Based on what you’ve learned and your own experience, how does pretend

Forum 4:

Based on what you’ve learned and your own experience, how does pretend play contribute to a child’s development?

What qualities and skills do you think are important for academic and vocational success? How many of those qualities and skill are assessed by traditional intelligence tests? What advice would you give to parents and teachers who want to nurture creativity and special talents with children?


Cognitive Development (Piaget) and Intelligence

The topic for this week is cognitive development and intelligence from the perspective of Piaget and Vygotsky. Additionally, we will learn definitions of intelligence, the predictive value of intelligence tests, variations in IQ, the role of early intervention in intellectual development, and the development of creativity.

Topics to be covered include:

· Cognitive Development: Piagetian, Core Knowledge, and Vygotskian Perspectives

· Role of Intelligence Testing in the Development of Educational Programs

· Case Studies Related to Intelligence

Cognitive Development

We will begin to examine cognitive development, or how the intellectual capabilities of infants transform into those of the child, adolescent, and adult. First, let us define cognition. Cognition refers to the inner processes and products of the mind that lead to “knowing.” In other words, how do we acquire, comprehend, and apply knowledge? What transformations must occur for individuals to develop increasingly sophisticated mental capacities?


You have likely heard the name of Swiss cognitive theorist, Jean Piaget. According to Piaget, people are not cognitive beings at birth; instead, they discover, or construct, all knowledge of the world through their own experiences. As they begin to construct knowledge, they refine and organize the information in order to effectively adapt to their environments. This theory of active construction of knowledge is known as the constructivist approach to cognitive development. This approach follows children through four invariant (fixed order) and universal (assumed to characterize all children) stages: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational. Throughout these stages, infants’ investigative behaviors gradually transform into the abstract, rational intelligence of more mature individuals.







Piaget identified specific psychological structures called schemes (organized ways of making sense of experiences) that change with age. Initially, schemes are patterns of action involving the senses and motor functions. For example, a baby may simply grab and release an object. As the baby gets older, this scheme becomes more deliberate, and she may begin to throw the object down the stairs, up in the air, or against walls. In other words, she is thinking before she acts. When there evidence of this, Piaget says the child has moved from a sensorimotor approach to a cognitive approach, which uses mental representations (images and concepts) to develop efficient thinking habits. This advancement in thinking relies on adaptation and organization. Adaptation involves building schemes through direct interaction with the environment, while organization is an internal process that connects schemes to create a powerfully interrelated cognitive system.

Piaget’s Impact

Although follow-up research has changed the way we look at some aspects of Piaget’s theory, it is important to note the major impact his theory had on educational practices. Teacher training and learning procedures have reflected three educational principles derived from his view: discovery learning (providing exploration experiences to guide learning rather than verbally offering facts), sensitivity to children’s readiness to learn (introducing new activities when children are ready, not to speed up development), and acceptance of individual differences (using knowledge of each child’s specific rate of development to plan small group activities).


At present, most experts agree that cognition is less stage-like than Piaget suggested. They instead embrace the understanding that children are continuously modifying their thinking and obtaining new skills. Moreover, researchers typically disagree on whether cognitive development is general or specific. These challenges have led researchers to extend or modify Piaget’s work. Those who believe differently than Piaget regarding the limited cognitive capabilities of infants have proposed the core knowledge perspective.


The core knowledge perspective is a second set of theories related to cognitive development. Unlike Piaget, who believed infants come into the world only with sensorimotor reflexes, those who embrace this perspective believe that infants are innately equipped with core domains of thought that support rapid cognitive development. In other words, infants are prewired to make sense of certain stimuli. Each core domain is essential for survival and develops independently, resulting in uneven, domain-specific changes.


Two core domains have been studied at length in infancy: physical knowledge and numerical knowledge. Physical knowledge is the understanding of objects and their effects on one another. Numerical knowledge is the capacity to keep track of multiple objects and to add and subtract small quantities. Observation of infants has shown understanding in these areas occurring quite early, supporting the idea that some knowledge must be innate. Children gradually build on that knowledge and it becomes more intricate as through exploration, play, and social interaction. They are viewed as naïve theorists, who create explanations of events based on innate knowledge. Their explanations, or theories, are tested with experience and revised if needed. These revisions lead to increased reasoning about cause and effect situations. While this is an intriguing idea about how cognitive skills are able to emerge early and rapidly develop, this theory has not offered clarity on how children make the necessary revisions that prompt cognitive change.

Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory

The sociocultural theory is the third set of theories related to cognitive development and is founded in the work of Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky believed that infants are born with elementary perceptual, attention, and memory capacities, which develop in the first two years through interaction with others. Vygotsky did not view cognitive development as individualistic, but placed a significant emphasis on culture or community. Unlike Piaget, who favored independent discovery leading to construction of knowledge, Vygotsky asserted that acquisition of knowledge is a consequence of social interactions. Specifically, learning takes place within the zone of proximal development, which is a range of tasks too difficult for the child to do alone but possible with the help of adults and more skilled peers. When these more knowledgeable individuals question, prompt, and suggest strategies for mastering a specific task within the zone of proximal development, the child is drawn into more mature thinking processes. Support during learning can gradually be adjusted, based on the child’s needs, a concept known as scaffolding. Also, due to his emphasis on social experience and language, Vygotsky saw make-believe play as a major zone of proximal development for preschoolers.


When applied in the classroom, Vygotsky’s theory teaches us to highlight collaboration. While we again see that children should be active participants in learning, we now go beyond individual discovery (Piaget) to discovery through teacher guidance and peer partnerships. In preschool, there should be many opportunities for make-believe play. In all grades, there should be opportunities for talk, as this dialogue prompts reflection on thought processes, which, in turn leads to increased cognitive awareness.

Knowledge Check


Question 1

Which theory on cognitive development places a large emphasis on language and social interaction as the foundation for learning?


Vygotsky’s   Sociocultural Theory


Piaget’s   Theory of Cognitive Development


Core   Knowledge Perspective

I don’t know

One attempt

Submit answer

You answered 0 out of 0 correctly. Asking up to 1.

Case Study

‹ 1/2 ›


To highlight how children’s drawings can help identify adjustment difficulties at school.

As noted in the text, a variety of factors—the realization that pictures can serve as symbols, improved planning and spatial understanding, and the emphasis the child’s culture places on artistic expression—influence the development of children’s artful representations.

According to Harrison, Clarke, and Ungerer (2007), drawings can also provide insight into relationships with adults, as well as children’s overall adjustment. In one study, researchers recruited 125 six-year-olds and collected the following information:

o Participants completed a 30-minute interview that addressed general perceptions of themselves, their school, and their teachers.

o Participants completed the School Liking and Avoidance Scale. Using a three-point scale (yes=3, no=2, sometimes=1), children were asked such questions as, “Is school fun?” “Do you enjoy school?” “Do you ask your parents to let you stay home from school?” “Does school make you feel like crying?” To assess participants’ feelings about their teacher, they were asked: “Do you like to see your teacher when you get to school?” “Is your teacher nice to you?” “Does your teacher smile at you?” “Does your teacher play or read with you?”

o Participants were asked to draw a picture of themselves and their teacher at school. Drawing materials were provided but no further instructions were given. Researchers recorded any spontaneous comments, and once participants completed their drawings, they were asked to identify the people and objects in the picture. Pictures were scored on the following dimensions, which are commonly used to assess child/family drawings:

§ Creativity—going beyond the instructions and adding lively, colorful, or imaginative features.

§ Pride/happiness—showing an emotional connectedness to the teacher, such as holding hands or doing something fun with the teacher.

§ Vulnerability—using overwhelming, exaggerated, distorted, or displaced body images.

§ Emotional distance/isolation—using expressions of anger, negative affect, physical distance from the teacher, or physical barriers between the child and teacher.

§ Tension/anger—showing rigid and constricted features or scribbling out the teacher’s face.

§ Role reversal—representing the child as larger, more powerful, or more potent than the teacher.

§ Bizarreness/dissociation—including unusual signs or symbols, angry facial features, or morbid fantasy themes.

o Teachers rated their relationship quality with each child on five dimensions: conflict/anger, warmth/positive emotions, open communication, dependency, and troubled feelings.

o Teachers rated participants’ overall school adjustment by identifying the prevalence of problem behaviors (for example, acting out, aggression, learning problems) and strengths/competencies (for example, leadership, frustration tolerance, social skills).


