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Play and Pleasure - Two Sides of the Same Coin

Trained as a physician, & in public health, Muhammad Shuvra is a Gold medalist in Early Childhood Development from Bangladesh, now in Canada

Play and Pleasure - "Two sides of the same coin" for a developing child


A Little Bit of the Background

By the beginning of the 20th-century theories of children’s play has begun to emerge using more scientific approaches compared to the period before that era. The initial set of theories(now most popularly known as classical theories of play) were centred more around the biological and physiological nature of human development; these include Schiller's surplus energy theory (1892/1954), Lazarus’ relaxation and recreation theory (1883), Groos’s practice (or pre-exercise) theory (1901), and Stanley Hall’s recapitulation theory (1916). Although all these theories have had specific contributions and influences in the field of early childhood development criticisms remain a concern primarily because of lack of empirical shreds of evidence as well as non-observable and therefore, non-replicable phenomena. Following the classical theories emerged modern theories of play all of which were part of their respective larger ‘development theories’ none of which focused explicitly on the play. The most influential developmental theorists in history are Sigmund Freud (Psychoanalytic theory), Erikson (extension of psychoanalytic theory), Jean Piaget (Cognitive developmental theory of cognitive constructivism theory) and Vygotsky (Socio-cultural theory). Although a couple of more individuals such as Brian Sutton-Smith and Gail Cannella afterwards proposed postmodern theories between 1966 & 1997 it is said that the most influential theory in human history is Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. This paper will discuss Freud as a theorist, his views with relevance to play, role in development and education, implications for early childhood development educators and finally critical perspective describing the strengths and weaknesses.


But Why Freud?

Despite several weaknesses of his theory as applied to play, psychoanalytic theory helps to explain basic human nature almost universally. If we consider playing as a behaviour of children Freud does not say what children can do at specific ages, but the reasons for certain behaviour in certain situations and age groups. Therefore, Freud’s theory is fundamental to designing play as well as a necessary guideline for the caregivers and educators to ensure appropriate psychosocial development of the children, without which achievement is near to impossible. It should also be noted that although some texts cite the theories to only explain why children play, and therefore, only the pleasure principle element of Freud’s theory is used I consider this as a limitation of interpretation of Freud. While explaining the theory and the theorist’s views I will attempt to show how several other concepts embedded within Freud’s theory (besides only pleasure principle) are relevant to the field of play in early childhood.

With Anna Freud


Sigmund Freud’s Life and Work

Sigmund Freud was born in Freiberg, Moravia, Austria in 1856. When he was 4, his family moved to Vienna, where he lived for nearly 80 years. He was the eldest of eight children born to a wool merchant and his wife. Freud believed that he was a favoured child and that great things were expected of him. In retrospect, it is interesting, given the eventual focus of his theory, that his first major research project was on the structure of the testes in eels. His interest in possible new treatment, hypnosis, was aroused by his contact with the French neurologist, Jean Charcot, and the Viennese physician, Josef Breuer. Freud’s study of his patients’ dreams and childhood memories led to his first major publication, The Interpretation of Dreams, in 1900 (1900/1953a) which later was established as the Psychoanalytic Theory. In Freud’s last years, he worked while in considerable pain from cancer of the jaw. When the Nazis took over Austria in 1937, he was forced to flee to England. He died in 1939 in London.


Freud’s theory and the role in development and education

As mentioned in the introduction (which is also mentioned in Sluss’s text titled play and creativity) that none of the modern theorists explicitly worked on play and Freud is not an exception. To discuss the different concepts of psychoanalytic theory, Freud’s theory is discussed by scholars through distinct approaches inside which the core concepts of his theory are described. A summary of the concepts of his theory and their interplay follows next.

