on, toys take on highly personalized characteristics, and as skills in manipulating objects (i.e., banging on pans, skipping rocks, etc.) develop, the richer become the circuits in the brain. Hands playing with all types of objects help brains develop beyond strictly manipulative skills, with play as the driver of this development.

The correlation of effective adult problem solving and earlier encouragement of and facility in manipulating objects has been established. The science of progressively more complex object play and its relation to overall competency has sparked research interest in corporate “work readiness”, in that a deficiency in fixing things by hand during one's youth may well mean deficiencies in complex problem solving in challenging work settings as an adult. To be a good research engineer, for example may mean that the times spent in high school fixing cars or building airplane models are as important as getting an advanced degree, particularly if the engineer is also expected to function as an innovative problem solver.


Sample References:

Frank Wilson, (1999) The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture (Vintage)

Rick Stephens, Elane V. Scott,  Workforce Readiness, the Boeing Corporation. Rick.stephens@boeing.com, evscott7@aol.com



 Social Play


From the simplest romp and wrestling of young animals to the most jocular and complex banter of close friends, social play is a key aspect of play behavior.

The science of social play is complex, but can be studied selectively. The NIFP has a particular interest in early parent infant play, better understanding of the signals that herald and maintain social play, ( Such as the play face, various play body languages, as, in domestic dogs,  the play-bow with wagging tail)

Fostering social play and evaluating its effects in aged populations is also an NIFP priority

The Subsets of Social Play.

 Play and Belonging >

 Rough and Tumble Play >

 Celebratory Play >


Sample References:

Bekoff, M. (1978) Social Play, Structure, Function and the evolution of a cooperative social behavior. In: the development of behavior: Comparative and evolutionary aspects. pp367-383.

Allen, and Bekoff, M. (1994) Intentionality, Social Play, and Definition. Bio. Phil. V. 9. 63-74

Groos, K. (1901) The Play of Man. New York Appleton.

Huizinga, J. (1938) Homo Ludens: A study of the play element in culture. Boston, Beacon

Smith, P.K., Editor,  (1984)  Play in Animals and Humans, Basil Blackwell



 Imaginative and pretend play


The ability of the young child to create their own sense of their mind, and that of others, takes place through pretend play, which continues to nourish the spirit throughout life, and remains key to innovation and creativity. Deprivation studies uphold the importance of this pattern of play, as understanding and trusting others and developing coping skills depends on its presence.

The NIFP, in its curriculum development for preschools  will emphasize pretend-play techniques.

Sample References:

Singer, Dorothy G. with Singer, Jerome L. The House of Make-Believe: Children's Play and the Developing Imagination. 1990.

Singer, Jefferson A. and Salovey, Peter (eds.) At Play in the Fields of Consciousness: Essays in Honor of Jerome L. Singer. 1999.

Singer, Jerome L. Child's World of Make-Believe: Experimental Studies of Imaginative Play. 1973.

Singer, Jerome L. and Switzer, Ellen. Mind Play: The Creative Uses of Fantasy. 1980.

Sutton-Smith, Brian. The Ambiguity of Play. Cambrige, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Sutton-Smith, Brian. Play and Learning. 1980.

Sutton-Smith, Brian. Toys as Culture. 1992.

Winnicott, D. W. Playing and Reality. London: Routledge, 1999.



 Storytelling-Narrative play


Storytelling, the way most kids love to learn, is, when under the play microscope, identified as the unit of human intelligibility.

Making sense of the world, its parts and one’s particular place in it is a central aspect of early development. And as we grow, the constancy of stories that enliven and help us understand ourselves and others, from a parent’s telling how it was when they were young, to media-driven stories like Big Bird’s rants to Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon yarns; all involve us in a never ending fun-giving experience.  They give us permission to expand our own inner stream of consciousness, enrich our personal narratives with pleasure and fun as our own life stories unfold. “What is the current movie of your life?” If it has comedic overtones, it is likely that your play quiver is more than half full.

It is in their capacity to produce a sense of timelessness, pleasure and the altered state of vicarious involvement that identifies narrative and storytelling with states of play

Sample References:

Paley,, V.G.(1981) Wally’s Stories. Cambridge MA. Harvard University Press

Paley, V.G. (1992) You Can’t Say You Can’t Play. Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press

Peyton, Jeff (2006) www.puppetools.com

Bekoff,M and Byers J.,(Ed.s)  (1998) Animal Play, Evolutionary, Comparative, and Ecological Perspectives,:  Brown, S. Play as an Organizing Principle, Ch 12, p.  243-259 Cambridge Univ Prsll



 Transformative-Integrative and Creative play


We can access fantasy-play to transcend the reality of our ordinary lives, and in the process germinate new ideas, and shape and re-shape them. Given enriched circumstances, and access to novelty, our play drive takes us into these realms spontaneously. Whether like Einstein imaginatively riding pleasurably on a sunbeam at the speed of light, or a light-hearted group of IDEO corporation designers wildly imagining a new product, each is using their playfulness to innovate and create. With the advent of brain imaging technology, these natural tendencies, so important to adaptation in a changing world, may be better understood and fostered. Play + Science = Transformation.

Sample References:

Gross, J.J., Mauss, I.B., Levenson, R.W., Wilhelm, F. H. The Tie That Binds? Coherence among Emotion, Experience, Behavior and Physiology. Emotion (2005) Vol. 2, 175-90

Leslie, A.M. (1987) Pretense and representation: The origins of theory of mind.²  Psychological Review, 94, 412-426.

Stevens, V.Transparency to Transformation. (2006) In press,

Stevens, V. (2003, May). Metaphor and the poetics of the unconscious. Paper presented for Psychoanalysis and the Humanities Lectures, Cambridge University, UK.




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