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The study of play has held particular allure to social and behavioral scientists, at least since Groos (1898). Since that time it has been assumed that play serves an important role in children’s development into adults. An important step in documenting the importance of play should be deﬁning play in terms of the ways in which it is diﬀerent from forms of behavior not considered playful.
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2. What Is Play?
No one deﬁnition of play is necessary or suﬃcient, yet child psychologists (Pellegrini and Smith 1998) and ethologists (Martin and Caro 1985) agree upon some common deﬁnitional criteria: play does not seem to serve any apparent immediate purpose. This assumes that children are less concerned with the outcome of their behavior than with the behavioral processes per se.
Play has also been deﬁned according to phenomena that precede (e.g., an atmosphere that is familiar, safe, and friendly, a minimally intrusive adult, and children who are free from stress) and succeed play behaviors (e.g., behavior is categorized as play ﬁghting, not aggression, if children stay together after the conclusion of the bout; if they separate, it is deﬁned as aggression). Caution is needed as in this case as antecedents and consequences of behaviors can be considered as elicitors and outcomes, respectively, of those behaviors, rather than as components of the behavior per se.
3. Forms of Play
Diﬀerent forms of play occur from infancy through adolescence and they have distinct antecedents and possible functions.
Exploration is an information-gathering venture (e.g., mouthing and simple manipulation of objects) (Belsky and Most 1983). Through exploration children come to know their environments.
Exploration dominates behavior for the ﬁrst 9 months of life. By 12 months, play and exploration cooccur. By 18 months play accounts for more of the child’s interactions with the environment than does exploration (Belsky and Most 1983). Exploration also precedes play to the extent that children of all ages must explore an object, or know its properties, before they can play with it. The knowledge resulting from exploration is basis for play.
3.2 Fantasy Play
Fantasy, or pretense, is the paradigm case of play during childhood. Fantasy involves an ‘as if …’ orientation to the world and involves actions, use of objects, and verbalizations and nonliteral meanings; often, it involves playing a distinct pretend role such as mummy. Fantasy begins during the second year of life, peaks during the late preschool years, and then declines (Fein 1981) and there are reliable gender diﬀerences: girls engage in fantasy play both more frequently and at more sophisticated levels than do boys.
Fantasy play is inﬂuenced by familial variables as well as play props and play partners. Children who are securely, compared with insecurely, attached to their mothers engage in more sophisticated pretend play (Roggman and Langlois 1987). Regarding props, play themes generally follow the themes inherent in the props available (Pellegrini and Perlmutter 1989). Further, children’s pretense is more sustained and complex when they are playing with friends, compared with acquaintances, possibly because the mutuality and emotional commitment of friends may motivate children to sustain cooperation (Howes 1992).
3.3 Locomotor Play
Locomotor play is play that is physically vigorous, e.g., chasing and rough-and-tumble play (RandT). The less ‘thematic’ and nonsocial forms of vigorous play, such as running and jumping, account for close to 20 percent of the activities of 3and 4-year-olds and then declines during primary school years (Pellegrini and Smith 1998).
Vigorous play is shaped by both hormonal and social events, resulting in reliable gender diﬀerences (Pellegrini and Smith 1998). During the course of normal fetal development, androgens predispose males to be more physically active than females. Socialization practices, such as father engaging in vigorous play with sons more frequently than with daughters, reinforce the diﬀerence.
4. Functions Of Play
Paradoxically, play is deﬁned in terms of its ‘purposelessness’ yet seen as serving an important function in children’s development. The paradox can be reconciled by supposing that the apparent lack of immediate function actually conceals a function delayed in development.
4.1 What Is Meant By Function?
Function has at least two meanings in the social and behavioral sciences. First, function can be deﬁned in terms of an evolutionary history. A behavior is functional if it has added to the reproductive success of individuals. Functions can also be deﬁned in terms of beneﬁcial consequences during the lifespan of any particular individual. Beneﬁts may be accrued immediately or during the period of childhood, or deferred until adulthood.
4.2 Immediate Or Deferred Functions
Most theories of play have proposed that the beneﬁts of play are not immediate to the period of childhood but deferred until later in development. In Bateson’s (1976) terms this view presents play as a ‘scaﬀolding’ metaphor: play functions in the assembly of a skill and then is disassembled when the skill is complete. This remains an inﬂuential view, even though empirical studies have not provided support for this claim (e.g., Martin and Caro 1985, Pellegrini and Smith 1998).
