|Play as Children See It|
|Written by Nancy Willtz|
|Thursday, 13 August 2009 14:11|
From the 2009 Summer Workshop Tools and Ideas Marketplace...
cialis 2013cialis 20mg without prescription viagra 20mg without prescription cialis without prescription
Play: A means to a more sustainable and regenerative future
Presented by Nancy W. Wiltz, Ph. D.
This presentation explored play for all people, at all ages, at all times, as a way to understand effective learning and a means to developing a sense of well-being. Much of this presentation has drown from my chapter co-written with Greta Fein. Other resources that influence my presentation were:
Please contact me if you have questions or are seeking other resources.
Nancy W. Wiltz, Ph. D.
Department of Early Childhood Education
Towson University at the Universities at Shady Grove
5153 Building III, 9630 Gudelsky Drive
Rockville, MD 20850
Play as Children See It
by Nancy W. Wiltz and Greta G. Fein
in D. Bergen & D. Fromberg (Eds.). Play from Birth to Twelve: Contexts, Perspectives, and Meanings (2nd ed.). New York: Garland. (2006).
Scholars have spent hours, decades, and even centuries debating a definition of play. There are also those who bemoan the debate as if a term for which there is no consensus should not be taken seriously (Berlyne, 1960). But the definitional status of play is not different from that of other terms that receive serious attention from scientists and educators. Terms like aggression, love, teaching, and learning, to name but a few, also lack widely shared, rigorous definitions. Yet these terms signify large ideas that are understood in some fashion across cultures, across centuries, and by individuals of disparate status, ages, and experience. Play is one of those large ideas that touch a strand of human experience beginning in childhood and, perhaps in different forms, continuing throughout life. Formal definitional variations reflect scholarly discipline, ideology, and cultural preferences (Sutton-Smith, 1995).
As Sutton-Smith (1995) has argued so persuasively, folk ideas about play are richly laced with cultural “rhetorics” that reflect the preoccupations for a particular historical and social era (Sutton-Smith, 1995). Play cannot be understood without regard to its ideological context which then shades and shapes what an observer or participant sees or feels. It is even possible that these rhetorics change with age and vary with social status. It is only recently that investigators have asked what children, teachers, and parents mean when they use this term.
Definitions of play also have practical consequences. With the endorsement of Developmentally Appropriate Practices (DAP) by the National Association of Young Children (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997), play received formal professional recognition as a core component and educational tool in early childhood practice. Although not without its critics, DAP has received widespread approval from the field. Areas of disagreement have less to do with play per se than with matters such as the role of teacher-directed small-group activities (Fowell & Lawton, 1992). However, how play serves educational purposes depends mightily on how it used in the classroom. It is in this area that there may be major disagreements. Play in a general sense, as an underlying pedagogical attitude, has different implications from play in a particular sense, as a set of specific pedagogical strategies or curriculum plans.
The encouragement and cultivation of a child-centered play curriculum in preschools and kindergartens has several implications. Naïve observers easily agree on the occurrence of play even when they define it differently (Smith & Vollstedt, 1985). Some observers dismiss such a curriculum as just play, a way little ones keep busy. Better informed observers might see play as contributing primarily to children’s social skills, especially their ability to function in a group (Elias & Berk, 2002). Skilled teachers might view play as “the glue that binds together all other pursuits, including the early teaching of reading and writing (Paley, 2004, p. 8). In any case, the contribution of play to intellectual competence is often neglected. While the contribution of play to aspects of development is an important issue, the second implication, which has received far too little attention, is that children also define and evaluate play.
How children themselves perceive the place of play in their homes and classrooms provides adults a context for viewing and evaluating the home and school experiences. At an early age children use the term play to describe their own and others’ activities. What do they mean when they do so? Answers to this question have been explored in studies representing different theoretical traditions. Because these traditions have something useful to say about the meaning of play as viewed by players, they are viewed in the following sections. The first section considers studies that ask children the seemingly simple question: What happens when you go to school? Of interest is whether play enters into children’s schools scripts and, if it does, where it goes. Do children’s responses reveal their emotional and motivational judgments of schools and, if so, how are these judgments expressed?
From script-oriented research, the second and third sections turn to studies that deal more specifically with the distinction between work and play. These studies view work and play as sociocultural concepts that children acquire at an early age. Studies of children’s views of work and play examine the criteria children use to separate these concepts and how these criteria change with age. Finally, there is a summary of recent data about children’s retrospective accounts of play, especially pretend play. What are the highlights of these memories? How are they organized? How do children of different ages remember their play as preschoolers?
