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Childhood Development and the Benefits of Play, Research Paper Example

Pages: 13

Words: 3529

Research Paper

The role of play in early childhood development can not be underestimated. It is through play that children learn how to move, how to think, and how to interact with others. There are different types of play, such as “pretend play” (where children pretend to cook, or walk a dog, or drive a car, all using their imagination), “social play” (any play that involves interaction with others), and “constructive play” (where a child uses his or her imagination to crate or build something (Maricopa, 1998). There are, of course, many other types of play; these and other types will be examined in this paper. More importantly, though, will be an examination of how these different types of play benefit the physical, cognitive, and psychosocial development in children.

The Role of Play in Physical Development

Physical development in children is probably the most readily apparent aspect of their early development. Anyone who has been around babies and toddlers can see how they change almost from day to day (Evans et al, 2000). Using new muscles, learning new movements, practicing new skills, all are a part of development. Children’s muscles gain strength as they use their muscles, and they begin to develop control of these muscles. One major skill babies learn is how to crawl, and as they crawl, they begin to explore the world around them. Eventually they are walking, and then running (Brotherson, 2006).

Researchers have determined that parents in different cultures and different socioeconomic groups have different goals and expectations for their children, and for what they consider to be the important steps in their children’s physical development. As an example, Sean Brotherson (2006) points to cultures where the sport of soccer is “played early and very competitively,” and asserts that parents in these cultures may see success on the soccer field as a sign of good physical development. Still, Brotherson notes, many of the milestones of physical development are universal.

There are two major categories of physical development: normative development and dynamic development. Normative development describes the typical capabilities that the average child in a given age group would be likely to demonstrate, as well as what physical actions and activities would remain out of reach for the same average child. Dynamic development describes those physical changes a child goes through over time, and the order in which these changes occur (Brotherson, 2006).

The significance of normative development is that it provides benchmarks against which parents can assess their own child’s development. It provides standards and averages for children of various age groups, delineating specific tasks that children tend to master at different times (ex: zipping zippers, tying shoes, etc) (Brotherson, 2006). These benchmarks are referred to as developmental milestones (Brotherson, 2006). There are various resources that parents can access to get information about these milestones, but generally the information is the same within specific cultural and socioeconomic groups (Brotherson, 2006).

One significant aspect of physical development is “motor development,” a term that refers the development of movement and physical skills such as grasping and walking (Brotherson, 2006). Many factors influence motor development, from diet to genetics to cultural background. There are different aspects to motor development; the two basic categories are “gross-motor development” and “fine-motor development” (Brotherson, 2006). The first term refers to tasks such a walking and jumping; the second refers to tasks such as smiling, shoe-tying, and grasping small objects (Brotherson, 2006).

In his essay “Understanding Physical Development in Young Children,” Sean Brotherson discusses several key principles relating to physical growth in children. One such principle, “directional growth,” refers to certain patterns in the way children typically develop. First, children develop their gross-muscle groups earlier than their fine-muscles; for example, children’s neck muscles develop earlier than the muscles in their fingers and toes. Next, children develop their muscles from “top to bottom;” that is, they develop the ability to move their heads before the ability to walk. And finally, they develop muscles from “inside to outside,” meaning the muscles around the neck and trunk develop before the muscles in the hands and feet (Brotherson, 2006).

Other growth principles include “variations in growth,” which refers to the different types of growth patterns that occur in different age ranges. The principle of “critical period growth” refers to the types of growth that typically occur during “critical” periods; the years from birth to six years is considered to be among the most critical of all growth periods, often setting the stage for a child’s entire future development (Brotherson, 2006).

Given the significance of growth in early childhood, it is easy to see how play can be beneficial to the development of physical skills in children. Nearly every type of play activity involves some sort of physical activity; gross-motor development is aided by activities such as running and jumping, while fine-motor development can be honed through activities such as playing with blocks, drawing with crayons, or playing with dolls or trucks (Brotherson, 2006). As this is such a critical period in a child’s life, it is imperative that children are afforded the opportunity to play and to participate in a variety of physical activities.

The Role of Play in Cognitive Development

While the benefits of play for a child’s physical development are easily seen, there are equally significant benefits that may be not as readily visible. The role of play in cognitive development is one of these benefits.