Alternatively, play may not be an imperfect version of adult behavior but may be adapted and beneﬁcial to the speciﬁc niche of childhood. Bateson’s (1976) metaphor for the immediate functions of play is metamorphic (e.g., the sense of mastery associated with children’s play probably relates to children experimenting with new activities).
5. Making Functional Inferences
Function can be inferred using cost–beneﬁt analyses, consideration of design and contextual features, and experimental enhancement or deprivation of play components.
5.1 Cost–Beneﬁt Analyses
With cost–beneﬁt analyses we assume a correspondence between high costs and high beneﬁts; low costs imply low or high beneﬁts. Play can be costly in terms of time, caloric expenditure, and survivorship (e.g., danger). Basic cost data on children’s play is, however, scanty. Yet there are some hints from the animal play research which suggest that play accounts for a limited portion of an animal’s time and energy budgets— around 10 percent (Martin and Caro 1985, Pellegrini and Smith 1998). Consequently, we conclude that beneﬁts are probably low and deferred as immediate beneﬁts are more likely to be reaped given risks associated with survivorship.
5.2 Design Features
A design-features argument involves explication of similarities between aspects of play behavior and similar features in mature behavior. Design feature arguments have been made most frequently for RandT as its ﬁghting-like features (e.g., wrestling) should relate to ﬁghting skills and dominance. Problems associated with this design-features approach to the study of function relate to the fact that a mature behavior may develop from many diﬀerent antecedents (Martin and Caro 1985).
5.3 Experimental Deprivation Studies
A few experimental play-deprivation studies have been conducted where juveniles are deprived of an aspect of play. The assumption is that deprivation of an aspect of play, if it is developmentally important, should result in a ‘rebound eﬀect’ when children are given the opportunity to play again; children compensate for the deprivation by engaging in high levels and longer durations of play. Most deprivation studies can be criticized on the grounds that more than one thing is involved when we deprive children of play (e.g., depriving children of social play simultaneously deprives them of social interaction).
The eﬀects of depriving children of play opportunities have largely been limited to studies of physical play. In diﬀerent ﬁeld experiments, Smith and Hagan (1980) and Pellegrini et al. (1998) experimentally deprived children of opportunities for physical play. Across all experiments the results showed that increased deprivation led to increased levels of play when opportunities for play were resumed. We argued that children rebounded after deprivation so as to overcompensate for lost opportunities for physical exercise, which serves important training functions.
5.4 Experimental Enrichment Studies
With enrichment procedures, children are given opportunities to engage in play that vary according to theoretically relevant dimensions, such as conceptual conﬂict (Pellegrini 1984), and their eﬀects are measured. Most of the criterion measures in these studies are taken in close temporal proximity to the training, thus assuming that play has immediate rather than deferred beneﬁts.
There have been numerous studies examining the eﬀects of and pretend play enrichment on various dimensions of children’s social cognitive status, such as role taking. Most of these studies showed positive beneﬁt eﬀects of play; but they must be interpreted very cautiously, primarily because many play enrichment experiments have serious internal validity problems (Smith 1988). For example, many experiments confound play treatment with adults tutoring children in play and most eﬀects are due to experimenter bias.
We have outlined some of the basic deﬁnitional and developmental tenets of play. The role of play in children’s development is still a controversial and unresolved topic. Cost–beneﬁt analyses suggest that there should be beneﬁts; but they may be relatively small and possibly limited to the period of childhood, rather than deferred until after childhood. Suggested beneﬁts include physical ﬁtness (for physical play), ﬁghting and dominance skills (for RandT), and aﬃliative and theory of mind skills (social and pretend play).
With this said, however, we note that much more research is needed before we can make sound conclusions regarding the developmental functions of play. Most basically, more descriptive studies of children’s play, documenting costs in terms of time, caloric expenditure, and survivorship in contexts other than school are needed. This information could be used in the service of cost–beneﬁt analytic studies of play. Correspondingly, these features could also be used to test functional hypotheses more directly using ﬁeld experimental methods.
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