Play in School: A Script Theory Perspective
One approach to understanding and documenting children’s perspectives depends
on the assumption that individuals create cognitive “scripts” to organize daily experiences (Nelson, 1978; Schank & Abelson, 1977). Each script has a skeletal sequential structure stored in long-term memory, with slots reserved for the details of what happens, when, and to whom, which are filled as needed with appropriate information (Schank & Abelson, 1977). Using this theory, children view what goes on at school, for example, as a series of events that make up the school day (Fivush, 1984; Nelson & Gruendel, 1981; Wiltz, 1997; Wiltz & Klein, 2001). Play is simply one of those events organized in memory as a general event representation that is then used to anticipate, understand, and interpret recurring events (Light, 1987; Mandler, 1983; Schank & Abelson, 1977). Children respond to questions about activities they engage in at school with general statements about playing, working, helping, making things, having lunch, taking naps, and going home. Some children mention some of these events and other children mention others; some children cite more events and others cite fewer. Yet almost all children mention play.
A prototypical script theory response from a four-year-old who was asked, “What happens when you come to school?” goes as follows:
Ben: I play. And I play with some toys and I play with my
friends. Then we go outside and then we come in for
snack. Then I wait for my mom and she picks me up.
It is not surprising that play figures prominently in preschoolers’ accounts of what happens in school. Typical preschool classrooms provide areas and materials for various types of play (e.g., block centers, areas for manipulation of toys, housekeeping areas, dramatic play corners, large-motor play areas) and daily schedules provide periods of time for both indoor and early school settings.
One investigator asked thirty kindergarten children on the second day, the second week, the fourth week, and the tenth week of school, what happens when you go to school?” (Fivush, 1984). At all four meetings the interviewer also asked what had happened at school the previous day and mentioned specific events that had occurred. At the fourth and final interview, the researcher asked the children to recall the first day of school. Fivush (1984) found that five-year-old children had a general representation of the kindergarten routine by the second day of school, which remained stable over time, but that children had difficulty recalling specific episodes from the previous day. The content of children’s reports over the semester became more elaborate, and the lists of specific events that occurred at a particular time and place in the routine became increasingly more complex and showed remarkable consistency over time. Play was mentioned more than any other activity. On the second day of school, 85 per cent of the children talked about play, and by the tenth week, 100 percent did so. Details of what constituted play were not explored, but play became a part of the kindergartners’ scripts from the second day of school on.
Beyond Script Theory
Script theorists agree that knowledge is organized around the structure and routine of daily activities, a process that begins at or near birth and continues throughout life. Several researchers have moved beyond this theory by examining how children organize different aspects of the school day. In these studies, sequence is less important than types of activity.
One group of researchers asked fourteen three- to six-year-old children in a full-day child care program, “Tell us what you do at school each day” (Garza, Briley, & Reifel, 1985; Reifel, 1988; Reifel, Briley, & Garza, 1986). Children listed a consistent core of classroom activities, including doing jobs, reading stories, lunching, napping, listening to music, going to the gym, going home, and playing. Even the youngest children included play as a part of their overall structure of day care, using simple statements such as, “We play” (Reifel et al., 1986, p. 85). Older children included riding scooters, playing outside, working on puzzles, playing with toys, playing games, and playing with mud in their responses. These researchers generated two main categories of play types that accounted for 93 percent of the responses: 1) non-social play with materials included pretense (e.g., feeding dolls and playing house) and manipulation of materials (e.g., riding scooters); and 2) social play included dramatic play (e.g., make-believe or pretending) and games with rules (e.g., duck-duck-goose).
More recent studies also found that children report a core of school activities consistent with previous research (Klein, Kantor, & Fernie, 1988; Klein, 2001). Wiltz and Klein (1994, 1995, 1996) asked 3-, 4-, and 5-year old children what they did at school. Two broad categories: structured (teacher-controlled) and unstructured (child-controlled) activities emerged. Structured activities were subdivided into three areas: curriculum, function and construction. Curriculum activities related to the academic areas of school, were primarily teacher directed, and included such things as singing, reading, and math. Functional activities involved routine tasks such as eating lunch, doing jobs, or napping. Construction activities were primarily teacher guided and involved making things.[dpf1] Lists of structured versus unstructured activities increased steadily with age, from 55 percent for the three-year-olds, to 61 percent for the four-year-olds, to 80 percent for the five-year-olds and culminating at 90 percent for the six-year-olds. The most dramatic increases appeared in the curriculum[dpf2] category, where three-year-olds mentioned activities like writing stories and singing, while six-year olds talked about doing math, reading, and taking spelling tests.
Unstructured activites fell into two main categories: creative play which included activities such as outside play, dressing up, and playing house; and play with toys, which incorporated play with blocks, cars, trucks, and stuffed animals. In direct contrast to structured activities both categories of play steadily declined with age, with a dramatic drop as children entered formal school. Three-year-olds mentioned play more frequently than five-year-olds, and first graders equated play at school only with recess. According to these children a sharp curriculum shift occurs at five years of age.