Findings revealed significant relationships among children’s reports, children’s drawings, teacher-rated relationship quality, and teacher-rated school adjustment. That is, children who reported negative feelings about their teacher also included negative themes in their drawings, such as scribbling out the teacher’s face. Their teachers, in turn, were likely to report strained teacher–child relationships and problematic classroom behavior. Taken together, these findings suggest that children’s artistic representations of relationships with teachers are an important tool for identifying adjustment difficulties at school.

Definitions of Intelligence

How do you view intelligence? When you consider a highly intelligent person, what behaviors stand out to you? It is probably not surprising to learn that experts disagree on the attributes that make up intelligence and that the definition of intelligence has evolved over time. You may recall that the first intelligence test was created by Alfred Binet and his colleague, Theodore Simon, in 1905 in response to educators’ needs to identify students who were unlikely to benefit from standard classroom instruction. Binet was asked to develop an impartial means of assigning students to classes, one which focused on mental aptitude and not disruptive behavior. Factors such as memory and reasoning skills were considered and compared to children of the same ages.




Louis Thurstone, in contrast, viewed intelligence as less of a single, general ability and more of a set of distinct abilities. His factor analysis on more than 50 intelligence tests suggested that independent, individual factors of intelligence exist. He called these factors primary mental abilities, and categorized these abilities as follows: verbal comprehension, reasoning, perceptual speed, numerical ability, word fluency, associative memory, and spatial visualization.

Eventually, both Spearman and Thurstone recognized each other’s perspectives, and current theorists combine both approaches when designing tests. Subtest scores are used to determine an individual’s specific strengths and weaknesses (Thurstone’s original theory), but can also be combined into an overall general intelligence score (Spearman’s original theory). However, many researchers believe that merely combining these two perspectives is not enough, as factors on intelligence tests have only partial value if we cannot recognize the cognitive processes accountable for those factors. If we are able to do that, we will better understand what skills must be reinforced to improve a particular child’s performance. To facilitate this, psychometric and information-processing approaches were combined and componential analyses conducted, looking for relationships involving components of information processing and children’s intelligence test performance. While this helps to detect cognitive skills that contribute to intelligence, this approach does not include cultural and situational factors that may affect intelligence.



Measuring Intelligence

Although we have discussed some limitations to intelligence testing, they are often helpful in identifying highly gifted children and diagnosing learning problems. Standardized intelligence tests utilize the scores of a large, representative sample of individuals as a standard for interpreting individual scores. Scores produce an intelligence quotient, or IQ, which indicates the extent to which the number of items passed (raw score) deviates from the average performance of individuals of the same age. Group-administered standardized tests are useful for instructional planning, while individually administered tests consider both the child’s answers and behaviors, which paints a more accurate picture of the child’s abilities. Two of these individual tests – the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales, Fifth Edition, and the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children–IV (WISC–IV) – are used most often.


Aptitude and achievement tests are similar to intelligence tests. Aptitude tests assess a child’s propensity for excelling in a specific type of activity, such as music or language. On the other hand, achievement tests measure the attainment of particular knowledge and skills, such as reading comprehension or concepts covered within a particular class. Achievement test are often given by teachers to assess their students’ understanding of a particular subject area. There are even tests to measure the intelligence of infants, although these present unique challenges, as babies are unable to answer questions or follow directions. Tests performed with infants typically measure perceptual and motor responses; however, more recent tests also attempt to determine early language, cognition, and social behavior.

Ethnic and Socioeconomic Impact on IQ scores

We know that many factors affect child development and that both heredity and environment shape a child’s unique qualities. What are the roles of nature versus nurture in regards to determining IQ? You will not be surprised to learn that there has been much debate regarding this question, as researchers are concerned with locating the cause of IQ disparities between and among certain ethnicities. Either heredity or environmental factors must be responsible for the variations in test performance.


Heritability estimates, or measures which researchers use to correlate the IQs of family members who share genes, reveal that heredity does play a role in IQ test performance. Adoption studies have also supported these findings, as children in the study eventually became more similar in IQ to their biological mothers and less similar to their adoptive parents. However, within the same studies, it was noted that the IQ of children were adopted into privileged homes benefited from a rise in IQ in comparison with non-adopted children who remained in disadvantaged homes.


