Promoting Social Development Through Play

Six-month old William laughs as his mom plays a game of peek-a-boo with him. Three-year-old Alyce thinks it funny when her father puts on a silly hat. Six-year-old Pedro throws a cape around his shoulders, runs across the room and pretends to be Superman. Play is essentially important in the life of a child.
Play has been defined as “voluntary activity pursued without ulterior purpose and, on the whole, with enjoyment or expectation of enjoyment” (English & English, 1958). Maturation and socialization develop during all stages of childhood through the use of play.Parten’s play theory (1932) and English & English (1958) continue as some of the guidelines from which present educators measure their standards. Historical artifacts and documents prove that children have been playing since earliest times. Toys have been found in the ruins of ancient China, Egypt, Babylonian and other civilizations. Once thought to be sinful and a waste of time, children’s play today is considered an important, if not critical, aspect of social and personality development. Bruner (1975) stated that “Play is…the principal business of childhood.”

Historical Aspects of Play in Socialization

The aspect of play and its value in the socialization process has been of interest to child psychologists, educators and scientists for generations. Parten (1932) identifies these levels as part of the maturation process for children:

· Solitary Play. Play, without regard to the involvement of other children in the room or playground. A child may build a tower with blocks, yet be oblivious to other nearby children.
· Character Play. As the child plays, they observe other children in the same area. Often this child will begin to model their play on another child. After watching another child, they may alter their own play. Even though they may appear to show little interest, they are observing others.
· Parallel Play. A form of play where several children are playing with the same materials, but each is playing separately: Using puzzles, for example. They may converse with others, but work independently. If one leaves the group, the play continues.
· Associative Play. Play in which a loosely organized game is decided upon. For example, children may run around the room, pretending to be airplanes. There are no definite rules or roles. If one child decides not to play, the others continue.
· Cooperative Play. Play in which children assume assigned roles and depend on others for achieving the goals of the play. For instance, if children want to play “house,” they need others to participate in the roles of one or more parents and several children. If one of the key players decided to drop out, the play episode will end.

According to Ellis (1973), play fosters the behavioral variability of an individual, and therefore a species. This increases the probability of future adaptations to unpredictable circumstances where behavioral flexibility is an advantage.
Today, leaders in theories of early childhood education see play as fostering well-being, creative thinking skills and cognitive development. As the child plays, all facets of development are enhanced. Motor, cognitive and socio-emotional development are all increased as the child participates in play experiences. As the children engage in play, the need for variety and competence all come into focus. (Frost & Sunderlin 1985).

Suggestions for Helping Children Learn Social Skills Through Play

By using research and knowledge gained by educators, scientists and child psychologists, we know more about how children develop social skills. The act of “play” is one of the best ways to learn those skills.
How do children classify what they do at school as “work” or “play?” Work is something assigned by the teacher, although older children may say it was play if it was fun (Perlmutter and Burrell, 1995).
Parents and teachers have numerous opportunities throughout the day to help babies, toddlers and preschoolers develop social skills while doing routine work. Recently, several new programs have been developed to help caregivers accomplish these tasks. One such program is Comfort, Play & Teach: A Positive Approach to Parenting. Focusing on activities for babies, toddlers and preschoolers, the program offers simple ideas that promote learning. For example:

