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Essay: Modern theories of play

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  • Modern theories of play
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Research into early childhood development has widely focused on role of play towards the development of children. Developmental and psychological theories have suggested play to be one of many sources that influence language, social, cognitive and emotional development in children (Piaget, 1961; Vygotsky, 1978). Ever since, numerous researches consisting of varying methodological designs have investigated play theories, prompting the understanding of the role of play in child development. Classical theories of child development derived in the early twentieth centuries aimed to understand the purpose behind play in children, focusing on consumption of surplus energy beliefs and instincts related to evolution. After 1920, classical theories have been discredited and extinct, and new modern theories were proposed as a result of experimental research. Modern theories of play aim to determine the contributions of play in child development as opposed to investigating the underlying cause of the behaviour. Theories and experiments conducted not only investigated the influence of play on development but also differentiated the different types of play involved and how they vary in their influence on children’s social, cognitive, physical and emotional development.

For instance, physical play, also referred to as ‘rough-and-tumble’ play has been observed to evolve the earliest in children (Bjorklund & Brown, 1998; Tannock, 2007). This type of exercise play has been suggested to develop motor and cognitive skills (Pellegirini and Smith, 1998; Stodden et al., 2008) and improved social interactions in primary school children (Beresin, 2012). Symbolic play illustrates children’s cognitive, social-emotional and language skills (Elder and Pederson, 1978; Marinova, 2018). Evolving after 12 months, this play involves the use of imagination and idea expression with the use of objects to form representations (Ring, 2010). Pretend play has attracted the most attention amongst all kinds of play in child development. Studies have linked pretend play with the development of creativity (e.g Mottweiler and Taylor, 2014) where children more involved in pretend play showed greater creativity in storytelling. The ‘nonliteral action’ and its connection to theory of mind and conceptual reasoning has prompted research in pretend play to investigate the use of mental states (Weisberg, 2015).

This essay will discuss and evaluate four modern theories of play and it’s role in child development; Cognitive, Arousal Modulation, Socio-Cultural and Metacommunicative theory of play. Furthermore, research evidence presented will consider the aforementioned types of play and critically evaluate the use of such experimental methods in relations to the theories.

Piaget’s Cognitive Theory:
Modern cognitive theories of play start from Piaget’s contributions. He proposed that play reflects and contributes to development (Piaget, 1962). Furthermore, Piaget considers play to be an outcome of assimilation which is behaviour that is exhibited by the child as a result of their own mental constructs (Sutton and Smith, 1979; Christie & Johnsen, 1983). A child resorts to play in order to make the environment around them match their cognitive constructs. According to Piagetian cognitive theory, play does not necessarily result in learning new skills, but is the practice of already learned skills or behaviours (Johnsen & Chritisie, 1986). Furthermore, Piagetian theory of play suggests assimilation overtakes accommodation and hence contributing to their own development (Mellou, 1994).
Piaget’s work suggests play to influence cognitive development in three levels of play; sensorimotor, symbolic and play with rules. He argues that during play, imitation is required which is essentially the child’s ability to reproduce learned behaviour (Gray, 1982). Thus, imitation leads to developmental growth in children and with the help of play children practice this.

Pellegrini et al., (2002) investigated the impact of playground games with rules involving numbers. Results demonstrated that boys in particular showed greater social competence as a result of frequent playground games. Furthermore, Siegler and Ramani (2008) in their study showed children with greater number knowledge spent more time playing board games with their peers.

Piaget’s theory is essential in explaining how children are active recipients of their own development. However, his theory proposes child development to occur in patterned stages where learning does not exist. There is no empirical evidence that shows these developmental stages and neither has any methodological procedure been devised to specifically understand when a child moves from one stage to the other. Furthermore, it does not consider individual differences and atypical development and combines all of development under the umbrella stages of development. Another element that has not been acknowledged by Piagetian theory is intelligence. It can be argued that children play as a result of exploring and increasing their intellect as opposed to assimilation. Furthermore, this theory does not clearly explain why some children pass developmental stages quicker than others.
Research supporting Piaget’s theory include methodological implications. For instance, Pellegrini et al’s. experiment measured social competence by identifying peer popularity amongst the sample group. This can be considered as an unreliable measure for social competence. Similarly, experiments conducted have not controlled for time and type of games played by children before investigating social competence and number knowledge. Furthermore, research findings are only generalisable to limited populations.