1. the Dynamic Approach

In the dynamic approach, Freud describes personality as a dynamic concept mediated through psychic energy. Psychic energy generates two more behavioural bases; i.e. ‘pleasure principle’ and ‘reality principle’. While according to the pleasure principle the psychic energy is released without delay and a child acts and reacts instantly given a situation (for example when a child snatches her peer’s toy simply because she wants it, or slaps a peer when she is angry), reality principle, on the other hand, uses mental apparatus to scan reality and evaluate various possible courses of action before allowing some energy to be discharged and with much delay (for example, when an angry child stops herself and tells the peer “I am angry I want to hit you!”).
The origin of psychic energy according to Freud arises from two basic instincts (1) Eros, which is governed by libido (sex, self-preservation, love, life forces, striving toward reality), and the (2) destructive instinct (aggression, undoing connections, the death instinct, hatred). Children’s behaviour in play pleasure principle
and reality principle is expressed through Eros or the destructive instinct. indirectly discussed by Freud in the Structural approach. The aim of sex drive, or any instinct, is to remove the bodily need, discharge tension and experience pleasure (catharsis). The discharge/libido is achieved by cathecting to an object. For
example, infants become cathected to their mother and other objects to satisfy their needs. Educators need to acknowledge this reality and establish bondages with the child before initiating play.
Freud also talks about sublimation. Sublimation is a process of substituting one object for another. For example, a child might be selecting violent play and beating up the doll because he would like to do the same due to some inappropriate treatment received from home. Therefore, sublimation is a process of catharsis. Compensation is another form of object substitution where an individual makes up for the failure through adopting a different thing, a child confined at home might be pretending to set the doll out of the toy home’ in a particular home play theme. Educators can design play that will help a diverse set of Sublimation, especially to decide on the most congenial and suitable play object or theme.

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2. Structural Approach

In his structural approach important concepts of id, ego and superego
come in. Freudian id corresponds to the basic of human behaviours. It is also the seat of biologically based drives and the main source of psychic energy. partially fulfilling thoughts are also called primary process thought/hallucinatory wish fulfillment - when something demanded by the body is fulfiled by the imagination of the object. We will later see how these concepts id is related to play theory mediated by the pleasure principle. The ego is described as the mechanism of adapting to reality. The id’s inability to always produce the desired object through primary process thoughts leads to understanding the difference between imaginaries and reality, between self and the other world and produces ego. Ego is expressed through secondary process thought. Secondary process thought is rational and includes intellectual activities such as perception, logical thought, problem solving and memory. Ego decisions are aided by feelings of anxiety,
which signal that certain actions would be threatening. Finally, ego is the ability to assess situations related to the reality principle and make rational decisions through problem-solving skills which again is a component of play. Superego The superego watches over not only behaviour but also the thoughts of the ego. Thinking is as bad as doing, from the superego’s point of view. The superego is society’s way of achieving order. Educators need to assess the child to see if the superego has begun to develop in a child before introducing plays that use complex patterns or puzzles since a child who has developed a superego will have also learned the orderly pattern and connections of the world around him.


3. Topographic approach

Psychoanalytic theory is then explained through the Topographic approach which includes the mind's state of unconsciousness (related to id, primary process thought and pleasure principle), pretentiousness (related to ego, reality principle and secondary process thought) and consciousness (related to superego mostly). However, they overlap in an interrelated and balanced fashion as a child grows up and plays. Noteworthy that Preconscious thought becomes conscious by forming mental images or linking up with the language and has implications in designing play. Educators need to interact with children while playing and try to vent out the preconscious stage verbally for the development of language assimilation.

4. Stage Approach

The next is the Stage approach - which is similar to Piaget for the chronological sequence it follows but not in its true function. Stages that are relevant to the field of early childhood play are divided into (1) oral stage (roughly birth to 1 year) (2) anal stage (roughly 1 -3 yr) 3) Phallic stage (3- 5 yr,) and (4) period of latency (roughly 5yr - beginning of puberty). The oral stage is clearly related to the id and whatever is related to the id, likewise the anal stage is related to the beginning ego (for example learning defecate in the designated space) but may remain significantly to primary process thought. Freud’s stages are biologically distinct, however, not corresponding to other concepts of other approaches. For example, the id will always remain throughout childhood although mostly trying to resolve unconsciously in the topography of the mind. Educators need to keep in mind that a child in the anal stage begins to learn social rules and over restriction could result in distorted behaviours. Children, therefore, need to be allowed to play and need to be audited for the action and process and never their result. The phallic stage is where concepts such as the Oedipus complex come in but ultimately manifest through imitating the desired personality and fosters the development of social identity. Educators can use this opportunity to design play themes for dramatic with characters that the child is most interested to play the role of. Moreover, an educator would develop plays that require sharing. By the end of this stage when the child begins to enter the latency period associative play can be initiated. Therefore, if in the early years of the phallic stage an educator or caregiver observes a child to be engaged in parallel or solitary play it is because of the child’s phallic stage that abstains him from allowing space for others.


