Why do children avoid physical games these days

The importance of play for the development of children in a media-dominated everyday world

The world in which our children live has changed profoundly in the past few years. These changes relate to all areas of their everyday world, to the family and their living environment, to the change in value orientations and educational goals, to the intrusion of electronic media and new information and communication technologies into their leisure world and to the lure of the consumer and leisure industry . Associated with this is a tendency to separate children into their own rooms and an increasing pedagogy of these areas. It is often argued that these living conditions limit both the children's play opportunities and their playing skills. Empirical research results indicate that adolescents are increasingly devoting themselves to computer games and playing with other electronic media (Medienpädagogischer Forschungsverbund Südwest: KIM study 2012, p. 13 and p. 48f.). What are the consequences of these changes for your development process? To answer this question, I choose an ecological approach to education and play in order to be able to describe the educational significance of play in a changed world and the effects of the new forms of play on the development process of children (Spanhel 1992).

1. The connection between play, development and education

From an ecological point of view, the world of our children presents itself as an extraordinarily complex network of effects, in which the development processes of the children as well as their upbringing and play are integrated. The question is how the profound changes in the structures of this network of relationships “lifeworld” affect the structures and processes of development, upbringing and play in children and how changed forms of play and upbringing affect the lifeworld of children.

From this point of view, education is a framework for action or a social system that is geared towards a specific purpose. This pedagogical sense is the intention to help the child to cope with his current life problems or developmental tasks in dealing with his everyday world in such a way that he is better able to solve his problems and tasks independently and to manage his life quickly among himself to lead changing living conditions. This educational meaning (the educational meaning criterion) gives the individual actions within the system a specific organization and meaning as education and at the same time separates this educational framework from other action or meaning systems, such as play. From this perspective, play then appears as a separate framework for action with a different orientation towards meaning, in contrast to education. Then the question arises as to how these two systems of action are related to each other, from what the special educational significance of children's play results and in what way the game is embedded in superordinate systems of action (family, peer group, kindergarten, school). What do the specific “play worlds” of the children look like under the conditions of the living environment structures changed by the media and how should they be designed pedagogically?

In order to clarify these questions, we have to go one step further in the ecological approach. In education and play, educators and children are the people who want to realize a certain intention, a subjective meaning through their actions, whether they are always clearly aware of it or not. This act of acting as the realization of meaning is the result of internal regulation processes. That is, the people, educators and children are psychological systems whose actions are based on a complex network of relationships of internal conditioning factors, organic, motor, sensory, cognitive, and affective structures.

These internal regulatory processes cannot be directly influenced or determined by education from outside: people as psychological systems, but also social systems are structure-determined, i.e. their actions are determined by their internal conditioning factors. As educators, we can never have a child, but only trigger processes in the child through meaningful action within an educational framework. This also applies to the game as a framework for action.

2. Characteristics of the game and its effects on the development process of children

But we cannot determine the course of a game through education, because the game system also runs according to its own internal rules and develops its own dynamics. However, the fundamental differences between traditional forms of games and modern electronic games (computer and video games on mobile phones, smartphones, tablets or games consoles) must be taken into account: These games are - in contrast to free children's games - programmed by adults and with certain skills Options for action defined in their sequence on the device. When playing computer or video games, the children do not interact with play partners or toys, but with a computer program (Spanhel 2006; Zacharias 2000).

a. Play is not a form of action, but a framework for action

When the children organize their actions in a special way in free play, they produce a reality of their own. However, play does not designate individual actions, but a framework of action in which the actions are given a different meaning and organization than they would have in other life situations. Bateson (1990) describes play as a “situated activity system” that is separated from its surroundings as if by an invisible wall. The interactions of the children with their natural, social, media and cultural environment are decisive in play. In play, they always establish new relationship patterns to the conditions of their environment, which are suitable as toys, play partners or play topics. The invention of the game and the game must therefore be viewed as a single phenomenon. A sequence of actions is only playable as long as it contains some elements of the creative and the unexpected. In the case of computer games, the game content is fixed and shown on the display. The children only have to find out the rules of the game in order to achieve better and better game results in many repetitions through skillful application.