This reminds us that environmental factors also contribute to individual differences in intelligence, as do family beliefs about intellectual success and expectations for children’s educational attainment. Other factors, such as communication styles, lack of familiarity with test content, reactions to testing conditions, and fear of being judged on the basis of negative stereotypes can lead test scores to underestimate minority children’s intelligence. An approach to testing, known as dynamic assessment, seems to discover what a child can attain with social support, thus reducing bias in testing.


· Intervention Programs for Lower Achieving Students

Because research shows a correlation between socioeconomic status and performance in intelligence tests, intervention programs for economically disadvantaged students have been implemented. The majority of these programs begin as early as preschool, with the hopes of offsetting learning challenges before formal schooling begins. You may have heard of Project Head Start, which is one of the largest federal programs, offering academic support, as well as nutritional and health service and promoting parental involvement. Research on early intervention programs indicates that, although instantaneous gains in IQ tend to rapidly dissipate, enduring benefits are noted in school adjustment, attitudes, and motivation. A program in which high-quality intervention starts early, is intensive, emphasizes parent involvement, and focuses on the whole child is likely to have a more far-reaching impact in all areas, including IQ.

Knowledge Check


Question 1

Which type of standardized test provides us with knowledge about a child’s potential proficiency with a particular talent?


Aptitude   tests


Achievement   tests


Intelligence   tests

I don’t know

One attempt

Submit answer

You answered 0 out of 0 correctly. Asking up to 1.

Case Study

Research studies provide examples various types of intelligence testing and the use of testing results. The first case study examines the relationship of emotional intelligence and successful intelligence to leadership skills in gifted students. The second case study inspects the relationship among low birth weight, social disadvantage, and children’s IQ scores at ages six, 11, and 17.

‹ 1/2 ›


Emotional Intelligence, Successful Intelligence, and Leadership Skills

Emotional intelligence is positively associated with self-esteem, empathy, prosocial behavior, cooperation, leadership skills, and life satisfaction. In addition, Sternberg’s theory underscores the importance of analytical, creative, and practical skills—skills that are often overlooked on intelligence tests—for life success. To examine the relationship among emotional intelligence, successful intelligence, and leadership skills, Chan (2007) recruited 498 gifted students in grades 4 through 12 and collected the following information:

(1) Participants completed a leadership rating scale, which measures leadership self-efficacy, leadership flexibility, and goal orientation (related to leadership and achievement). (2) Participants completed an emotional intelligence scale that assesses social skills, empathy, management of emotions, and utilization of emotions. (3) Participants completed Sternberg’s Successful Intelligence Questionnaire, which measures analytical, creative, and practical abilities.


Results indicated that both emotional intelligence and successful intelligence predicted leadership skills. That is, participants who scored high in emotional and successful intelligence scored higher in overall leadership skills than participants who scored low in these areas. When looking at specific aspects of emotional and successful intelligence, practical abilities and management of emotions were especially strong predictors of leadership skills. These findings suggest that the abilities to apply intellectual skills in everyday situations and to manage and regulate emotions are important leadership qualities. No significant age or gender differences were found.


During the first two decades of life, the human body continuously and dramatically changes, a process regulated and controlled by a number of biological and environmental factors. Heredity, nutrition, infectious disease, and parental affection all contribute to physical growth and overall health. Stimulation of the brain is vital during periods in which it is growing most rapidly in order to enhance cognitive development. Both Piaget and Vygotsky have created theories centered around cognitive development that have impacted our view of the way children acquire, comprehend, and apply knowledge. As children grow older, puberty causes their bodies to drastically change, which is also accompanied by psychological changes, as teenagers strive to adjust to what is happening in their bodies.

Information-processing research seeks to understand how children develop the attention, memory, and self-management skills to succeed with complex tasks. Those who study this approach compare the human mind to a computer, or an intricate, symbol-manipulating system through which information flows. Attention to task is essential to thinking because it helps an individual determine which information needs to be considered. Development of attentional strategies occurs in phases and, over time, children gain an increased capacity for planning. As the ability to sustain attention grows, memory also improves, and the implementation of memory strategies increases a child’s likelihood of transferring information from the working memory to the long-term memory. Children also develop metacognition, which is another form of knowledge that influences how well children remember and solve problems. Fundamental discoveries about information processing have been applied to children’s mastery of academic skills, particularly in the areas of reading and mathematics. Identifying differences in cognitive skills between weak and strong learners can lead to strategies and interventions to increase performance. In addition, intelligence tests are helpful in identifying highly gifted children and diagnosing learning problems. The use of various types of intelligence testing has led to specific educational programs for diverse groups of students.