Research has shown that several key factors in cognitive development occur between the ages of one and two years old; among these are the use of “representative language” and “mental representation,” leading researchers to hypothesize that these functions are interrelated (Bergen, 2002). Engaging in “pretend play” requires the ability to think “symbolically, to use one’s imagination. In addition, at this time, children learn how to interact with others to negotiate, to improvise and to create (Bergen, 2002). Many different cognitive abilities are involved in these various activities, including the ability to plan and to think ahead. Research seems to indicate that play hs at least some causal effect on these cognitive abilities, and that a lack of play may mean a slowing of the development of some cognitive abilities (Bergen, 2002). Play seems to make use of distinct sectors of the brain related to emotion, logic, language, and motor skills (Bergen, 2002).

Research has shown a connection between play and skills in mathematics, language, cognition, impulse control, and problem-solving skills. There are numerous theories about how play is related to these various functions of the brain; while they don’t always agree about the details, there seems to be a consensus that play and cognitive development are strongly linked (Bergen, 2002). One view is that play involves “mental representation” (i.e.- use of the imagination) which affords a child the opportunity to “practice” seeing things from different perspectives (Bergen, 2002).  For example, role-playing during pretend play requires a child to act out other’s thoughts and actions (or at least what the child imagines those thoughts and actions to be), and to manifest the emotions of different people in various situations (Bergen, 2002).

One experiment has shown that children between the age of two and three show an ability to make “replica persons” perform pretend actions, and have a “shared understanding” with other people about a common activity (Bergen, 2002). Even at ages younger than four years, children show an ability to engage in deception, which is demonstrable evidence of an awareness of situational reality beyond the limits of their own point of view (Bergen, 2002). It seems evident that play is the mechanism (or one of the most significant mechanisms) by which children develop the ability to see things from different perspectives; it is as if play is the “practice” of seeing the world through other’s eyes.

Further, this ability to share common awareness allows for joint planning and roles assignments during play (Bergen, 2002), and some researchers posit that the children develop a significant amount of their cognitive abilities through play activity between the ages of two and six years old (Bergen, 2002). It is believed that pretend play in this age range is a key component of the development of cognitive abilities such as reading comprehension, recognition and understanding of basic mathematical concepts, and other cognitive functions (Bergen, 2002).

The relationship between play and specific “cognitive strategies” has been the focus of numerous studies (Bergen, 2002). These strategies include self-regulation, narrative recall, problem-solving, and understanding of rules (Bergen, 2002). Some researchers assert that young children incorporate “private speech” into their play in an effort to self-regulate, and that this function eventually leads to the development of an “internal dialogue” or internal, self-regulating thought patterns (Bergen, 20020).  Less private speech is found during other types of play (such as physical play) than pretend play, leading some researchers to conclude that there is a stronger link between pretend play and cognitive development than there is between such development and other types of play (Bergen, 2002).

These same studies have shown that pretend play that requires children to define and carry out specific tasks affords many opportunities to engage on private speech that with types of play that have more specific tasks or tasks that are defined by a teacher or parent. This private speech is common in young children, but begins to fade around third grade, as children trade internal thought for vocalized self-regulation (Bergen, 2002). There is some question about how “organic” this cut-off is, or is it has more to do with a diminishing number of opportunities to engage in pretend play in school settings (Bergen, 2002).

One study compared four year-olds and five year-olds in two sets of conditions: one involved story-telling, the other involved story-telling in combination with play enactment of the story elements. The children in the pretend-play story-telling scenarios demonstrated a significantly greater use of “elaborate narratives” and displayed more complex narrative structure in their stories than the children involved solely in storytelling (Bergen, 2002). Children involved in role-play storytelling also had a greater recall of the narratives both immediately afterwards and in later testing. These elements are all seen as important factors in literacy and linguistic skill-development (Bergen, 2002).

Studies have also shown that play has an important role in developing problem-solving skills (Bergen, 2002). One study examined different types of problem-solving, and different types of play, and found that “sociodramatic play” involving storytelling and creation of narratives and characters had a strong link to problem-solving (Bergen, 2002). Relationships were found between problem-solving and cooperative play as well as sociodramatic play (Bergen, 2002).

One study determined that children between the ages of two and four years old were able to learn how to understand and follow rules through play activities such as pretend play (Bergen, 2002). The children ere able to understand both explicit rules that they could articulate (such as “play fair”) and implicit rules that they could follow. But often could not articulate (such as engaging others, following a sequence) (Bergen, 2002). Rules from the first category that were broken would often lead to a stop in play, while if the implicit rules were broken, the older players would often try to guide the less-experienced players back into line through example in order to keep the play going (Bergen 2002). One researcher suggested that the development of implicit rules requires multiple cognitive strategies, and that play is among the best ways for children to develop these abilities (Bergen, 2002).

