Play in kids' social development

How important is play in early years development?
21 September 2020

Interview with 

Jenny Gibson, Cambridge University


Two young children playing in the sand.


To find out about the importance of play in young humans' development, Katie Haylor spoke to Cambridge University's Jenny Gibson from the PEDAL (Play in Development, Education and Learning) research centre...

Jenny - There are some quite interesting links between the emergence of early language and the emergence of pretend play, in particular. So some of those early skills around being able to represent one object as something else. So, I dunno, pretending that a stone as a toy car or something like that, is a kind of symbolic representation of the same kind that we need to use when we're thinking about language as well. So there's some quite strong links between pretend play and language development and early childhood. And then those seem to propagate over early childhood and into middle childhood, to become more sophisticated links. So we see things like elaborate pretending, conversational turn-taking, all manifest in playful contexts. So it's quite an interesting link.

Katie - I was thinking back on how I used to play as a kid. And I remember having quite an important distinction in my head between playing a made up game and then a real game, like badminton or football or something. Is that what you see in other kids?

Jenny - Yeah, I think so. And I think children seem to have quite a good awareness of what they're playing and how and what the parameters of that are. So I think with games like badminton, you've got a quite wide societal acceptance of the rules of the game and what you have to do to join in and play. But when it's more fantasy and make believe, it tends to be a bit more intimate and it happens between close friends. And those close friends negotiate the rules and the boundaries of that universe between them. And then they play within it.

Katie - When I was trying to figure out what play means to me as a concept, I realised that it's probably quite an individual thing and some people find, you know, one thing fun and it might not be fun to somebody else. So from a psychology point of view, is there a scientific definition of what play is?

Jenny - Well, it's a very controversial area and I think you're right. I think it's because it is so tied up with that individual perspective or that kind of small group perspective on what's enjoyable and what you choose to do freely. So I don't think there's a universally accepted definition. Lots of people talk about the importance of intrinsic motivation for play. So it's something that you're doing for its own sake, that it's not with a particular goal in mind, but it's something that's enjoyable and pleasurable and in the moment and something that you do voluntarily. And that can vary from person to person, of course, and across different groups as well.

Katie - How do researchers like you study play?

Jenny - There are lots of different approaches. So the research that we've been doing in my lab, which is the play in communication lab, we've been looking at play from different perspectives. So we've been looking at pretend in particular and doing video based observations of children, where we pair up children, pop them in a room together with some toys. And then the researcher sort of makes an excuse and leaves the room where we just film the unfolding interaction. And then we watch the video, annotate it for important behaviours relating to play and sort of manifestation of pretense, like getting into character, for example. So that's a sort of research-defined approach. And of course, because we've got that video record, we can verify that with independent researchers, for example, to make sure that two people are taking the same thing away from the same video independently. And it's not as subjective as just one person watching it and drawing their conclusions.

Jenny - The other thing that we've been doing is getting children's own perspectives on play. So that's been really good fun! We'll go into a classroom and ask children to sort of tell us about who makes up the good stories, who makes people laugh, who tells jokes, who's playful in your classroom? And try to understand whether the children conceive of playfulness as a personality trait that you might vary along. And then related to that, we've also been asking children for their own views and experiences of play too.

Katie - So there's a lot of communication involved in what you were describing. Does play necessarily have to be a kid playing with another kid, or can children play by themselves?

Jenny - The solitary aspect is important too, and that's kind of linked to behaviours around exploration and curiosity and sensation-seeking. A lot of early play for infants might be exploring an object, putting it in their mouth, seeing how it feels, what sort of noises does it make? And I guess similarly, you see solitary interests emerging in a more sort of formal way in adolescents and adults, when you might be playing solo video games or something like that, or getting into origami that really keeps you occupied and intrinsically motivated, but it doesn't necessarily have to have that social component.

Katie - What about if communication is difficult for you as a little kid? Because it seems quite fundamental to playing with other kids.

Jenny - This is one of my main interests in the research. So children who have got communication struggles can really have challenges with that social aspect of play, and sometimes they can be neglected by their peers or they might actively be rebuffed or even victimised and bullied in some cases. It can turn into quite a problematic time of the day, I'm thinking about school play time in particular now. So I think for children with communication challenges, we're just starting to understand their play needs and how we might make accommodations for different ways in which they might prefer to play, which are perhaps not quite as dependent on those advanced language and communication skills. And a really interesting project that we're just starting is looking at autistic play. Play-based therapies and interventions to support communication skills are common in early childhood interventions for autism or developmental language disorders, but they quite often take a very deficit-based approach. And we're interested in thinking about it in a more positive way. And looking at ways in which autistic people or people with developmental language difficulties might choose to play differently, and how we could use that to scaffold their strengths rather than trying to always address deficits.

Katie - How much has this got to do with the environment in which kids are playing? I guess at home that could be, I don't know, bedroom, garden, maybe at school it's the playground or the classroom. Does where you're playing and what you're playing with, make a big impact?

Jenny - Yeah, it does. I mean, I think one of the biggest things that makes an impact is not being surveilled all the time. So I think having freedom and independence and autonomy are really, really important for play. So it's not saying that we need to abdicate entirely from the idea of safety, but having this idea that taking some risks and being able to be secret is okay for children and we need to make spaces for that to happen.

Katie - Do you think kids are playing enough? Because it's such a challenging time for so many people at the moment.

Jenny - It's particularly concerning that children have had this period where they haven't been able to get outside and play. I think a lot of the - sometimes called - adventurous elements of play happen outside when children have got space to do so. And, so I think there's real deprivation there, as a result of the lockdown. And I think particularly for children who are maybe in poorer families where they don't have access to outside space in the garden, for example, or there might be a lot of overcrowding in the home, there are serious challenges around getting those kinds of play opportunities.

Jenny - But on the other hand, I think the play instinct is really strong and children play and they find creative ways to play sort of no matter where they are, you know. Even in quite extreme adverse circumstances, you can still see evidence of play coming through. It's not an ideal situation, but I'm sure that children are creatively compensating for this.

Katie - What do you think is really not very well understood about play, with regards to kids, that needs further work? Where do you think the priorities are?

Jenny - It depends on who you're talking to! So in general, I think people see play as somewhat trivial, just for kids, it's not that important, nothing to do with education and development. And I think we need to challenge that view and understand more about the role that play has in promoting communication and those collaborative and social skills. I think there's another extreme view that just says play is this kind of panacea for everything. And it's so wonderful. We should all be doing it all the time throughout the whole school day. And I don't think we've got the research evidence to back that up yet. So I think somewhere between the two, there's a space where play research needs to happen, acknowledging that it's an important right for all children. And it's part of a healthy and happy childhood, but also sort of taking a more rigorous approach to understanding how play is a developmental mechanism and what its role might be in educational settings.


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