Key Terms

























Brainerd, C.J., Forrest, T.J., Karibian, D., & Reyna, V. F. (2006). Development of the false-memory illusion. Developmental Psychology, 42, 962–979.

Breslau, N., Dickens, W. T., Flynn, J. R., Peterson, E. L., & Lucia, V.C. (2006). Low birth weight and social disadvantage: Tracking their relationship with children’s IQ during the period of school attendance. Intelligence, 34, 351–362.

Chan, D. W. (2007). Leadership and intelligence. Roeper Review, 29, 183–189.

Friedman, N. P., Haberstick, B. C., Willcutt, E. G., Miyake, A., Young, S. E., Corley, R. P., & Hewitt, J. K. (2007). Greater attention problems during childhood predict poorer executive functioning in late adolescence. Psychological Science, 18, 893–900.

All graphics are public domain images or stock images from 123RF.


from Cambridge Encyclopedia of Child Development


This entry reviews the main different types of play, and the kinds of developmental benefits they may bring to children. The ubiquity of play in childhood (and in most species of mammals when young) strongly suggests its benefits for development, but what these benefits are, and how important or essential they are, are still debated. Classic perspectives on the development and function of play can be found in the writings of Piaget and Vygotsky. Let us begin by tackling the issue of what constitutes play, and then turn to how it undergoes age-related changes.

Defining play

Play is often defined as activity that is both done for its own sake, and characterized by ‘ means rather than ends’ (i.e., the process of the play is more important than any end point or goal). These criteria contrast play with, for example, exploration (which may lead into play as a child gets more familiar with a new toy or environment), with work (which has a definite goal), and fighting (different from play fighting as discussed later). Additional characteristics of play are flexibility (objects being put in new combinations, roles acted out in new ways), positive affect (children often smile and laugh in play, and say they enjoy it), and pretence (use of objects and actions in non-literal ways).

Main types of play

Although classifications differ, the following main types of play are well recognized: object play, pretend play and sociodramatic play, and physical activity play (exercise play; rough-and-tumble play). Of these, object play and physical activity play are seen widely in other species of mammals. Pretend and sociodramatic play are only seen in humans, apart from some possibly very elementary forms of pretence in great apes. Besides play, there is the related concept of games. Games with rules are more organized forms of play in which there is some goal (e.g., winning the game) and are not reviewed further.

Object play

This starts in infancy and may help children develop creative problem-solving skills. Researchers such as Jerome Bruner and Kathy Sylva have reported experiments with children in which they are given a chance to play with objects, then solve a task. Those with the play experience solved the task better. However, subsequent research has suggested that instruction can often be equally effective (Johnson, Christie, & Yawkey, 1999). The benefits of play need to be balanced against those of instruction, bearing in mind the ages of the children, the nature of the task, and the specificity of the learning expected – whether for specific skills or a more generally inquisitive and creative attitude.

Pretend play

This develops from about 15 months, with simple actions such as ‘ pretending to sleep’ or ‘ putting dolly to bed,’ developing into longer story sequences and role play (Fig. 1). Much early pretend play can be with parents, and older siblings. In Western societies especially, it is common for parents to model or ‘ scaffold’ early pretend play actions. By 3 to 4 years, pretend play becomes common with same-age peers.

Pretend play among children is seen very widely in different societies. It is often imitative of adult roles (e.g., in rural societies, children may play at ‘ herding cattle’ with stones and at ‘ pounding maize’ with sticks and pebbles). Such play might be considered as ‘ practice’ for the adult activities concerned. However, rather more ambitious developmental benefits for pretend play have been put forward.

Leslie (1987) argued that pretend play is an early indicator of theory of mind abilities. In simple object substitution pretence, the knowledge or representation that ‘ this is a banana’ becomes ‘ this banana is a telephone.’ Correspondingly, in theory of mind, the representation that ‘ this is a banana’ is related to the representation that ‘ X believes that the banana is a telephone.’ Leslie argued that this similarity suggested that pretence might be very important in theory of mind acquisition. However, this early pretend play before 3 years is often very imitative, and it is not clear whether a young child who talks into a banana is actually having the cognitive representations that Leslie describes, or is simply imitating what older children or adults do. The nature of any relationship between pretend play and theory of mind is still disputed.