b. Openness is the fundamental characteristic of the child's relationships in play

This openness of the child’s relationships in play is based on the child’s free and carefree application of the patterns of perceiving, thinking, feeling, willing, evaluating and acting that the child has at their disposal. These assimilation schemes are self-motivated and spontaneously urge activity, but they always have to be adapted to the structures of the objects of action, i.e. they have to be accommodated. Piaget therefore describes the game as a preponderance of assimilation over accommodation. That means: In play, toys, i.e. the conditions of the environment, serve only as material, as “food” for the self-motivated, free and enjoyable activity of the action schemes. When playing with the sand in the playground or on the beach, children can use a variety of patterns of action and adapt their actions to a wide variety of play ideas, e.g. the idea of ​​a sand castle. You can try the pebble as a soccer ball on the way or carve beautiful things out of a piece of tree bark according to your imagination. The child cares little about the “socially determined” meanings of the objects, partners or contents of the game or about factual necessities. It adapts the environment to its abilities and ideas, needs and desires, ideas and feelings or the agreed rules of the game. When playing with Lego bricks or playing puppets, there are hardly any limits to the children's imagination.

However, by specifying an unbelievable variety of very realistic, mass-produced toys, this openness of the relationship pattern is limited, e.g. in a battery-powered racing car. That is why a lot of toys gather dust on the shelves of children's rooms. Even with many electronic games, this openness is very limited due to the preprogrammed game sequence once the children have understood the rules (except for challenging strategy games or complex adventure or multi-user games).

c. Play as a self-contained system of action offers special learning opportunities

As if by an invisible wall, play is closed off from other contexts of life and thus from a multitude of potential worlds of meaning and activity. This is exactly where the specific learning opportunities lie in the game. In the open relationships with other players, toys and game content within this framework, the children produce new interaction patterns and the game becomes more integrated and consistent. Bateson calls this "learning from context". The child does not learn anything new from outside, but rather acquires new relationship and interaction patterns in play:

Relationship pattern

1) on the toys or subjects, e.g. what you can do with things and how they change in the game. In computer games, violence, combat and action are often a problem as content; but often it is only about primitive games of skill.

2) to the game partnerse.g. how to win them over to a game, how to use them for one's own interests in the game, how to agree on how to play the game, or how to argue with them. When it comes to electronic games, social games rarely offer the opportunity for social learning processes because you cannot perceive other players as people and interact with them directly.

3) to oneselfFor example, how to implement your own game ideas in a game, how to present yourself, how to deal with your problems and what feelings you can experience. Computer games are often ascribed special learning opportunities with regard to identity formation.

“Learning from context” in free children's play is fundamentally different from learning in school because it is based on holistic experiences of relationships that include physical, sensual, emotional, motivational, evaluative, symbolic and cognitive moments at the same time. This learning is not only self-motivated, but self-determined and self-controlled in its process and is based on self-affirmation in the context. Again, this is hardly the case with electronic games.

d. In the game, the ego processes dominate over the cognitive processes.

Play changes the inner structures in which the child organizes his thinking, feeling, willing and acting in a specific way. First of all, the children let themselves be guided by their unconscious drives and needs, feelings and desires in play. The holistic experiences that they have in playful interactions with their environment are largely self-experiences in which they become aware of themselves. In the reactions of the play partners and the toys to their play activities, their own abilities and weaknesses, their feelings and desires are reflected back to them. In this way they can construct a picture of themselves and continue to build on it. These opportunities for self-discovery and self-realization in play promote the development of the children. However, the preprogrammed responses of the computer are less effective than the direct face-to-face feedback from other children as play partners.

e. In the game, there is freedom for self-control of development

If the children develop very individual and, depending on their age, different playing preferences and playing habits, they develop strategies to put play at the service of their self-realization. They find the right games to satisfy their needs, to create certain emotional experiences, to work on inner conflicts or to fulfill wishes. They also use the games as excellent symbolic means of expression to convey their worries and joys, hopes and fears to others.

In interaction with others, however, the children also have to learn to subordinate their ego processes to the agreed rules of the game and to balance them with the ego processes of their play partners. This forces them to consciously regulate the relationships between the inner structures of perceiving, thinking, feeling and willing. Social play leads to the development of fixed interaction patterns between these inner structures and helps the child to find and stabilize his own identity.