These studies offer only a glimpse of the countless number of studies that have explored the relationship between play and cognitive development. There are different theories about how the two areas are interrelated; questions remain about whether play is a direct causal factor in cognitive development, or if the two areas develop more in parallel, but there is no doubt that there are strong connections between the two areas. It seems evident that children need play time to explore the world, to examine their roles in the world, and to develop their imagination, linguistic skills, and problem-solving capabilities.

The Role of Play in Psychosocial Development

Like cognitive development, the effect of play on psychosocial development is not as easily seen as, say, a child’s physical development, but it may be among the most important benefits of play in early childhood development. Through play, children learn about themselves, each other, and the world around them.

Whereas babies use play primarily as a solitary activity, children in the early pre-school years begin to use play as a means to interact with others (Frost et al, 2008).  Social play becomes more complex as children age; in the article “Characteristics of Social Play,” the authors examine the development of social play in six stages: unoccupied behavior, onlooker behavior, solitary play, parallel play, associative play, and cooperative play (Frost et al, 2008).

In “unoccupied behavior,” the child is not playing, but is occupied with behavior such as observation and examination of his own body parts or things around him. In “onlooker behavior,” the child observes the play activities of other children but does not get involved in the play. This goes beyond mere observation of the general surroundings, as it is focused on the specific play behaviors of others. In “solitary play,” the child plays with toys by himself, without involving or getting involved with other children around him. In “parallel play,” the child is still playing independently, but is engaging in behavior that is similar to the other children, such as using similar toys. In “associative play,” the child plays with other children, and engages in trading toys and other activities, but there are no particular rules to the play activities. Finally, in “cooperative play,” the child engages in activities with other children that involves organization, following of rules, and using the imagination for a shared purpose (Frost et al, 2008).

Moving from solitary play to parallel, associative, and cooperative play is seen as a significant developmental step. Still, solitary play is important for a child’s development; activities such s drawing, painting, and playing with blocks can be allow a child to explore and develop his or her creativity and personality (Frost et al, 2008). It was once thought that solitary lay was “immature, but it is increasingly recognized as important (Frost et al, 2008). Children may enjoy solitary play for a number of reasons: some tasks are more easily accomplished alone, or the child may simply want to have time for self-reflection. For some children, solitary play is a sign of shyness or peer rejection, but generally it can be considered to be a positive activity (Frost et al, 2008).

Researchers have reached a number of conclusions about the levels o social play in the preschool years. Social play becomes more pronounced in these years; while children may still play alone, they increasingly engage in parallel play and with  an ever-widening peer group. The most significant change for children in this age group is not in the amount of play in which they engage, but in the sophistication of play related to the cognitive and social development children are experiencing during this time (Frost et al, 2008).

As noted in the section on play and cognitive development, sociodramatic play has ben demonstrated to have a strong link to cognitive development. As might be expected, this is also true with the relationship between play and psychosocial development. It seems almost self-evident that play involving acting out scenarios with other children would be a significant contributing factor in children’s social development. In sociodramatic play, children engage in role-playing and the creation and carrying-out of narrative structures; in these scenarios, they invent characters and situations s well as imitate people and situations from their real lives. As they play with different children, their abilities and narratives become more sophisticated and varied (Frost et al, 2008).

According to Frost et al, there are “six criteria of dramatic play that evolve into sociodramatic play;” the first four are defined as “dramatic ply” and the last two as “sociodramtic play,” delineated as follows:

  • Imitative role play.  The child undertakes a make-believe role and expresses it in imitative action and/or verbalization.
  • Make-believe with regard to objects.  Movements or verbal declarations and/or materials or toys that are not replicas of the object itself are substituted for real objects.
  • Verbal make-believe with regard to actions and situations.  Verbal descriptions or declarations are substituted for actions and situations.
  • Persistence in role play.  The child continues within a role or play theme for a period of time at least 10 minutes long.
  • Interaction.  At least two players interact within the context of a play episode.
  • Verbal communication.  There is some verbal interaction related to the play episode.

Researchers differ in the exact terminology they use to characterize the different types of sociodramatic play; some use terms like “make believe” and “pretend play;” others use “symbolic play;” still others use “role play” (Frost et al, 2008). The term “sociodramatic play” serves as an umbrella term for many of these different types of play, incorporating “representation and pretense” as well as “reality orientation, organizational skills, reasoning and argumentation, and social skills” (Frost et al, 2008). Sociodramatic play is the mechanism by which children learn to use all of their primary developmental factors, such as physical development, cognitive development and budding social skills in order to manifest a story or theme (Frost et al, 2008).