Arousal Modulation Theory:
The arousal modulation theory was proposed by Daniel Berlyne in 1960. This theory suggests that play is a result of arousal regulation, where children play in order to create an arousal equilibrium. ‘Specific exploration’ that is observed in children’s play occurs due to increased arousal, and results in different types of play (Mellou, 1994). Ellis (1973) modified arousal modulation theory by suggesting that children play in order to seek stimulus. They do this by using objects and initiating pretend play with peers (Mellou, 1994). According to arousal modulation theory, irregular level of arousal will result in symbolic or problem-solving play (Hutt, 1979). Research has shown object play to enhance mathematical abilities. Nath & Szücs (2014) conducted an experiment with 7-year old participants taking part in construction play. Construction play is an example of play that involves the use of objects and the representation of symbols to the objects. Findings from the study suggest a relationship between Lego-construction and mathematical ability. Furthermore, several studies have investigated into the relationship between the role of play and problem-solving abilities in children of different ages. Vandenberg (1981)*** demonstrated that children in play group performed better than children in nom-play group condition when measuring their problem-solving skills. Ramani and Seigler (2008) corroborate this finding by demonstrating children from same economic backgrounds, those with greater experience with board games increased their number-based skills and subsequently their problem-solving ability.

Arousal modulation theory is the only play theory that proposes the involvement of arousal levels in children to influence their need to play. It also provides a systematic cycle type element to children’s playful behaviour. However, as the arousal modulation theory suggests a child needs to be kept at medial level of arousal, it can be argued that this theory does not specify the optimal arousal level. The types of play children take part in differ as they grow older. This theory also fails to elaborate on how arousal may differ with age. Furthermore, it is unclear if there is a specific threshold level, which if passed, the child engages in specific exploration. Hence it is difficult to understand that at which level of internal arousal may a child exhibit specific exploration and subsequently succumb to different types of play. Furthermore, this model does not provide an explanation to account for individual differences between children.

Empirical evidence investigating arousal modulation theory has several methodological implications. Firstly, most research that has taken place has investigated one age group at one time of their development. Thus, it is unlikely to generalise the findings on another age group, especially considering the evidence relates to developmental trajectory that has the ability to change as a child grows. Furthermore, most findings cannot be generalised to children of populations apart from WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich democratic) populations. There is lack of research conducted in Asian and low education backgrounds. Furthermore, studies that have controlled for socio-economic backgrounds (e.g Ramani & Seigler, 2008) do not explicitly mention educational background and financial status of children’s families that may impact the results. One major implication of experimental research is the level of controls that are necessary to apply in order to achieve a cause and effect relationship. For instance, Nath & Szücs (2014) measured visuo-spatial memory and mathematical ability by testing children in a Lego construction paradigm. Children were tested independently. It can be argued that the experiment exhibited an unnatural playing environment with the involvement of instructions provided by an unfamiliar experimenter. Furthermore, it is difficult to conclude a cause and effect relationship between Lego construction and cognitive abilities. Correlation does not equate to causation. Similarly, all experimental designs measured cognitive abilities using tests and assessments, all of which have different reliability scores and thus questioning the validity of the findings.