Figure 1. Pretend play. Photograph by John Walmsley.

Sociodramatic play

Defined in terms of social play with others, sustained role taking, and a narrative line, this is something that children from about 3 years of age engage in a lot. Such play can be quite complex, involving an understanding of others’ intent and role, sophisticated language constructions, and the development of sometimes novel (sometimes less novel!) story lines. Smilansky (1968) suggested that sociodramatic play assists language development, cognitive development, creativity, and role taking. She also claimed that pretend and sociodramatic play were less frequent and less complex in disadvantaged children. This led her and others to develop play tutoring (intervention by an adult) to raise levels of these kinds of play; adults would provide suitable props, visits, etc. and encourage the sociodramatic play of children in nurseries and kindergartens, such that subsequently they became more able to sustain this play themselves.

Smilansky’s ideas about the value of sociodramatic play were tested by a number of experimental studies, including play-tutoring studies. In these, a group or class of children that received play tutoring were compared with those who did not. Generally, the play-tutored children improved more on measures of cognition, language, and creativity, apparently supporting Smilansky’s views.

A number of critiques were made of these studies. Many of them pointed to flaws due to selective interpretation of results, effects of experimental bias, and the use of inappropriate control groups. For example, in the traditional play-tutoring study, the play-tutored children received more stimulation and adult contact generally, so one cannot really conclude that it is the extra play that brought about the developmental benefits. Further studies took account of these criticisms. This step included balancing play-tutoring with skills tutoring (e.g., coloring, picture dominoes) and assessing outcomes blind to the child’s treatment condition. Doing so failed to reveal many differences (P. K. Smith, 1988), which suggests that benefits of socio drama tic play need not be essential for development. Nevertheless, play-tutoring does work out as equal to skills tutoring in many domains, and it is generally enjoyable and sociable for children in the preschool years, so there are sound reasons to encourage it in the nursery curriculum.


Table 1. Some    criteria distiguishing play fighting and real fighting.



Play    fighting

Real    fighting


Facial expression

Smiling, laughing

Frowning, tearful



Kicks and blows are not hard or do not make contact

Kicks and blows are hard or make contact



Voluntarily take it in turns to be ‘ on top’ or be ‘ chased’

Aims to be ‘ on top’ or to chase the other


How encounter starts and finishes

Starting by invitation and ending with continued play or   activity together

Starting with challenge and ending in separation

One kind of pretend play, often not encouraged in nurseries, is war play, which is pretend play with toy guns or weapons, or military action figures. Many educators believe that this play encourages real aggression, though others emphasize its pretend nature and feel that no real harm results from it.

Physical activity play

This refers to playful activity involving large body activity, particularly exercise play that includes running, climbing, and other large body or large muscle activity, as well as rough-and-tumble play, that covers play fighting and play chasing. These forms of play have been reviewed by Pellegrini & Smith (1998).

Exercise play

This increases in frequency from toddlers to preschool children, peaks at early primary school ages, and then declines. Young children seem to need opportunities for physical exercise more than older children, and are more likely to get restless after long sedentary periods and to run around when released from them. Boys do more of this kind of play than girls. It is often hypothesized to support physical training of muscles, for strength and endurance, and skill and economy of movement. Another hypothesis is that exercise play encourages younger children to take breaks from being overloaded on cognitive tasks (the cognitive immaturity hypothesis). The argument here is that younger children have less mature cognitive capacities, so benefits of concentrating on a cognitively demanding task decrease after a shorter time than for older children. The ‘ need’ to exercise thus helps children ‘ space out’ these cognitive demands.

Figure 2. Rough-and-tumble play. Photograph by John Walmsley.

Rough-and-tumble play

This seems to increase from toddlers through preschool and primary school children, to peak at late primary age, and then decline in frequency. It takes up some 10 percent of playground time, though varying by the nature of the surface, physical conditions, etc. Boys do more than girls, especially play fighting. Rough-and-tumble play looks like real fighting, but can be distinguished from it by several criteria (Table 1; Fig. 2).

Most children can distinguish playful from real fighting, and from 8 years give similar cues to those described in Table 1. In one study, English and Italian children were found to be accurate in judging videotapes of play fighting and real fighting, irrespective of which nationality they were watching.

