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Play in Childhood Essay

Play is one of the most defining features of childhood in Western society. It is something that all children have in common and what makes a child’s world different from adults. In answering the question, this essay will first examine the different opinions held by theorists as to why children play. I will then look at role play, which is one of the many types of play that children engage in. Finally I will look at children’s play as a social process using examples from other cultures and then briefly consider the reasons that children themselves believe they play.

It is wrong to assume that children have always played. Historian, Aries (1962 in Book 1 Understanding Childhood Chapter 2) claimed that childhood was a social construction and that the view of childhood as a separate state did not occur until around the 16th and 17th century – before this, children were economically useful and not valued for the simple joy that children can bring. This was further illustrated by Mayhew (1861 in Book 1 Understanding Childhood Chapter 1), who’s observations from his meeting with the watercress girl led him to state that she had been deprived of her childhood.

This was largely due to the fact that the girl’s work responsibilities did not allow time for play and she had no knowledge of parks or anything associated with play. From this it could be deduced that Mayhew felt children should play. Mayhew’s example also showed that play is a social construction, as although it was clear that the ‘watercress girl’ did not play, the fact that Mayhew suggests this is abnormal may simply be constructed from his own opinions that childhood should be a time of play.

One of the first attempts to explain the importance of play came from the publication of Emile by Jean Jacques Rousseau in (1762 in Book 3 Understanding Childhood Chapter 1). In this, Rousseau emphasized that childhood should be a time of play and children should have the freedom to do this. For Rousseau, play is consistent with a happy healthy childhood, which is often linked with the romantic discourse. This is in contrast with the Puritan discourse which believes that allowing children to play is a risk to the civilization processes, as this can only be achieved through strict discipline. It also believes parents should be responsible for channeling children’s play into creative forms of work which will help children to learn morally and intellectually. It is obvious therefore that these theories differ in their approaches to play. For the Romantic perspective – play is a way that children can express themselves, but for the Puritan approach, play is the way through which children learn.

Other opinions, such as those from developmentalist’s like as Piaget (1896 – 1980 in Book 3 Understanding Childhood Chapter 1) saw play as an opportunity where children learn, practice and consolidate new skills and furthermore play provides them with a time where failing during a task was not going to have disastrous consequences. Vygotsky’s view on the reason why children play is different (1896-1934 in Book 3 Understanding Childhood Chapter 1) as he believed that play was a crucial part in children’s social development in that it helps them acquire skills to learn to cop-operate with others.

Play is also important for children’s cognitive development as children use psychological tools during play such as language and memory. Through play children learn, explore and extend their skills, for example Vygotsky suggested that when children play ‘make-believe’, they can experiment with adult roles and ways of that otherwise wouldn’t’t be possible for them. It is obvious therefore that for Piaget and Vygotsky, the reason children play is to learn.

However, psychoanalysts like Freud(1920 in Book 3 Understanding Childhood Chapter 1) were more interested in the significance of play for their emotional development, suggesting that a child’s psyche could be revealed through their play. Freud suggested from his research that play could have a therapeutic effect as it allowed children to rid themselves of negative feelings. Freud’s views were the building block for others like his daughter Anna who set up nursery for children during the second world war and recognised that observing children’s play had potential as a method of diagnosis, as well as being of therapeutic value for children who had experienced emotional trauma in their lives. Similarly, Klein used miniature dolls as resources that children could use to enact out their inner feelings and anxieties. This shows that psychologists such as Klein and both Anna and Sigmund Freud felt that children play to deal with emotional events in their lives.

There are several different types of play, but I shall concentrate on role play now and why children engage in this type of play. This has been widely researched by Mead (1934 in Book 3 Understanding Childhood Chapter 1),who felt pretend and make believe situations are crucial for children’s personal development. Through role play, children are able to imagine themselves in other roles which helps their developing sense of identity, and through this children develop a sense of who they are and also how others see them.

This was highlighted in Activity 2 (p8 in Book 3 Understanding Childhood Chapter 1) which contained an extract from Bascom’s (1969 in Book 3 Understanding Childhood Chapter 1) research in Nigeria. It involved interviewing a father while his 3 children observed the process and invented a new game from these observations. The activity asked us to think about the significance of this new game. The first child sat on ‘Bascom’s’ chair holding a pen and paper; the second child sat in the ‘interpreter’s’ chair (occupied previous to this by their father) while the third child sat on the bench imitating the ‘informer’.

In the example, the second child told the third child to tell the first child about Odua. The third child then replied and from this the second child ‘interpreted’ this and relayed it to the ‘anthropologist’ in a string of meaningless sounds, supposedly echoing the English language. The first child who was meant to be the anthropologist then wrote on the paper and replied in more meaningless sounds, and so the sequence was repeated. The role-play that the Yoruba children undertook involved skilful imitation to impersonate the 3 adults and their gestures, even their language and the sequence of events.

