“Feeling secure and at ease allows the possibility of play, and play itself can facilitate development.” ~ Graham Music (p.125)
Explaining the concept of play as it relates to our (current) understanding of child development, Graham Music writes:
“Play is an important childhood activity; one that is necessary for many other capacities to take root, and yet one that can only develop if certain other developments have already occurred. Children who are lost in play often evoke a sense of awe in adults. Play is generally seen as having intrinsic value; we do not do it to achieve anything else, although there are often rewarding byproducts. We can get lost in play, be taken over by it, and it is no coincidence that the psychoanalyst Winnicott (1971) contrasted play with reality, and argued that the capacity to play, to symbolise and creativity in general are fundamentally linked. As Fonagy and Target show (1996), even very young children can distinguish the worlds they create in play from reality. Harsh realities can sometimes come crashing in to destroy fragile moments of play. Think of the little girl who puts on her mother’s shoes and hat and is pretending to be a teacher until her father comes in and harshly asks what she thinks she is doing.
What makes something play rather than not play, or even work? There is no single overarching definition of play. It comes in all manner of shapes and sizes. It can be solitary or social, imaginary, or rough and tumble, more or less rule bound, verbal or nonverbal, object based, pretend, and more. Play is often characterised by its flexibility, such as putting things in new combinations, changing roles, or making objects represent other things. Play also is generally characterised by positive affect, as seen in Tom Sawyer’s classic ruse when order to whitewash a fence by his aunt Polly (Twain, 1986). Begrudging the duty, he managed to trick his friends into believing he was going to paint the fence for fun, whereupon they all fought to do the task that a moment before had been drudgery and work, but suddenly became play.” (p.124)
“Children are less playful when under strain, when less confident, or when anxious.” (p.124)
“One of the quotes about play that I like best is that play is ‘training for the unexpected’ (Spinka, Newberry, & Bekoff, 2001, p.141). Play almost by definition cannot be rigid and planned; it is generally spontaneous and has elements of uncertainty and surprise. Classic infant games such as ‘peekaboo’ are typical of play that has both a structure and an element of surprise. Often both parties know what is coming next but do not know exactly when. In such games skills are being learnt, such as taking turns and understanding and predicting another’s thoughts and actions.” (p.125)
“By the end of the first year, as skills such as proto-declarative pointing develop, games can increase in complexity, with more likelihood of two partners playing together with a third object. By then ways of interacting and being together are remembered and repeated, and routines can develop.
Such play depends on experiences of subtle mutual attunement and understanding, and requires a complex combination of flexibility and predictability in an atmosphere of mutually positive affect. Exuberance, enjoyment, and pleasure are emotional states that perhaps are not given enough credence in developmental accounts. Infants between 7 and 12 months have been studied in playful episodes, in both dyadic and triadic interactions, and here pleasure and joy increase and neutral and negative emotions all but disappear. From the end of the first year there are exciting developmental leaps, especially with increased mobility, dexterity, and speech, and one sees the beginnings of role play, fantasy, and imaginary games. As Daniel Stern writes ‘playing can only occur in a setting where there is a feeling of ease, of security, of not having to be vigilant, [-p.126] being free of pressing other needs’ (Stern, 2001, p.145).” (pp.125-126)
“Playing has a biological and neurological base and Panksepp (2007) argues that there is a discrete play system, just as there are systems for fear, sex, aggression, or attachment. Human children across all cultures play, so one might assume that playing has been positively selected for evolutionary reasons. Play seems biologically linked with a period of high arousal and almost boundless energy seen in many mammals in mid-infancy. Play can stimulate aspects of brain organisation, developing what Schore (1994) describes as an exploratory-assertive motivational system. Playing can ‘solidify social habits’ as well as developing physical and cognitive capacities, the social circuits of the brain and executive functioning (Panksepp et al., 2003).” (p.126)
“Children play differently in different societies. …Adult beliefs about the role of symbolic play similarly differs across cultures. Americans tend to see play as a way to aid learning whereas Korean mothers are more likely to see play as amusement. Japanese infants are likely to be encouraged in play that has a sociocentric emphasis, with more ‘other directed’ attention, such as ‘feed the dolly’, whereas US mothers might be more likely to stress play that promotes individual autonomy or assertiveness (‘yes, you can do that if you try’). In Taiwanese middle-class families influenced by Confucian values the roles children were expected to take in play involved ‘proper conduct’ and addressing elders appropriately. In a study of a poor rural Turkish community, where children had to contribute to the workforce at an early age, play was less highly valued, and adults did not join in, but rather left children to get on with it. …Many of these examples describe reality-based pretend play, particularly trying out real-life roles and scripts. There can also be more abstract fantasy play, seen more [-p.128] often in Western cultures that encourage abstract learning in which ideas are used in a decontextualised way, allowing more ‘playing around’ with concepts that are less bound by actual roles and realities than in some other societies (Harris, 2007). Maths questions such as ‘take three pink horses and add four red cows’ would be met with incomprehension in cultures where such abstract thinking was not part of their cultural repertoire.” (pp.127-128)
“Many theorists of play have struggled with the paradox that play is indulged in for its own sake, but must have some purpose, otherwise why would most children and animals indulge in it. One theory that goes back several hundred years is that in play one is practising skills and abilities needed in adult life. … Although we cannot know for sure exactly what functions play serves, we know that children and mammals who are deprived of it are at a disadvantage.