Another important factor involving play is how it can serve as a conduit through which children can express their emotions. At such a young age, children often do not have the capacity to verbalize their emotions. It is through play that they can express the full range of their feelings (Frost et al, 2008). This expression can provide catharsis, especially as a means for children to express unpleasant or difficult emotions that are too difficult or painful to express verbally. Of course, children can also express positive feelings through play; these outlets allow children to develop a sense of control over their emotions (Frost et al, 2008). Some researchers believe that through play, children can “work through” unpleasant feelings before moving on to other types of play (Frost et al, 2008).

It is not only through sociodramatic and cooperative play that emotions can be expressed; children can display and express emotions through solitary play s ell. It is believed, however, that the expression of emotion through sociodramatic play is a key component of emotional development, in that it allows children to learn how to express and otherwise deal with their emotions in the context of playing with other children, which is seen as a significant measure of emotional maturity (Frost et al, 2008). Through role play, they can act out different types of emotions, thereby learning about healthy ways to express and deal with different emotional states.

It is clear that play is a hugely significant factor in early childhood development. As with physical development and cognitive development, children develop much of their social and psychological assets through play. As infants, children begin to observe the world around them. They use their muscles to grasp at objects, to smile, to crawl across the floor. As they get a bit older, they learn to play with toys and become more involved with the world around them. Through play, children develop their gross and fine muscle groups as they walk and run and jump, and as they play with blocks and draw with crayons. In the critical years between the ages of two and six, they learn to play with each other, to use their imaginations, and to grow into their personalities.

Through play, children learn to work together, and to solve problems. Through play, children develop their ability to reason, to understand other points of view, and to communicate with other children and those in the world around them. As preschoolers, children talk out loud to themselves; s they get older, this leads to the development of internal thought. Play is clearly so much more than play; it is, in fact, the work of growing up.

References

Bergen, Doris. (2002). The Role of pretend play in children. Early Childhood Research and Practice4(1),

Brotherson, Sean. (2006). Understanding physical development in young children. Retrieved from http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/yf/famsci/fs632w.htm

Evans, Judith L., Meyers, Robert G., & Ilfeld, Ellen M. (2000). Early childhood counts: a programming guide on early childhood care. Washington, D.C.: The World Bank.

Frost, J.L., Wortham, S.C., & Reifel, S. (2008).Characteristics of childhood play. Retrieved from http://www.education.com/reference/article/characteristics-social-play/

Why Do children play?. (1998). Retrieved from http://www.mc.maricopa.edu/dept/d46/psy/dev/Spring98/earchild/index.html

Additional References (for context as well as further study)

Almon, Joan. (n.d.). The Vital role of play in early childhood education. Retrieved from http://www.waldorfresearchinstitute.org/pdf/BAPlayAlmon.pdf

Davis, Doug, & Clifton, Alan. (1995). Psychosocial theory: erikson. Retrieved from http://www.haverford.edu/psych/ddavis/p109g/erikson.stages.html

 Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. (2004). Retrieved from http://allpsych.com/psychology101/social_development.htm

Jambor, Tom, & Van Gils, Jan. (2007). Several Perspectives on children’s play: scientific reflections for practioners. Philadelphia, PA: Garant Publishers.

Lopes, Marilyn. (2002). Play is the business of kids. Retrieved from http://www.nncc.org/Curriculum/create.play.grow.html

Lopes, Marilyn. (n.d.). Creative play helps children grow. Retrieved from http://www.nncc.org/Curriculum/create.play.grow.html

Moore, Robin C. (1986). Childhood’s domain: play and place in child development. Dover, N.H.: Croom Helm Publishing.

Olfman, Sharna. (2003). All Work and no play: how educational reforms are harming our preschoolers . westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

Roskos, Kathy, & Christie, James F. (2000). Play and literacy in early childhood: research from multiple perspectives. Malwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc..

Seifert, Kelvin L. (2004). Cognitive development and the education of young children. Retrieved from http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~seifert/cogchapweb.html

Sheridan, Mary D., Harding, Jackie, & Meldon-Smith, Liz. (2002). Play in early childhood: from birth to six years . Padstow, Cornwall, Great Britain: NFER Publishing.

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