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date: 24 January 2020

Introduction

Abstract and Keywords

The role of play in developmental psychology has been a controversial topic of study. For example, the noted evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson (1975) anointed play as one of the most important topics for understanding human development. It has also been researched by some of the most notable and prescient scholars in our field (Bruner, 1972; Piaget, 1962; Suomi, 2005; Sutton-Smith, 1966; Vygotsky, 1967). By contrast, play has not been a central topic of inquiry in child development, as evidenced by the appearance of only one chapter on play (Rubin, Fein, & Vandenberg, 1983) in the six editions of the Handbook of Child Psychology, from 1946 to present. This Handbook is an attempt to re-set the balance in the study of play within developmental psychology by subjecting it to an interdisciplinary onslaught by scholars from anthropology, history, education, psychology, and evolutionary biology. To this end, the Handbook is organized into separate sections addressing definition and theory, methodology, specific dimensions of play (locomotor, object, social and nonsocial, and pretend), and educational implications.

Keywords: Definitions, theories, methods, dimensions of play, education and play

The role of play in developmental psychology has been a controversial topic of study. For example, the noted evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson (1975) anointed play as one of the most important topics for understanding human development. Similarly, some quarters of the child development community consider it a necessary experience for children, without which serious social emotional damage will be done (e.g., Zigler & Bishop-Josef, 2006). Relatedly, it has been researched by some of the most notable and prescient scholars in our field (Bruner, 1972; Piaget, 1962; Suomi, 2005; Sutton-Smith, 1966; Vygotsky, 1967).

By contrast, play has not been a central topic of inquiry in child development, as evidenced by the appearance of only one chapter on play (Rubin, Fein, & Vandenberg, 1983) in the six editions of the Handbook of Child Psychology, from 1946 to present. More frequently, the study of play has been embedded in the study other topics, such as research on theory of mind (Harris, 1990). Similarly, some evolutionary biologists (e.g., Martin & Caro, 1985; Sharpe, 2005) are skeptical of the value of play.

This Handbook is an attempt to re-set the balance in the study of play within developmental psychology by subjecting it to an interdisciplinary onslaught by scholars from anthropology, history, education, psychology, and evolutionary biology. To this end, the Handbook is organized into separate sections addressing definition and theory, methodology, specific dimensions of play (locomotor, object, social and nonsocial, and pretend), and educational implications.

At one level, play seems a pretty easy construct to define, after all and as is often noted: Most people recognize it when they see it (Smith & Vollstedt, 1985). As simple as it may seem, play is indeed very difficult to define in both nonhuman and human (p. 4) animals. Gordon Burghardt has wrestled with play and its various definitions as part of his effort to examine play in human and nonhuman animals for many years (Burghardt, 1984; 2005). For Burghardt, a clear and explicit categorical definition of play is important in order to document the occurrence of play in the animal kingdom, and perhaps most controversially among reptiles. In his chapter in this Handbook, Burghardt has identified a set of five criteria, each of which needs to be satisfied in at least one respect, in order to identify a behavior as play in whatever context or species being studied. In addition, play can be viewed as operating, at a functional level, in three processes (primary, secondary, tertiary) spanning the continuum from the seemingly atavistic to the developmentally valuable if not essential. This level of conceptual clarity, he notes, is necessary for scientific progress.

In the final chapter in the definition section, Jaipaul Roopnarine defines play in terms of its larger cultural context. Based on variations in parental beliefs about play and participation in play in different cultural communities, Roopnarine offers a more inclusive definition of play is offered that focuses on framed and unframed playfulness.

In a transition chapter between definitions of play and theories of play, Pat Bateson discusses in his chapter confusion over the mistaken notion that play is a unitary construct. Instead, and as reflected in different sections in this Handbook, it has many dimensions (locomotor, social, object, and pretend) and correspondingly different motivations and different functions. Bateson discusses not only putative benefits of play for individuals, but how it may have evolved and also how it might impact evolutionary processes per se.

In terms of theory, Piaget and Vygotsky are perhaps the most influential play theorists for developmental psychologists. The chapter by Goncu and Gaskins not only reviews these theories, but also extends them through incorporating sociocultural theory. Acknowledging a dynamic view of play and development, Herman, Paukner, and Suomi describe how research with non-human primates is clarifying the genetic and experiential factors that impact play. Importantly, this chapter demonstrates how genes and environment operate interdependently and not as separate, additive factors. Elisabetta Palagi, another primatologist, argues that play is both ephemeral and versatile. Probably for this reason it is so difficult to study systematically. Palagi presents some recent studies on primates to show that play is a response to an immediate necessity

Continuing in theory, the evolutionary biologist Robert Fagen’s chapter notes that the role of play in human development remains problematic. Based on ideas of ecology, dynamic developmental systems, intersubjectivity, and communicative musicality, his chapter offers some hypotheses about proximate causation of variation in human play and presents critical analyses of some of the problems that currently plague the field.

For the historian Howard Chudacoff, children’s play is defined as non-obligatory activity. Chudacoff’s chapter focuses on the “latent” period of childhood, ages six to twelve, from colonial America through the recent past. In the final chapter in the theory section, Brian Sutton-Smith argues that the history of modern play theories has been characterized largely by the notion that there are good and bad forms of play. He suggests that these dualisms are mediated primarily from the character of the primary versus secondary emotions in all forms of play.