If your child is a baby:
When taking your baby to public places, he comes in contact with new faces and voices. Stay close to your baby so he develops a sense of security. This gives him confidence to meet unfamiliar people and surroundings.
Babies enjoy making eye contact with other babies. Allow her time to interact and play as they communicate through sounds or gestures.
Upon leaving your home, remember to say “good-bye” and “hello” to family members. Soon your baby will learn that you always return and you will help him develop a sense of trust.
If your child is a toddler:
Find opportunities to praise your toddler for good behavior. For example, when you must wait in line, praise the child for being patient. Say things like “I’m proud of you for being patient when we must wait in line.”
Schedule time for “play” as you plan your day. For example, if running errands, stop by the park for a few minutes. Play allows your child to interact with peers and you both have more fun.
As you help your toddler develop social skills, use positive statements when speaking. For example, say things like “Please help me pick up your toys,” instead of “Don’t leave your toys on the floor.”
If your child is a preschooler:
Allow your child to make choices when possible. For example, allow her to choose to wear either the red shirt or the blue shirt. Confidence and a strong sense of self are vital to developing social skills.
Play pretend games with your preschooler. If you’re been to the grocery store, pretend to be the cashier or the produce person. Help your child decide what they would say in these situations as they practice difference types of social skills.
Teach pro-social skills and responsibilities by encouraging your child to perform simple chores, such as helping to put groceries away after shopping. Show him how to separate recycled items for collection.

Questionnaire for Parents and Teachers

Adults can be special partners as they help children develop social skills. How would you answer the following questions?
Do I plan time for children to play alone?
Do I encourage children to invite friends over to play?
Do I have a safe home where children may play?
Do I provide a choice of items for play when my child’s friends come to play?
Are the play items appropriate for each age of development?
Do I allow children to make choices for playthings?
Do I allow children to be leaders in their play?
Do I limit the selection a child has at one time?
Do I realize that too many things can be overwhelming and make learning difficult?
How can parents and teachers make sure children have adequate materials and play time? Brewer (2001) suggests that caregivers keep a daily journal for a few days, recording the time their children spend in active play and the materials used in that play. Teachers may arrange for a speaker to talk with parents about the need for active play in a child’s life and to help them find a strategy to increase play if the child is not engaging in active play. Parents must make the distinction between active play and a passive activity, such as watching TV.

Stimulating Play Items

Most homes and child care centers contain stimulating playthings. These items help the child develop creative and imaginative play, whether playing alone or in small groups. Unlike expensive packaged educational toys that may have only one use, these basic items provide hours of fun. The following toys grow with your child and provide a longer learning time:
Blocks (variety of sizes)
Boxes (several shapes)
Large beads and string
Puzzles (wooden or board)
Sand, sifters, cups and spoons
Water and small cups
Play dough
Dress up clothes and costumes
Carolyn Ross Tomlin has been a day care director, kindergarten teacher and Assistant Professor of Education at Union University; Jackson. TN. She contributes to numerous educational publications.

Let’s Go Outside, by T. Theemes. This book describes how to design, equip and maintain a safe yet challenging playground for young children. Use it to help capture the wonder and challenge of outdoor play.

You Can’t Come to My Birthday Party! Conflict Resolution With Young Children, by B. Evans. Socialization takes place as children learn to deal with conflict over toys, space and friendship. These create challenges for teachers and parents. A six-step mediation process helps children deal with these tense and emotional times.

Children’s Books and Stories
The following books and stories are only a few that focus on socialization and building relationships.
Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney
Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss
The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
Love You Forever by Robert Munsch
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst

Brewer, J. (2001). Early Childhood Education: Preschool Through Primary Grades (4th ed.. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
English, H.B., and English, A.C. (1958) A Comprehensive Dictionary of Psychological and Psychoanalytic Terms. New York: David McKay.
Ellis, J.J. (1973) Why People Play. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Frost, J.L. & Sunderlin, S. (1985) When Children Play. Association for Childhood Education International. Wheaton, MD.
Herr, J., & Swim, T.J. (2002). Creative Resources for Infants and Toddlers (2md ed). NY: Delmar Learning.
Invest in Kids Foundation (2005). Comfort, Play and Teach: Promoting Healthy Social Development.
Parten, Mildred B. (1932) “Social Participation among Preschool Children.”
Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 27, July/September 1932: 243-269.
Perlmutter, J. and Burrell, L. “Learning Through ‘Play’ as Well as ‘Work” in the Primary Grades.” Young Children 50 (July 19995): 14-21.
Piaget J. (1962). Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood. New York: Norton.
Spelman, C.M. (2002). When I Care About Others. Morton Grove, IL. A Whitman.

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