Yet over and above developing practical skills needed later in life, whether pounding yam or using computers, such play can help develop a wide range of other capacities. Much Western educational thinking has seen debates about the relative merits of ‘free’ play, in which children follow their own interests, as opposed to structured activity in schools and nurseries. Much of the thinking behind spontaneous, free play is the recognition that children learn better when they are self-motivated. For example in an experiment reported by a pupil of Vygotsky, children who were told to stand still managed only about 2 minutes, but when asked to play at being soldiers on guard they lasted nearer 12 minutes.” (p.128)
“Pretence involves a different ay of being. One smiles more in pretence, and the smiles are longer, more than the 4 seconds that seems to mean that the smile is a signal not just an expression of pleasure. When mothers pretend to eat they look much more at their play partner than when they really are snacking, and they also talk far more in pretend play, with more repetitive speech, and more variation in pitch. Pretending adults also tend to move more quickly, perhaps not surprisingly as in pretend play it is possible to have a major battle, sleep, become a parent and age several years, all in a matter of minutes.
For a child to be able to play symbolically he or she needs to have reached certain developmental milestones. To move from being the teacher to the taught, the doctor to the patient, the attacker to defender, requires an ability to place oneself imaginatively in another role, and hence have the capacity to ‘feel’ one’s way into another’s state of mind. In play one can enter a liminal world, where reality is suspended, where one is on the threshold of a range of potential experience. This is a skill that can be taken for granted until one comes across children lacking or limited in this capacity.
Participating in symbolic play with a sophisticated play partner, such as a parent or older sibling, enhances the ability to symbolise. Cross-culturally, mothers who value symbolic play have children who play more symbolically. One way this happens is via ‘scaffolding’, whereby a slightly more sophisticated play partner raises the level of the less sophisticated partner. …the ability to play is linked to social and interpersonal skills. Attunement and accurate emotional signalling during the first year of life predicts symbolic play abilities in later years (Feldman, 2003).” (p.131)
“The ability to decontextualise is central to pretend play, especially with objects that stand for something else. Object-supported imaginary play, such as pretending to drink with a cup, can start at about 9 months, and develops more in the next year and a half, but is more likely to be used in earnest after 3 years of age. Children tend not to use substitute objects for imaginary ones when actual ones are present until that age. By 4 years old children know that if they are to pretend to be something, say a tiger, they must convey an intention to simulate or pretend, which again suggests that the capacity to pretend depends on theory of mind abilities.” (p.132)
“Children who play symbolically can stand outside reality, providing a ‘meta’ perspective, something also seen in what the attachment theorists have called reflective-self functioning. The securely attached adult or child, as we have seen, has a coherent narrative about their experiences and feelings, and is able to tell a consistent story about themselves using such meta-cognitive capacities. There is a link between storytelling and pretend play. Nicolopoulou (1997) has helpfully shown that there are two separate lines of development that come together as children get older. In one line the early phases of pretend play emphasise increasing attention to understanding character representation, moving towards more understanding of what someone is like, starting to understand different perspectives on people. The second line is more about early storytelling and is less about character but more about plot, and developing themes of how one event follows after another (e.g., ‘she did that and then he went bang and then they cried’). These different skills generally come together in the early school years, to generate an ability to play out pretend fantasy play which has both plot sequence and character, using the parallel and complementary skills of play and storytelling.” (p.132)
Reference: (emphases in blue bold mine) Graham Music (2011) Nurturing Natures: Attachment and Children’s Emotional Sociocultural and Brain Development. Hove: New York, Psychology Press.
Reference is made to: Feldman, R (2003) Infant-mother and infant-father synchrony: The coregulation of positive arousal. Infant Mental Health Journal, 24(1), 1-23
Harris, PL (2007) Hard work for the imagination. IN A Goncu & S Gaskins (Eds) Play and development: Evolutionary, sociocultural, and functional perspectives (pp205-226). Hove: Psychology Press.
Nicolopoulou A (1997) Children and narratives: Toward an interpretive and sociocultural approach. In M Bamberg (Ed) Narrative development: Six approaches (pp.179-215). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Panksepp, J (2007) Can play diminish ADHD and facilitate the construction of the social brain? Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 16(2), 57-66
Panksepp, J, Burgdorf J, Turner C & Gordon N (2003). Modeling ADHD-type arousal with unilateral frontal cortex damage in rats and beneficial effects of play therapy. Brain and Cognition, 52(1), 97-105
Spinka, M., Newberry, RC, & Bekoff, M. (2001). Mammalian play: Training for the unexpected. Quarterly Review of Biology, 76(2), 141-168
Stern, DN (2001) Face-to-face play. In Jaffe, J Beebe, B Feldenstein, S Crown, C & Jasnow, MD (Eds) Rhythms of dialogue in infancy: Coordinated timing in development. Monographs of the society for research in child development (Vol 66) Ann Arbor, MI: SRCD