A similar study occurred in the UK by Kehily et al (2002in Book 3 Understanding Childhood Chapter 1) whose research was carried out through extensive interviews which were audio taped with children in their school. It was found that children incorporated the tape recorder into their games and discussions often imitating the structure of the interview process, even when they weren’t being recorded.

Both of these researches on role play support Meads theory (1934 in Book 3 Understanding Childhood Chapter 1) that children have the ability to observe others and then use these observations to imitate others. The reasons children do this according to Mead is that it helps them to make sense of new and unfamiliar situations.

Role play is further explored in video 3 band 3 ‘pretend play’ featuring Melissa and Hadleigh aged 4, playing mummy and baby at nursery school. This example further supports Mead’s claim by showing that pretend play helps children to act out imaginary roles.

Perhaps one of the most important features of play is that it is a social process. Thomas Gregor (1977in Book 3 Understanding Childhood Chapter 1) studied children’s games in Mehinaku, Brazil, and believed that games mirrored the structure and values of adult society. He observed a game of teneju itai (women’s sons), this involved children marrying and carving a baby from a lump of earth. The ‘mother’ then mimics cradling the baby, which later dies, and is ‘buried’ in a hole. As early childhood death is a common occurrence for this Brazilian tribe, this game prepares children for the possible death of a sibling or playmate.

This game also shows it is non competitive, did not involve hierarchies and did not identify winners or losers. In contrast, in the UK, Laura and Aalliyah (Video 3 band 3) use their imaginations in their role play acting out difficult emotions such as rivalry, conflict and death. These children are in a culture where they are protected from issues such as death and pretend play may offer children a way of exploring themes and issues that are not part of their daily life. Both examples also support Freud’s theory that children use play to act worrying or troublesome situations, and that play is a way in which children can express their feelings.

Play, as a social process is not always a positive experience as Mead’s theory seemed to suggest. During play children can have many decisions to make and negotiate such as who can or can’t play, meaning play can sometimes produce power relations and social hierarchies amongst children. This was shown in research by Thorne (1999 in Book 3 Understanding Childhood Chapter 1) who’s observations found that in the games that they played, children created gender boundaries with single sex friendships, and that children may use play to achieve a position of high status within their group.

Furthermore, play helps children’s identities develop as research with boys in Western societies showed that the play which boys engaged in involved language and physicality which was often competitive, and that they engaged in this type of play in order to help them achieve their masculine identity. This was further supported by research by Epstein (1997 in Book 3 Understanding Childhood Chapter 1) which suggested that children engage in skipping rhymes and games such as ‘kiss chase’ in the playground in order to help construct their gender identity.

Finally, it was also suggested by Back (1990 in Book 3 Understanding Childhood Chapter 1) that the play that these boys engaged in was not just play for playing sake but was also a method used to test the boundaries of friendship, and to decide who was or was not included in their ‘group’.

Finally, as the research so far has been from adults, it is important to consider what children’s views are on why they play. One reason why children play is that it is a time when they can withdraw from reality and create their own fantasy world. This is seen with Joshua, (VIDEO 3 BAND1) who’s favourite type of play seems to be reading. He states that he reads because through doing this he can escape into an imaginary world. He reads, believing it to be important as it broadens his imagination and aids his learning.

This example also shows that as well as being a social process, play can also be solitary. This video also shows Tinco who states that he plays at the temple to find peace and freedom which he does not experience in his home village. The reason Sean seems to play is that he enjoys being in the dark tunnel with his friends playing scary, daring games. These examples show simply that children themselves play for reasons such as to learn, find enjoyment and to have peace and freedom away from adults.

These examples showed that it is evident all children play but the way they play can vary depending upon culture. This was also highlighted by Opie and Opie (1969) who researched on children’s playground culture which found that the same rhyming games had been around for a long time, they just varied from culture to culture.

We have seen therefore that different approaches have contrasting reasons as to why children play, and furthermore that children have different reasons as to why they play.One type of play which children engage in is role play which has been said to play an important part in the development of children enabling them to make sense of situations and form identities. Furthermore, children play as it is a social process which allows children to act out roles in order to help them make sense of situations around them, enabling them to gain an understanding of how others see them which in turn aids their identity development.


Book 1 Understanding Childhood Chapter 2 U212 Understanding Childhood, The Open University, Milton KeynesBook 1 Understanding Childhood Chapter 6 U212 Understanding Childhood, The Open University, Milton KeynesBook 3 Understanding Childhood, Chapter 1 U212 Understanding Childhood, The Open University, Milton KeynesBook 3 Understanding Childhood, Study Guide Audio and Visual notes, Unit 16 U212, The Open University, Milton KeynesBook 3, Understanding Childhood,; Video 3 band 1; My SpaceU212 Understanding Childhood, The Open University.

Book 3, Understanding Childhood,; Video 3 band 3; Pretend PlayU212 Understanding Childhood, The Open University.

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