5. Normal-abnormal Continuum

The last approach -the normal-abnormal continuum is where Freud theorized that what we see as abnormal is merely an exaggeration and distortion of the normal state. When reality becomes too painful or impulses of the id intensify, the ego’s frantic attempts to keep in touch with reality or fortify the barriers against the id or superego ultimately fail. Neurotic symptoms or even a psychosis results. In Freud’s words, “The threatened ego throws itself into the arms of the unconscious instinctual forces in a desperate revolt”. As educators or caregivers, this approach is particularly useful to assess a child for development or milestone achievements as well as a diagnosis for any distortion of normality. For example, a child who is not supposed to be using unacceptable words for his age needs to be evaluated for his exposure to his home environment or TV program viewing.

Freud’s Definition of Play

Freud has not defined play exclusively. However, he has alluded to play as a phenomenon where children repeat everything that has made a great impression on them in real life, and that in so doing, they recreate the strength of impressions and ….makes themselves the masters of the situation. Fundamentally what Freud was talking about is a balance between the id and ego and superego completed through visible actions.


Critical perspective of psychoanalytic theory as it relates to playing

I must begin by saying that there is no theory that is complete, yet some theories such as the psychoanalytic theory of Freud are foundational. Freud’s theory of play is usually viewed narrowly by embarking on the Pleasure Principle alone. Although we need to keep in mind that the reality principle is also something that children take into account when they play. Freud in his theory does not take into account any physical development of children, although he talks about stages that shift the focus from oral to anal to genitals according to age group. Freud’s theory explains the reasons behind a child’s behaviour expressed through play and does not touch on the process of cognitive capacity. However, psychoanalytic theory helps to explain the potential effect of family and societal elements interacting during a child’s development and education. It is often difficult to relate sexual drives in a child. However, it needs to be noted a drive for sex is fundamental to human construction, however, in a child this is not satisfied through the reproductive behaviour which remains as a conflict in a child’s growth. Much of Freud’s theory is based on this assumption which cannot be scientifically proven completely. Freud uses the male gender, especially in the phallus stage to describe the desire to imitate which mimics the socio-dramatic play. However, we know that both genders equally engage themselves in socio-dramatic play. It can be assumed that the Electra complex which is analogous to the Oedipus complex can explain this further, though Freud has not explicitly mentioned this. Finally, it is difficult to consider a child’s development within the larger system using psychoanalytic theory; it limits itself to the individual child and the elements around him that are responsible for meeting the need or restricting them.



Freud’s psychoanalytic theory is a revolutionary fundamental theory that has changed the way we have reasoned ourselves before. Not much research has been done to investigate how his theory applies to play at different age groups. Human behaviour’s complexity demands that play as a behaviour needs to be studied considering the contextual elements around the child, the child’s non-play time exposures as well as genetics. While trying to make sense of the complex interplay of all these Freud’s psychoanalytic theory could help to connect the missing dots. I personally define play as an interaction of the inner self with the outer world in the most spontaneous, enthusiastic and instinctive manner. Educators, parents, caregivers and those related to child development need to see that the play is a language of the inner self when children are not able to speak; it is a battleground for exercising freedom against restrictions when they are trying to understand the orderliness and reality of the world. Therefore, interaction with children, providing them with the right nurture needs to come not only from Freud’s theory but all the relevant theories. A comparative discussion of these theories will most likely consider play and child development most comprehensively. It is then that programs can be designed to foster the development of a child and holistic human civilization’s development can be achieved.

© 2021 Muhammad Mizanur Shuvra

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