On the basis of these relationship patterns in play, the educational significance of free play for the development process of the children can be identified: In free play, the children construct their own world in which they independently invent patterns of action and in the open relationship patterns to the toys, play partners and play topics practice, learn new patterns of action and thereby differentiate your perception, valuation, feeling and thought patterns and in particular promote your ego processes and the development of your identity. All these development impulses and opportunities are only given to a very limited extent in the electronic games of modern media. The threats do not only come from the problematic content. The availability of mobile devices seduces the children into using every free moment to play and succumb to the pull of games to reach the game goal or higher scores faster and faster in repetitions or to defeat the game opponent. As a result, they distance themselves more and more from their environment, narrow their action patterns to the response patterns required by the program and thereby miss opportunities for other experiences.

3. The importance of play in the everyday world shaped by the media

a. The embedding of the game in the context of the everyday world

Even the toddler organizes his actions spontaneously in different contexts. With play, it acquires the ability to distinguish play from non-play situations. Marking a framework of action as play or non-play means, however, to make a message about the framework, about how the actions within this framework are to be understood. The framework gives the individual actions in the game or in other contexts their specific meaning. This ability for meta-communication becomes visible when children step out of the game to discuss the further course of the game, to agree on the rules of the game or to modify the given rules. Negotiation processes are not possible with the programmed rules of computer games. By differentiating play from other contexts, the children also learn that play is not possible on every occasion. They are taught by their parents, educators and the social environment in which situations in their everyday world it is forbidden to learn in play. But many parents fail to limit extensive and nonsensical use of electronic games.

In this way, the children learn how to organize certain areas of their everyday life, e.g. their daily routine, doing their homework or their free time. They learn from the social environment which frameworks for action are allowed in shaping their everyday life and how and to what extent play can be incorporated into everyday life. “Playrooms” characterize the possibilities of children to organize their everyday world independently and according to their abilities, needs and interests in the form of diverse combinations of games and other frameworks for action. Many children always have mobile phones or smartphones with them as play equipment, but they do not open up much room for maneuver and instead limit attention to the images or symbols shown on the small display.

b. Restrictions on the scope and opportunities to play in the everyday world characterized by media

An important limitation arises from the fact that humans live in a symbolic environment. Parents, educators, and adult society as a whole ascribe fixed meanings to all environmental factors. They often force children to learn these meanings quickly and act on them. The adults usually have little understanding and no patience for the fact that the children first construct their own meanings of the world in play and have to build their own play worlds in order to look at things from different perspectives. The rational and functional principles, interests and constraints of the adult world often take precedence over what is vital and developmental for the children. This is why the everyday world is often not designed according to the needs of the children or according to pedagogical findings (Spanhel 1991).

A second tendency becomes visible in the consistent marketing of children's needs, interests and longings. Through the toy, media and consumer industries, children are confronted with tempting games.Their goal is entertainment, consumption, animation and thus primarily an early adaptation of the children to social norms, behavioral patterns and value orientations. In doing so, the free play options are subtly restricted. The children do not see through this and therefore have little to counter these fascinating offers. The externally determined and high demands associated with these patterns of action can impair the balance of their internal structures in the children and lead to psychological damage.

c. Social tendencies towards the restriction of children's play worlds

In a whole series of social tendencies, the mechanisms for the plannability and controllability of the game and the symbolic meanings established in the game become visible:

  • Exclusion of play from the everyday world and demarcation from other areas of life. Creation of own leeway (e.g. the modern media as toys and the games in the media),
  • Institutionalization of the game in own facilities with their own strict regulations (playground, play room, play hall, play hour, parent-child play group, play mobile);
  • Commercialization of the game (video and computer games; sports games);
  • Creation of its own leisure and toy industry; Technology allows ever more realistic toys that are linked to themes and entire game stories.
  • Control of gaming behavior and forms of play through advertising in the toy and media industry: composite media systems with the main medium of television, game broadcasts on television.
  • Pedagogy of the game, i.e. its use for learning: games as a learning medium in kindergarten, in school (didactic games), business (simulation games), leisure time (courses in sport and music) and even as play therapy for children.