During the primary school years, only about 1% of rough-and-tumble episodes usually turn into real fighting, although many teachers and lunchtime supervisors think it is as much as about 30%. However, ‘ rejected’ children (those disliked by many peers and seldom liked much) more often respond to rough-and-tumble aggressively (around 25% of episodes). So, it is possible that teachers or lunchtime supervisors are making general judgments about children, based on these ‘ rejected’ children who may be taking up a lot of their supervisory time.

Rough-and-tumble is often between friends. By early adolescence, however, there appears to be some change, with dominance/status becoming important in choosing play partners, as well as friendship, with a greater risk of play fights turning into real fights. It is hypothesized that rough-and-tumble play in younger children may (in addition to benefits of exercise play) provide practice in fighting/hunting skills, at least in earlier human societies. By adolescence, however, it may involve dominance relationships (e.g., using rough-and-tumble play to establish or maintain dominance in the peer group).

What do children learn from play?

Evolutionary arguments suggest that the propensity to play has been selected for, so we can expect there to be benefits to playing, and that these may vary by species, and by types of play. There can be a lot of incidental benefits to play such that it keeps children active and provides them with opportunities to encounter new situations. With human children, and with object, pretend, and sociodramatic play, there may be a balance to draw between benefits of playing and of instruction. Instruction can be more focused on a precise goal, but play is often more enjoyable for young children and, even if less efficient for a precise goal, may foster a more generally inquisitive and creative approach to problem-solving.


Among the theoretical issues in play research remaining unresolved, two are currently especially noteworthy. The first relates to rough-and-tumble play. We know that this is primarily friendly and non-exploitative in preadolescents, but how does this change as children move into adolescence? Does the function of this form of play then change and, in particular, is it used for purposes related to dominance, especially for boys? The second issue relates to pretend play. An earlier phase of research queried the findings from play tutoring studies, but, more recently, pretend play has been proposed as an important component of developing a theory of mind. Greater conceptual clarity and empirical evidence are called for here, together with a willingness to learn from the problems encountered in the earlier studies (e.g., experimenter bias).

Amongst practical issues, the issue of war play continues to be debated in early education. There have been moves to ban war play in many nursery schools; however, there is also a recognition that such play may be generally harmless in itself and a rather natural play format, especially for boys (Holland, 2003). Regarding educational practice through the school years, there has been a general movement toward shortening or eliminating playground breaks. However, leaving aside social benefits of playtime, the benefits for physical activity and for providing breaks between instruction (cf., the cognitive immaturity hypothesis), argue for retaining playground breaks. More systematic study is still needed in these areas.


  1. What      value does physical activity play have in providing spacing for      concentration on school-based tasks?
  2. How      does rough-and-tumble play change in form and function from the primary to      secondary school ages?
  3. Does      young children’s war play have any connection with later aggressiveness?
  4. Does      pretend play have any important role in helping young children develop a      theory of mind?

See also

Further reading

  • Lancy, D. F. 1996 Playingon the Mother-Ground:      Cultural Routines for Children’s Development

New York: Guilford Press


  • Pellegrini, A. D. 2002 Rough-and-tumble      play. P.K. Smith, C. Hart, Handbook of Social      Development

Oxford: Blackwell,

pp. 438-453 .

  • Power, T. 2000 Play and Exploration in Children      and Animals

NJ: Erlbaum



© Cambridge University Press 2005


Smith, P. K., & SMITH, P. K. (2005). Play. In B. Hopkins (Ed.), Cambridge encyclopedia of child development. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from

Top of Form


Bottom of Form

Browse Book

Previous ArticleNext Article

Cambridge Encyclopedia of Child Development

An authoritative, accessible and up-to-date account of all aspects of child development. Covers everything from prenatal development to education, pediatrics, neuroscience, theories and research methods to physical development, social development, cognitive development, psychopathology and parenting. It also looks at cultural issues, sex differences and the history of child development.

Editor(s): Brian Hopkins

Edition: 1st

Articles: 113

Images: 277

People: 21

Search other sites

Terms of use Privacy policy Contact About Credo 



from Key Concepts in Developmental Psychology


Although Vygotsky devoted only limited space to the zone of proximal (i.e. next) development in his description of socio-cognitive theory, this concept has beco



0 replies