Vygotsky’s Socio-Cultural Theory:
The socio-cultural theory proposed by Vygotsky (1976) suggests social surrounding and cultural environment shapes and influences the development of thought and subsequently developmental trajectory. This theory contrasts Piaget’s cognitive theory as it emphasises on the direct involvement play in development as a result of learning from social environments. Vygotsky’s theory has been explained by children’s use of symbolic play where abstract thought is implemented in order to distinguish between meaning from unrelated objects. Children liberating thought from objects suggest the use of mental representations (Vygotsky, 1976). An early experiment conducted by Joy L. Elder and David R. Pederson in 1978 investigated if there are differences in the way children play symbolically between three age groups. Results demonstrated developmental differences between the age groups in symbolic play and dependence on substitutes for symbolism. Findings from this experiment can be corroborated with experiments investigating language development. Language development and its initiation has also been suggested to be impacted by symbolic play (Orr & Geva, 2015; Smith & Jones, 2011). A link has been observed between babbling and single object play, suggesting integration in language development. Furthermore, studies have also observed the amount of pretend play and cultural variations within pretend play have an impact on infant habituation (Bornstein & Tamis-LeMonda, 1989) and emotional wellbeing of toddlers (Tamis-LeMonda et al., 2006). Thus, supporting socio-cultural theory of development.
While research provides empirical evidence towards Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory, there are several implications and advantages of the theory and research. As with most theoretical framework, Vygotsky’s theory does not account for individual differences observed between children in general, and children belonging within the same socio-cultural context. Furthermore, while this theory emphasises on social interaction many other elements of child development have been disregarded such as emotional intelligence (Mellou, 1994). On the other hand, socio-cultural theory is one of the only modern theories that emphasise on cultural context of child development. This accounts for differences in environments, which can impact a child’s developmental outcomes.

Empirical research has provided a substantial amount of backing to Vygotksy’s theory. However, several implications question the validity and reliability of the findings. Firstly, most research has been conducted with small samples (e.g Elder & Pederson, 1978). Use of small samples in experimental designs may assume false premises (Faber & Fonesca, 2014). Thus, producing a possible insignificant finding. Secondly, all experimental research employed great control over extraneous variables. This may be necessary in establishing a valid cause and effect relationship. However, it results in findings that may not be generalisable to the general population. For instance, Elder and Pederson pretested children in order to judge their eligibility into the study of symbolic play. This means only children familiar to the objects used in the experiment may be generalisable to the findings. On the other hand, longitudinal studies like the one employed by Orr & Geva (2015) have several benefits. Longitudinal designs allow experimenters to determine patterns of development that may not have been observed with short experimental designs. Language acquisition develops in stages and such study designs encourage in detail and valid findings. On the contrary, a large sample size is required. Orr and Geva’s study had a sample size of 14, thus a weak sample size for establishing causal relationships.

Metacommunicative Theory:
Gergory Bateson conceptualised the metacommunicative theory of play, where he suggested play as a paradox. Bateson suggested children who take part in pretend play operate at two levels; representing symbols to objects and understanding their own identities (Mellou, 1994). An example of children exhibiting both operations is when they take a short break from their pretend play and efficiently switch from pretend scenarios to their real-life situation (Garvey, 1977; Mellou, 1994). According to metacommunicative theory, children with the help of pretend and sociodramatic play understand the concepts of the roles they exhibit in pretend play (Mellou, 1994) which enhances their self-regulation of emotions. Carlson, White, and Davis-Unger (2014), in their experiment, found children who engaged more in pretend behaviours had increased executive functioning abilities. Furthermore, pre-school children show a correlation between the quality of pretend play and their ability to self-regulate their emotions (Slot et al., 2017). Self-regulation and metacommunicative are functions related to executive functioning, and thus evidence presented suggests the role of play towards concept formation.

Metacommunication theory highlights the existence of frames in children’s play, where children learn to develop understanding of in frame and out frame communication (Whitebread & O’Sullivan, 2012). The theory is unique in a way it highlights non-verbal communication and intentions of play in children. Bateson’s theory shed light onto metalinguistic abilities observed in children and how non-verbal indicators can be linked to symbols such as objects. Hence allowing for the understanding of language development at a metalinguistic level in children. Furthermore, metacommunication theory has allowed for research with pretend play in children with Austim (Stirling & Douglas, 2012). While the theory has led to research into metalinguistic abilities and executive functioning, methodological implications should also be considered. Carlson, White and Davis’s (2014) research consisted of children whose parents belonged from the educated metropolitan demographic. Thus, findings cannot be generalised to children from low socio-economic backgrounds with limited resources for education. Furthermore, participants belonged to Caucasian families, hence limiting findings to only one cultural and geographical group. Furthermore, measures for verbal ability and memory are different for each research experiment, hence comparisons cannot be made within them.

In conclusion, modern theories of play imply play to be goal directed and enjoyable for the child. At the same time, they suggest play to have a role in child development. Play may be a result of exploration or arousal modulation or assimilation, but eventually all theories support the idea that children’s play can significantly influence cognitive, emotional and language development of children.

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