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Why is play with children and their peers important for child development? Essay

Harris (1998) and Pinker (2002) argued that parental influences have been noticeably overstated in terms of their developmental significance upon children. Unlike many ‘traditional’ researchers whom may have considered parental influences to be fundamental to child development, many contemporary researchers, such as; Schaffer, Dunn & Fein, have began to focus their attention much more profoundly upon the developmental significance of child relationships between one another; namely their fellow peers and siblings. The aim of this assignment is to further explore the developmental significance of child interaction, in particular; child’s play, ensuring to maintain an analytical approach to all theories and research discussed. Throughout the assignment one will attempt to suggest how each relationship, interaction and negotiation within ‘child’s play’ may influence child development. Finally this assignment will ensure to draw attention to any potential weaknesses in all theories/ methods of research discussed.

To begin one might start by discussing the research and ideas of Fein 1984, and Smith who both explored the significance of; conflicts, disputes, disagreements and play fighting. As a focal starting point for this essay one will discuss the transcript of “Dracula and the Monster-vanishing Hero” adapted by Fein, 1944, (pp.136-7). This transcript holds great significance as it demonstrates that ‘play’ induces the need for negotiation in reciprocal relationships. Unlike, complementarily relationships where there is an in-balance of power, resulting in the child naturally having to take the substandard role, in reciprocal relationships both participants share similar knowledge and social power. Therefore, in reciprocal relationships – present in child’s play – there is no parental figure present to protect or feed the child the knowledge needed to acquire the necessary skills. (K.Littleton & D.Miell 2009) Instead, the child has to learn these skills through their own social interaction experiences; as can be seen in the transcript ‘’Dracula and the Monster-Vanishing Hero”. Throughout the transcript there are several examples in which the children learn and practice the skills of negotiation and instruction; this can be seen when they decipher who will play the role of ‘Dracula’ or ‘Hero’. Whilst at first the children negotiate their potential roles well, and indeed appear to be cooperate together effectively, there is a crucial moment within their play-time when the two boys have conflicting ideas as to who will ‘shoot Dracula’. This conflict of ideas can be seen from lines 23-30 in the transcript of ‘‘Dracula and the Monster-vanishing Hero’’. One might suggest that the most significant moment of this sequence is when Michael, having had his arms’ pushed away by Peter, acknowledges Peter’s wishes and says ‘All right’ and lays down on the floor as instructed by Peter. This is largely significant as it demonstrates that Michael, despite having dissimilar ideas to Peter in their play session, seems to have acknowledged his friend’s frustration whilst choosing ‘who will shoot Dracula’ and so surrenders to Peter’s play idea in order to avoid any further, more serious conflict.

One might suggest that this is central to the assignment question as it exhibits the fact that through ‘play’ children learn to develop the skills of negotiation; this is demonstrated when Peter and Michael use metacommunication to discuss how the their ‘play’ storyline will unfold. Yet, perhaps more importantly, one might suggest that ‘Michael’ showed the potential skills to acknowledge and registrar a change of mood in his fellow peer; Peter. This demonstrates a great skill to be able assess another person behaviour and thus react in a way that means withdrawing oneself in order to prevent conflict. However, in order to maintain an analytic approach one must recognise that the transcript of ‘Dracula and the Monster Vanishing hero’ does have its limitations; namely the limitations of discourse analysis itself. As discussed in R, George, J, Oates & C, Wood (2006) a leading weakness of discourse analysis is the validity of its findings. For example, one might suggest that the transcript is, to some extent, only an ‘‘interpretation of the event it seeks to record’’ (K.Littleton & D.Miell, 2005, p99). Thus, in the context of ‘Dracula and the Monster-vanishing Hero’ it could be more than possible that the transcript has been interpreted dissimilar to the actual play event -dependant on what Fien was hoping to discover from the children’s interaction.

Vass, similar to Fien also transcribed a dialogue of two children playing together. However, dissimilar to the transcript of ‘Dracula and the Monster Vanishing Hero’, Vass’s transcript; ‘Fluffy the wonderful Hamster’ was taken from a classroom setting. Though this was not taken from child’s ‘play’ as such – the classroom interaction is still largely significant to the assignment question. It demonstrates that through working & interacting together, children can learn the skills of negotiation and evaluation, and, as a result, can utilise these skills to enhance their level of knowledge and understanding. Throughout the transcript the two girls are continuously proposing their own ideas and suggestions of how they believe their story should unfold. Yet, as each girl makes a suggestion, this is challenged by the other, and thus both girls continuously reflect upon their ideas. This is similar to the transcript from Fien, in that there are many moments of conflict and disagreement. However, it is important to recognise that perhaps the distinguishable difference between the two transcripts is how these ‘conflicts’ or ‘disagreements’ are managed. Though there are indeed clear differences of opinions between the two girls in ‘Fluffy the wonderful hamster’; these are managed in manner which is relatively calm and appropriate – demonstrating properties of adult interaction.

