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The Role of Play in Human Development


Anthony D. Pellegrini is Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Minnesota.  His book, The Role of Play in Human Development, examines the role of different forms of human play in terms of its phylogenetic history, its ontogenetic development, and possible functions, suggesting that human play represents one way in which experience shapes development.  In the excerpt below we learn about the importance of imaginary play.

The transition from solitary to social pretend play is a hallmark of the preschool period, reflecting children’s relatively sophisticated social cognitive and linguistic development… because social pretend play involves, by definition, the communication and coordination of abstract meaning between people, the possibility for ambiguity and the subsequent breakdown of social interaction around a pretend theme is relatively high.  This state of affairs is why social pretend play has been afforded such an important role in the ontogeny of children’s theory of the mind (e.g., Leslie, 1987).  With both social pretend play and theory of mind, children are concerned with others’ intents and beliefs.  Also in both theory of mind and social pretend play research, the role of the close adult-child relationship, such as the mother-child relationship, is central to children’s developing ability to understanding others’ intentions…

There is also a very good biological reason for mothers to spend time in joint interaction with their infants and children.  Mothers are “motivated” to spend time and energy on their offspring because they represent a major genetic investment.  Her offspring contain 50% of her genes, and the mother wants to maximize the survival and reproduction of her offspring, and her genes… Therefore, mothers not only invest in protecting and provisioning their offspring, but also in tutoring them in the skills necessary to maximize the offspring’s survival and reproduction.  Mother-child playful interactions are part of this process…

The offspring, too, have an interest in maintaining a close relationship with their mothers, providing their mothers are responsive to their needs.  That is, offspring depend on mothers for protection and provisioning, and they try to maximize the resources they extract from their mothers… This dynamic relationship of interdependence is enacted in the mother-child attachment relationship.  This relationship is developed in social pretend play and forms an important base of children’s representations of other social relationships.  This developmental progression has been documented in a series of studies by Carolee Howes (1992) and her students.  According to Howes, children’s social pretend with mothers begins at around 12 to 15 months of age when children take pretend play actions outside their functional context (i.e., decontextualization), such as pretending to drink from an empty cup.  In a mother-child interaction context, mothers will structure pretend scenarios to maximize children’s participation…, because the child is now capable of responding to its mother’s pretend initiations, often by watching, complying with, and imitating those acts.  To maximize children’s participation, mothers monitor their children’s behavior closely, being particularly vigilant around pretend behavior; they look at children closely and smile after children’s pretend play acts…  In this way children learn to recognize pretend play actions as distinct from non-pretend interactions, and they also come to realize the value of this sort of behavior in social interactions.  Mothers may also “correct” a child’s inappropriate response.  For example, if a child does not respond to the offer of a cup of tea, the mother might ask, “Aren’t you thirsty?”

By contrast, if this same decontextualized play act were initiated in the presence of a peer, there would be a lower likelihood that it would elicit a response.  If there was a response from a peer, however, it would probably take the form of the peer looking or smiling at the child, or imitating the actions…, not extending it as done by the mother.  In other words, peer play partners are expressing an interest in the play initiation, but they may not have the skills to extend the interaction more explicitly like adults do.  Even if this rather low level of interest is expressed, however, children come to recognize that pretend acts have social value (i.e., they are reinforced) and will be likely to continue.

Between 16 to 24 months of age, and as discussed above, children’s pretend play acts become yet more decontextualized, to the extent that they are no longer centered on the child: Children’s pretend acts can be directed at another person…  In the presence of a peer, children of this age are more likely than younger children to try to enlist each other in pretending, and if successful, to enact, or imitate, pretend acts similar to the initiation…, though children’s relatively low social cognitive and linguistic skills limit the degree to which pretend play can be extended beyond this rudimentary level.  For example, Child A may initiate a pretend act in the presence of Child B, such as moving a car around the floor saying “Brrmmmmmmm.”  Child A looks at Child B when this is completed and recruits Child B by handing over the toy car, and Child B then moves it across the floor, too…

By the end of their second year of life, children’s pretend play acts become more integrated into longer behavioral scripts with both their mothers and their peers.  In the mother-child dyad, it is not infrequently the case that the child initiates a script, such as changing a doll’s diaper.  Mother typically supports and extends these actions with prompts more for detailed enactments; for example, “Do we have more diapers?”  “How do you know she needs to be changed?”  Finally, at the end of this period, mothers encourage children’s independent pretend play…

…Important for the development of young children’s symbolization-processing involved in both pretend play and language is the realization that their imitations of adults’ actions and language can be used to solve social problems.  Thus, they recognize that adults are using gestures and vocalizations to get something done (i.e., recognizing adults’ intentions), and they use those same strategies to attain a goal.  Children come to realize that adults use symbols, language, and gestures to direct their attention.  Tomasello and colleagues… label this cultural learning.  Correspondingly, by the second year of life, children recognize adults’ intentionality when adults and peers extend children’s ability to understand that others have different views of situations and symbols than they do.

These descriptions of mother-child interaction in pretend play are also similar, at a general level, to that proffered by attachment theory, such that securely attached children and their mothers interact in a synchronous fashion.  The evolutionary roots of attachment theory, of course, provide an explanation to the motivation question.  Mothers and children alike are motivated to maximize children’s survival.  Building on this, I suggest a more differentiated, behavioral ecological, explanation for mothers’ willingness to invest in her children.  Recall, mothers would be more willing to invest in their children, and consequently spend more time interacting with their children and at more intensive levels, in ecologies that are relative abundant.  In this sort of niche it pays off, in terms of inclusive fitness, to invest more resources in fewer children… In less abundant and more severe ecologies, mothers try to maximize fitness by investing less in individual children and maximizing the number of offspring.  The result of each of these strategies translates into children being securely and insecurely attached, respectively.  Each attachment style, in turn, impacts the way in which children interact with their peers.

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  3. chris

    what is human development?

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