Learning in unexpected places

Elian Fink and Jenny Gibson on the importance of play in early childhood.

When you picture children learning, do you see rows of chairs in a classroom, children poring over worksheets, flash cards on the wall, ‘carpet time’ with a story told by the teacher? These are not the only situations where learning takes place…

Children are learning all the time. Our team at the University of Cambridge – Social Play, Social Lives – is researching the things children learn when adults may not be expecting it. Unstructured play with friends and classmates is a key focus of this research, as it is thought to be an important context for developing and refining children’s social and communication skills. Surprisingly, very little research has conclusively linked informal peer play opportunities to children’s social development.

Play and mental health
There are important reasons why the role of play in the social development of school-aged children is gaining the attention of researchers. There have been reports of a ‘mental health crisis’ among children and young people, and some commentators have explicitly linked this to declining opportunities for play and for autonomy (Gray, 2011). However, empirical research is needed to test these claims. Recent data from England suggest a small but steady increase in the prevalence of all types of mental health difficulties in children aged 5-15 years, and this increase is slightly greater for emotional difficulties such as depression and anxiety (Sadler et al., 2018). Meanwhile, it is very difficult indeed to find data supporting the idea of a decline in children’s independent, free play opportunities – although there is a wealth of anecdotal reports. A rare piece of evidence documenting a decline in play opportunities is Baines and Blatchford’s (2019) study of school breaktimes, showing a decline in free time over the past 20 years. Nevertheless, strong evidence for a causal inverse link between play opportunities and mental health difficulties has not yet been established.

Of course the lack of evidence does not mean we can conclude that play is irrelevant to children’s health and wellbeing. There are credible hypotheses linking play to children’s social development and, in turn, there is ample evidence supporting the importance of strong social relationships for mitigating risk of mental health difficulties in children and young people. In a now classic 12-year longitudinal study, Bagwell and colleagues (1998) found that having successful peer relationships in primary school was associated with greater adult adjustment and wellbeing, while children without a meaningful peer relationship were more likely to experience poor mental health in adulthood.

Our research aims to understand the significance of play as a context to build and learn about social relationships from infancy through to early childhood, in order to support those children who may be struggling with peer relationships.

Sharing play
Picture a caregiver and infant playing together. They are likely face-to-face… baby babbles and coos, and caregiver responds. This early turn-taking with caregivers, hinging on shared positive emotion, is the earliest form of social play. As children develop new cognitive and social skills, their play becomes increasingly sophisticated. By three years of age most children are able to make up fantasy worlds, take on pretend identities and, crucially, share this with a play partner. This shift towards more sophisticated play is accompanied by a change in children’s preferred play partners – from adult caregivers to siblings and peers, implying that children become less reliant on adult support during play and more interested in sharing play with age-mates who have similar interests (Dunn, 1994).

The sharing of play, and in particular pretend play, is considered a form of intimacy between play partners. Those young children who don’t yet have the skills to directly communicate aspects of self in conversation can use themes of pretend play with others to convey something about their own preoccupations and concerns (Dunn & Hughes, 2001; Parker & Gottman, 1989). Play is therefore an important context in which children can form relationships with others. Unlike the parent-child relationship, young children form new relationships with other adults, siblings and peers based on multiple sustained play interactions, rather than repeated and sensitive caregiving interactions (Howes, 1996). As a result, many young children, especially those in childcare settings, experience sustained interactions with other children, which then provides the opportunity to play and form meaningful relationships with others.

By the age of three years, children form preferences within their peer group – even when they’ve had equal opportunity to interact with the whole group (Ross & Lollis, 1989). Importantly these early child friendships are stable, with preschool children tending to be friends with the same play partner for over two years (half their life!). These early friendships importantly create a social context in which skilful and complex play interactions can occur. Even well-acquainted toddlers are able to engage in pretend play together before 24 months of age (Howes & Matheson, 1992; Howes et al., 1992).

The complexity of play with friends increases with development. Non-friends spend considerably more time negotiating whether play will or will not occur, in comparison with friends (who get on and play together quickly). When conflict arises within play, as it inevitably does, friends are more effective at negotiating and resolving this conflict than non-friends, allowing friends to get back to play more quickly (Laursen & Hartup, 1989). By the time young children start school – a time in which they must enter a new social environment with unknown peers and limited adult intervention in social interactions – the play skills they have learnt in their toddler and preschool friendships allows them to successfully engage in play with new acquaintances. This provides opportunities to form lasting friendships with new classmates.