Furthermore, it is important to note that the girls only express themselves through verbal interaction – no violence or physical contact is used. Though on the one hand one might suggest that this is due to the classroom environment, on the contrary, it might be suggested that this is due to the girl’s age – eight years old. It could be assumed that at 8 years of age both girls’ would have had various play interactions throughout their younger developmental years; allowing them to acquire the necessary skills to distinguish between ‘conflict’ and ‘criticism of ideas’. Thus, one might suggest that Vass’s transcript is significant to the assignment question for it demonstrates that through group interaction with peers, children can learn to acquire the skills needed to effectively digest and deal with criticism. In more broad terms; interaction with fellow peers is vital for the development of interaction, negotiation and the understanding of another person’s point of view. This is largely significant as these skills are not only important for childhood, but also are fundamental for life in adulthood. (K.Littleton and Dorothy Miell, 2005)

Dunn, unlike the previous researchers’ and indeed research, which has been discussed in this assignment, focused profoundly on the harmonious and co-operative interactions within play and sibling relationships. She collaboratively with her colleague Munn, carried out a significant piece of research called the ‘Cambridge Sibling study’. In this study forty three families were studied, each of which were intensely observed when the second sibling was 18, 24 and 36 months. The focal point of Dunn’s research was to intensely observe sibling relationships to see how the children expanded their knowledge of their own social world. (K.Littleton and Dorothy Miell, 2005) Dunn’s research is highly significant to this assignment for several reasons, the first of which will be discussed now. Dunn observed that during the first few months of a child’s life, the younger sibling would only be able to co-operate very basic responses to his/her elder sibling during periods of play. This would involve the younger sibling merely imitating the elder sibling’s actions, or indeed laughing in moments of play (Dunn, 1988).

However, approximately 6-8 months later, Dunn observed that the younger sibling’s interactions became much more sophisticated as they could now engage in play in a way that demonstrated their understanding of their elder sibling’s goals. Dunn, (1988) used the example of the elder sibling singing to illustrate this point; when the elder sibling began to sing, the younger sibling went to his/her toy box and brought back a musical pipe and thus began to make blowing gestures with his/her lips. This is vastly significant as through research such as this, Dunn has demonstrated that children can learn through play with their peers; they learn to co-operate in play, to understand the goals of play and indeed to follow instructions from their elders. However, during her research Dunn made a very noteworthy observation that supposed that ‘play’ between siblings was a lot less common in families where relationships between siblings were less pleasant. This is highly significant as it suggest that ‘play’ with siblings is not the only factor for promoting social development and learning. Thus, one might suggest that though play with siblings may indeed contribute to a child’s social learning, it is not essential for child development. Thus there are many other factors and influences which Dunn may not have entirely accounted for which are indeed essential for child development. (K.Littleton &D,Miell 2005)

A further reason why Dunn’s research is significant to this assignment is because she high-lighted the importance of Fantasy and Socio-Dramatic play within siblings and peers. Socio- Dramatic play can be defined as play which imitates real life experiences such as; shopping, going to the doctors, playing ‘mummy’s & daddy’s’ etc. Where as, by contrast, fantasy play is based on ‘imaginary’ or fictional scenes. Both fantasy and socio-dramatic play are important when considering this assignment question as both contribute to a child’s social learning and development. One might start by considering the impact that socio-dramatic play can have upon child development. William Corsaro (1986) said that the language and dialogue used by children in socio-dramatic play tends to imitate real life exchanges that happen in real adult life. Thus, it was suggested by Stone (1981) that through acting out such play routines as apparent in socio dramatic play, that children are in fact preparing themselves for the types of roles they may play in their future adult hood. Even if this was not to be the case, one could still argue that socio-dramatic play is still significant in helping a child to understand everyday social events in society. Finally, in contrast one might ask how fantasy play helps to support learning and development within children. Corsaro (1986) might respond to this by saying that fantasy play not only encourages the development of interpersonal skills, but also allows children to share and control their fears and anxieties through the creative dialogues they create in fantasy theme play. Corsaro argued that “the communal sharing of fears and anxieties makes a key contribution to the development of the kinds of interpersonal skills and coping strategies that children will need later in life” (Corsaro, cited in K.littleton & D.Miell pp.118, 2005)

To conclude, it is my beliefs that play with siblings and peers is important for children’s development as it largely encourages and promotes the development of social skills and social understanding. This can be supported by the examples taken from researchers which have been discussed throughout this assignment. However, a fundamental weakness of the research which has been discussed in this assignment is that it has all been largely based on research conducted in western societies. Thus, as pointed out by Schaffer 1996, this is a significant limitation as it means we cannot propose that sibling and peer play would uphold the same effect in any other area or culture across the world. (Schaffer, 1996, cited in K.Littleton & D Miell pp. 121)


Karen Littleton and Dorothy Miell, 2005, ‘Children’s interactions: siblings and peers in Sharon Ding and Karen Littleton, Children’s personal and Social Development, The Open university, p. 95-120. Rachel George, John Oates and Clare Wood, 2006, ‘Discourse as Evidence’ in Rachel George, John Oates and Clare Wood, ‘Methods and Skills Handbook’ The Open University, p. 44. Harris and Pinker (2002), cited in Karen Littleton and Dorothy Miell, 2005, ‘Children’s interactions: siblings and peers in Sharon Ding and Karen Littleton, Children’s personal and Social Development, The Open university, pp.95 Fein, (1944) cited in Karen Littleton and Dorothy Miell, 2005, ‘Children’s interactions: siblings and peers in Sharon Ding and Karen Littleton, Children’s personal and Social Development, The Open university pp100- 104 Vass, (2004) cited in Karen Littleton and Dorothy Miell, 2005, ‘Children’s interactions: siblings and peers in Sharon Ding and Karen Littleton, Children’s personal and Social Development, The Open university pp111-114 Dunn (1988) cited in Karen Littleton and Dorothy Miell, 2005, ‘Children’s interactions: siblings and peers in Sharon Ding and Karen Littleton, Children’s personal and Social Development, The Open university pp115- 118 William Corsaro (1986) cited in Karen Littleton and Dorothy Miell, 2005, ‘Children’s interactions: siblings and peers in Sharon Ding and Karen Littleton, Children’s personal and Social Development, The Open university pp 118

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