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PhiThetaKappa: Theme 1: The Essence of Play

What are the natural and philosophical foundations of play?

Searching for Play

This chapter is about the theoretical justification for play. It mentions philosophers, authors, animal behavioralists, and physicians, citing, among others, Aristotle, Phyllis Mazzocchi, Chuang Tzu, Oliver Burkeman, Scott Eberle, Robert Fagen and Stuart Brown, the founder of the National Institute for Play.  You could begin your research by searching for articles and books by or about those people. You could also search more generally for articles about the philosophy of play. Scroll down for efficient search strategies for this topic.



The Research Process

When someone starts a research assignment, a typical mistake is to think too broadly about it. This is usually born out of having an interest in a subject but a limited understanding of everything that subject could encompass. For instance, a keyword search for the term "play" retrieves an overwhelming amount of the information--everything from Nintendo to Shakespeare.  But you can narrow your results by asking yourself some questions about your research needs.

Ask Questions

One approach is to ask questions about your topic to narrow it down: Think, “Who, what, when, where, and how?”

Question: Who are the people mentioned in the article?

Possible Answers:  Aristotle, Phyllis Mazzocchi, Chuang Tzu, Oliver Burkeman, Scott Eberle, Robert Fagen and Stuart Brown. 

Combining any of those names with the terms "play" or "leisure" will be more likely to yield useful results.


Question: What aspect of play do I want to focus on?

Possible Answers: history, education, child development, or health benefits.

Adding one or more of those subtopics to your search will further narrow your results.


Question: When did children's toys become a cultural phenomenon?

Possible keywords to use: play and toys and (history or trends)


Question: Why is play important?

Possible keywords to use: play and (reasons or benefits or causes or motivation)


The basis of every research task is a question or series of questions that will lead you to learn more about a subject.

I always recommend that students ask plenty of questions before they even start to think about their thesis statement. Good research questions are open-ended and bias free:

How did the ancient Greeks incorporate play into their daily lives?

What purpose does play serve in the animal kingdom?

How did advertising impact the culture of play in the United States after World War II?


These are all good questions, but simply typing them into the databases will likely not retrieve many results. For best results, break your questions down to keywords and phrases:

ancient Greeks, incorporate, play, daily lives

purpose, play, animal kingdom

advertising, impact, culture of play, United States, World War II


Find synonyms (or related words) for your concepts:

Synonyms of example concepts:

play:  games, fun, playing, entertainment

impact: effect, outcome, result

ancient Greeks: (Greeks and history) or (Greece and history)

Step 4:  Connect your search terms with Boolean Operators

And narrows your search:

A search for games and early childhood education and outcomes

will retrieve only articles about all three concepts.


Or broadens your search:

A search for outcomes or impact or effect

will retrieve all articles about any of the three concepts.


A simple but effective search for this topic:

games AND impact AND early childhood education

Step 5: More complicated searches might require parenthesis and multiple Boolean operators.

(games OR play Or fun) AND (impact OR effect OR outcomes) AND (early childhood education OR child development)

This search connects the synonyms and related concepts with OR and connects the different concepts with AND, thus doing a broad search for articles that must contain certain specific ideas. 




The Open Internet

The open internet may be a good place to start your research, but it is rarely the best place to end it. 

Searching on the open internet can give you an overwhelming number of results. To help filter out as much extraneous or useless information as possible, try nesting your terms with parenthesis and limiting results only to academic sites or government.


Nesting you terms helps you keep like ideas together:

(games OR play) AND (advantages OR disadvantages OR productivity OR quality of life) AND (companies OR employers)

will retrieve any webpage that contains either of the words in one set of parenthesis but only if it also contain any of the phrases included in the other sets of parentheses, as well. search for


To specify that you only want to retrieve education or government sites, you can add this string to your search:


This search will retrieve articles about your topic limited to certain domains. Read the results and take note of people, organizations, or events that you want to study further.  You can search for those words in the HWC databases for more information.


HWC Databases

For general information, search for your terms in encyclopedias and general reference resources.  

For more specific information, search for your terms in academic journals, magazines, and newspapers.

We all have opinions about how things ought to be, but research is more than simply finding sources that agree with us. Research strives to find accurate, up-to-date sources, whether they agree with our preconceived notions or not!  As a general rule, people will very readily accept information they agree with and be very skeptical of information they disagree with. In order to compensate for this quirk of human nature, it is a good idea to get in the habit of evaluating all of the information you encounter for three basic things: objectivity, timeliness, and accuracy.

Objectivity means the tone of the article is neutral, and facts are presented without words that are meant to stir emotions. The source cites other sources that both agree and disagree. Rebuttals are made with evidence, not personal attacks.

Timeliness means the source is relevant to the time period under study. 

Accuracy means the source is in broad agreement with other sources written by experts in the field and/or provides clear, documented, verifiable evidence for its position.

To read (much!) more about this topic, check out the links below:

Recognizing Our Own Biases

Politics and Information

News Media and Bias

Different Kinds of Bias in Reporting

Typically, academic work requires either MLA or APA citation style. Generally, MLA is expected in humanities and English, while APA is expected in social sciences work. Your instructor should clearly inform the class which citation style she prefers. If there is any doubt, ask. For your English 102 class, you will be using MLA citations.

Citations contain the information necessary for your reader (instructor) to understand what the information source was and where you located it. Citations will always contain two parts, an in-text citation that is directly connected to the information you are incorporating from the source material, and a longer citation that will be located on your Works Cited page and contains all possible details about the source material.

For more information constructing citations and for examples of citations for various types of sources (articles, books, websites, images, etc.), please see the following resources:


The Purdue OWL site offers the MLA style guide online for free.


Other Recommended Readings

Frost, J. L., Wortham, S. C., & Reifel, S. (2012). Play and child development (4th ed.). Pearson.

Frost et al. created a textbook for students who are interested in understanding the history and science of children’s play.

Henricks, T. S. (2020). Play studies: A brief history. American Journal of Play, 12(2), 117-155. https://

Henricks provided a review on the history of play ranging from philosophy to science. He also explained the varying definitions and experiences of play.

Huizinga, J. (1944/1949). Homo ludens: A study of the play-element in culture. Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.

Huizinga offered an analysis on the influence of play on culture, from civilization and law to art.

Spariosu, M. (1989). Dionysus reborn: Play and the aesthetic dimension in modern philosophical and scientific discourse. Cornell University Press. page/n11/mode/2up

Spariosu wrote a comprehensive analysis of play from a philosophical and scientific view. He provided both a historic and modern (at the time) view of play and its role in life.

Tanner, J. E., & Byrne, R. W. (2010). Triadic and collaborative play by gorillas in social games with objects. Animal Cognition, 13(4), 591-607. https:// doi:10.1007/s10071-009-0308-y

This article discussed play among gorillas and their use of objects while playing. It provided a comparative analysis with human children and other non-human primates, specifically bonobos.