The section on methodologies used in the study of play is especially important given the wide variety of disciplines that have studied play in human and nonhuman animals. We begin with a chapter on ethnography by Tudge, Brown, and Fresitas. They present a method, designed explicitly to fit within a contextualist paradigm, for observing play in its everyday contexts, and use data derived from a single city from each of the United States, Kenya, and Brazil to illustrate the heterogeneity of young children’s experiences and cast doubt on the generality of earlier findings. Peter Smith’s chapter discusses the use of observational methods in the study of play, both in humans and non-human species. In the first part, he gives a short history of observational methods, and then considers issues around types of observational methods, such as participant and non-participant observation, and alternatives to observation. He also considers some theoretical presuppositions regarding observational work, with examples from studies of play.

The individual chapters in the next section of the Handbook address separate dimensions of play in both human and nonhuman animals. Dave Bjorklund and Amy Gardiner’s chapter takes an evolutionary developmental perspective to examine the development of and sex differences in object-oriented play and tool use, and the relationship between the two. They propose that through the experience gained in object play, children begin to understand how objects can be used as tools to achieve goals and solve problems. They also posit that the existence of tool use in other great apes (p. 5) suggests a common root for our basic tool-use abilities. Also taking a developmental and evolutionary tack, Pellegrini’s chapter discusses the definition of locomotor play in human and nonhuman juveniles, as well as ontogenetic and sex trends. He also examines locomotor play in terms of antecedents (hormonal and socialization events) and function.

A number of chapters are dedicated to various forms of social play. Starting with a relatively unstudied construct, Rob Coplan provides an overview of theory and research related to the study of multiple forms of nonsocial play in childhood. The chapter by David Schwartz and Daryaneh Badaly takes a developmental psychopathological perspective to examine the potential impact of internalizing and externalizing disorders on children’s social play, including nonsocial. They contend that the available findings provide preliminary evidence that childhood disorders can have pernicious implications for social play. Like Schwartz and Badaly, Martin, Fabes, and Hanish discuss individual differences, in the form of temperament, and social play. They present new data highlighting the importance of considering dispositional regulation as a factor influencing children’s interaction with same sex peers.

In Carollee Howes’ chapter, the development of social play in children in the toddler and preschool periods of development is placed within a theoretical framework that integrates theories of development with theories of cultural community, or the socio-cultural context for adult socialization of children’s forms and styles of social play. From this perspective, she examines antecedents of social play, including the child capacities, relationships with adult caregivers, and the social and emotional climate of the social setting of play.

Serge and Vivien Pellis examine one specific aspect of social play, rough-and-tumble play, and argue that one of its central features is reciprocity, requiring that the competition to win be attenuated by the need to maintain cooperation. Based on experimental and comparative literature on non-human animals, primarily rodents, they provide a guide both for characterizing the brain mechanisms involved and for identifying the behavioral rules by which such play can be effectively deployed.

Ed Baines and Peter Blatchford’s chapter examines areas relatively understudied by developmental psychologists: children’s games on the school playground. They show how the school playground is a useful research site because it is one of the few occasions when children interact in a relatively safe environment, free of adult control, and when their play, games, and social relations are more their own. They argue that in order to understand children’s social development we need to study how these arise out of the everyday expression and reality of children’s playful activities and interactions with others in everyday contexts.

Like social play, children’s fantasy, or pretend play, has been extensively studied by developmental and educational psychologists, though theorists have often ignored the role of parents in children’s pretending. In Angeline Lillard’s chapter, four features that distinguish mothers’ pretending from children’s pretending with peers are presented. She also discusses the ways in which mothers might help avert confusion in their early presentations of pretense. Robert Kavanaugh continues the discussion of fantasy play during early childhood, showing how play with peers becomes an important form of social interaction for many children. He demonstrates the similarities and differences between human and nonhuman social pretend play, how human culture impacts the frequency and type of make-believe play with others, and potential consequences of role play.

Jarrold and Conn examine pretend play from a different perspective, showing how individuals with autism tend to produce much less pretense. They argue that problems in producing creative pretend play might result from executive difficulties in the control of behavior or might reflect the fact that play behavior in autism develops in an atypical sociocultural context, a view consistent with accounts emphasizing the gradual development of pretend play skills in childhood.

The role of play in educational outcomes is both controversial and interesting. It’s controversial because very often using “play” as a strategy to educate children violates some of the necessary criteria in defining play, such as a means-over-ends orientation and lack of concern with outcomes. Further, adults often introduce such strategies into the mix to facilitate education, a practice sometimes used to inhibit play, as demonstrated in the Pellis’ chapter. With that said, the chapter by Fisher, Hirsh-Pasek, Golinkoff, Singer, and Berk delineates this territory by presenting the evidence that playful learning pedagogies not only promote important academic learning but also more general skills. They introduce the notion of “playful learning,” a teaching approach that uses free-play and guided-play activities to promote academic, socio-emotional, and cognitive development. The chapter reviews research evidence (p. 6) of play in school and offers suggestions and future directions for research in the emerging playful learning domain.

Lastly, Jeff Goldstein’s chapter considers how children learn to play with technology, and what they learn through that play, also utilizing”playful learning,” though there is little research on whether play with technology increases children’s cognitive or social skills, although some toys are designed with these goals in mind. He suggests that new media do not necessarily replace older media so much as add to the range of play options available.

In sum, this Handbook should re-establish the importance of play in human development as both an important area of research but also by offering guidance to policy makers who have recently been concerned with children’s loss of leisure time.

References

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