4. Consequences: Promotion of free play as a way of life

As diverse as possible free play opportunities are vital and developmental for children up to adolescence. The ecological approach to play has revealed the inner connection between the two basic functions of play as a reason for this: play makes a decisive contribution to improving the ability and willingness to learn in the development process. At the same time, however, the game enables numerous ego processes to cope with everyday problems. That means: With learning as adaptation of the child to the environment, it acquires, develops and improves at the same time its instruments and strategies with which it adapts the environment to the demands of its ego. Even more: while learning from the context of play, the child develops, tries out, practices and consolidates internal forms of regulation in order to secure a balance between the two directions of adaptation, which is essential for life. This is the prerequisite for the children to be able to constantly turn to new demands of the environment, e.g. the learning tasks of the school.

The faster our modern world changes and the greater the pressure to adapt and the learning requirements for the next generation, the more important free play becomes for children. In education, we have tried too one-sidedly to use the game only to improve, accelerate and make learning processes more effective. In the future we must pay more attention to the fact that the children acquire strategies for self-assurance and self-preservation, self-expression and self-realization in free play. Only then will they cope with the challenges of their living environment and be able to maintain a humane and humane living environment for the future.

Ultimately, this means that all those responsible for education in the most diverse areas of education, in family and school, in kindergartens and youth work, in after-school care centers and homes, have to give the children as many and open opportunities as possible for free, imaginative, self-designed forms of play. Overflowing with cheap, ready-made toys should therefore be avoided, as should the excessive use of primitive electronic games.

Children need “space to live” (G.E. Schäfer 1989):

as Free spaces,

in which they can develop as free as possible from pedagogical control of their actions and unhindered by petty commands or prohibitions, develop their strengths and abilities and live out their basic needs;

as Movement spaces,

in which they move carefree in a wide variety of ways and thereby acquire a wide variety of patterns of action, get to know their bodies, develop their strength, flexibility and dexterity, let off steam until they are completely and sports games);

as Spaces of action,

in which they can be spontaneously active, build, experiment, observe, tinker, work, handicraft and experience themselves as the creator of certain works; (various materials, tools, construction and experiment kits);

as Experience spaces, as learning and practice spaces,

in which they can discover and explore new things, experience adventures, explore and keep secrets; in which they can prove themselves in social relationships and recognize themselves, experience and suffer affection and aversion, friendship and enmity, solidarity and quarrel; in which they slip into different roles and learn to act according to the rules of the game when they are implemented and can practice basic social behavior patterns, virtues and value orientations; in which they acquire and practice a wide variety of skills and abilities, recognize relationships and acquire detailed knowledge of the circumstances of their environment

as Fantasy rooms,

in which they are encouraged to invent new games and creative activities and find fun in constantly exceeding the limits of the factual conditions in their imagination.


  • Bateson, G. (1990): Mind and Nature. Frankfurt;
  • Medienpädagogischer Forschungsverbund Südwest (2013): KIM study 2012. Children + Media, Computer + Internet. Stuttgart;
  • Schäfer, G. E. (1989): Game Fantasy and Game Environment. Munich;
  • Spanhel, D. (1988): The future of childhood in view of the scientific and technical developments. In: D. Spanhel, S. Hotamanidis (ed.): The future of childhood, Weinheim, pp. 72-91;
  • Spanhel, D. (1991): Allowing Children to Play. In: Spielmittel, H. 1, S. 17-32;
  • Spanhel, D. (1992): The game from an ecological and educational perspective. In: teach / educate, no. 3, pp. 52-58;
  • Spanhel D. (2006): Media Education. Handbook of Media Education Vol. 3. Munich, pp. 141ff .;
  • Zacharias, W. (2000): Interactive - media ecology between the realm of the senses and cyberspace. New multimedia play and learning environments for children and young people. Munich

Further contributions by the author can be found here in our family handbook


Prof. Dr. Dieter Spanhel
At the forest 27
85072 Eichstätt




Created on October 25, 2001, last changed on June 25, 2014