Seeking causal links
Together with the Social Play, Social Lives team we have conducted a large study of over 240 children. We have followed these children from the transition to school in Reception (at age four) through to Year 2 (age six) to better understand how play may facilitate social and emotional development in the early years of primary school (Gibson et al., 2019). Importantly, this study will allow us to empirically examine how the quantity and quality of children’s social play with peers may influence wellbeing and psychosocial health both concurrently and longitudinally. Observations of children’s social play with classmates at ages 5, 6 and 7, as well as detailed measures of children’s relationships with peers in the classroom and their social competencies, make this study uniquely positioned to answer causal questions of influence between play and social development.

First findings from this project (Gibson et al., 2019) showed that while there were predictable associations between children’s language skills and their ability to engage in pretend play with a peer, these associations were very small relative to the enormous influence a child’s play-partner had on the degree to which they engaged in pretend play. The importance of the social context for children’s play, while intuitive, is often overlooked when exploring child-child play, and may explain why a conclusive link between play and children’s social skills has so far eluded researchers.

Understanding the degree and direction of influence between social competence and play isn’t just a theoretical exercise. It has broad implications for interventions to support those children who may be struggling socially during the transition to formal school. If these causal relationships suggest that play facilitates social competencies, then a focus on providing children with opportunities to play with different peers to hone their play skills would be appropriate. If, however, social skills appear to support later more sophisticated and meaningful play interaction with peers, then additional support to develop social skills would be a fruitful approach to support these children.

Finally, within Social Play, Social Lives, we have also approached the question of the importance of play from a novel perspective, asking whether it is children’s own perceptions of themselves as playful, as well as peer perceptions of classmates’ playfulness, that are important when understanding the role of play for social development. For example, it may be that some children who struggle to initiate and maintain positive relationships with their peers have a mismatch between their own self-perceived playfulness in peer interactions and their peers’ perceptions of their playfulness. By combining different perspectives of play with a rigorous longitudinal approach, we hope that our research will make a meaningful contribution to our understanding of the importance of play in young children’s lives.

- Elian Fink and Jenny Gibson are researchers in the Play in Education Development and Learning’ (PEDAL) Hub at the University of Cambridge. [email protected]

Illustration: Eliza Southwood

Key sources
Bagwell, C.L., Newcomb, A.F. & Bukowski, W.M. (1998). Preadolescent friendship and peer rejection as predictors of adult adjustment. Child Development, 69(1), 140-153.
Baines, E. & Blatchford, P. (2019). School break and lunch times and young people’s social lives: A follow-up national study. http://www.breaktime.org.uk
Dunn, J. (1994). Changing minds and changing relationships. In C. Lewis & P. Mitchell (Eds.), Children’s early understanding of mind: Origins and development (pp. 297-310). Hove, UK: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Dunn, J. & Hughes, C. (2001). ‘I got some swords and you’re dead!’: Violent fantasy, antisocial behavior, friendship, and moral sensibility in young children. Child Development, 72(2), 491-505.
Gibson, J.L., Fink, E., Torres, P.E. et al. (2019). Making sense of social pretense: The effect of the dyad, sex and language ability in a large observational study of children’s behaviors in a social pretend play context. Social Development. 
Gray, P. (2011). The decline of play and the rise of psychopathology in children and adolescents. American Journal of Play, 3(4), 443-463.
Howes, C. (1996). The earliest friendships. In W.M. Bukowski et al. (Eds.) The company they keep: Friendship in childhood and adolescence (pp. 66-86). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Howes, C. & Matheson, C.C. (1992). Sequences in the development of competent play with peers: Social and social pretend play. Developmental Psychology, 28(5), 961.
Howes, C., Unger, O. & Matheson, C.C. (1992). The collaborative construction of pretend: Social pretend play functions. SUNY Press.
Laursen, B. & Hartup, W.W. (1989). The dynamics of preschool children’s conflicts. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 35(3), 281-297.
Parker, J., & Gottman, J. (1989). Social and emotional development in a relational context: Friendship interaction from early childhood to adolescence. In T.J. Berndt & G.W. Ladd (Eds.) Peer Relationships in Child Development (pp. 95-131). New York: Wiley.
Ross, H.S. & Lollis, S.P. (1989). A social relations analysis of toddler peer relationships. Child Development, 60(5), 1082-1091.
Sadler, K., Vizard, T., Ford, T. et al. (2018). Mental health of children and young people in England, 2017. https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/32622/1/MHCYP%202017%20Summary.pdf 

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