Previous research supports several conclusions. First, even preschool children respond with an understanding of classroom activities beyond their mere sequencing. Second, older children relate school events in greater and more vivid detail than do younger ones (Fivush, 1984; Reifel et al, 1986: Wiltz & Klein, 1994). Third, children’s reports accurately reflect the diminishing role of play in the kindergarten curriculum. Children’s accounts of their school day reveal extensive substantive knowledge of the school world and the place of play within it (Corsaro, 1986).
[dpf3] How Children View Play: A Reflective Perspective
Researchers have tried to investigate what the term play means to children. When children say they are playing, what do they think they are doing? Why do some children list going to the bathroom and time-out as school events, whereas others do not; why do some children talk about positive internal states, whereas others talk about negative ones? Script theory provides a structure to describe how children remember events, but it does not tell us why children remember this rather than that; it does not describe the motivational forces that cause children to evaluate these events. Nor does it provide many clues to the ways in which the emotional tone of events affects children’s remembrances (Fein, 1987).
Consider the following responses by four-year-olds to the questions, “What happens when you go to school?”
Reb: You feel happy. (pause. “What else?”) Ohhh, you play a lot.
If you need to, you can go to the bathroom.
Art: I get in trouble. When I get in trouble when I play, I go in time out . . .
Al: . . . sometimes I play with Dan when . . . when he’s at school, and I play
every single game he plays, and sometimes I don’t and sometimes I do.
Ceci: Oh, we have to listen to the teacher’s words and play . . .
Note that none of the four children quoted above use the term play in exactly the same way. To Reb, play involves autonomy and personal decision-making (“If you need to . . . “); Ceci also sets up a strong contrast between play and what “we have to” do. To Art it can be an occasion to get into trouble; for Al, play is being with a special friend. When children report school happenings, the same terms may not report exactly the same events.
In an effort to explain why children view play activities as they do, one must look further into their accounts of the play environment. In one of our studies, we asked twenty-six four-year-old children, “What happens when you come to school?” The children came from ten different community schools and child care centers. Interestingly, only half the children offered a script that we defined as two or more distinction activities regardless of accuracy of ordering. Far more children, 65 percent, mentioned play as one of the happenings, whether or not there were any others.
In our analysis of children’s responses, we also paid special attention to the emotional/motivational implication of what the children shared. The most provocative data came from what we call “behavior states,” a category meant to gather children’s observations about their own and others’ mental and emotional states. We included in this category comments on desired behavior and disciplinary actions. Of the twelve children whose comments were scored in this category, only two made positive comments: “I feel happy” and “I give my mom a hug.” For ten children, the report had a negative tone, which may mean that for some children, the preschool environment is not necessarily positive. Among the most poignant accounts was a child who reported, “When I get in trouble, I have to sit in the thinking chair.” One child complained that the “Kids scream and shout.” Another confessed, “Sometimes I forget;” and still another listed her faults; “…I don’t listen, I don’t come when I’m sick. I got paint on my dress. “ But these comments were unrelated to whether the children listed play as a school activity.
Where these childhood concerns come from is not clear. Some parents may be anxious about the child’s school behavior and overly stress faults and comportment. In some cases, the teachers might be critical and demanding. It is even possible that were we to observe these children, they would seem to be happy and comfortable but still talk about unpleasant moments in the school day. Several interpretations of these data are possible. In one, the children are veridical reporters of the emotional climate of the classroom. In another, the children reflect parental pressures to be mature and they try very hard to comply; their reports reflect strenuous efforts to follow their parent’s wishes. In still another, the children’s reports should be discounted because they simply reflect salient recent events rather than atypical events.
In most schools and homes, children are scolded and criticized, but these events are relatively infrequent and brief, even though they are unpleasant and likely to be remembered. Research in this area is much too new to evaluate the merits of these alternatives. Nevertheless, it is clear that children’s reports of the school day provide provocative information about the context within which play occurs.
In a study of one hundred twenty-two four-year-olds in high and low quality child care settings, children’s responses to what they did at day care varied greatly, but their most common answer was “play” (Wiltz, 1997; Wiltz & Klein, 2001). Fifty three- to six-year-olds were asked, “Do you play at school?” (Wiltz & Klein, 1994). Eight of the nine three-year-olds agreed that they did. The four- and five-year olds also acknowledged that they played at school, but they elaborated on their experiences during playtime or about what and how they played. First-graders, however, reported that they only played at recess. King (1983) also found that recess was the only sanctioned school activity that all school-age children agreed was play. The fact that recess is an activity normally done outside the classroom is one way that play is separated from the work of school.
Moreover, children as young as three have a mental picture of play as a part of their child care experience, but only five- and six-year-olds make references to games with rules as play (Reifel, 1988). Preschoolers also identify something as “just play” if they themselves decide on the activity and the ways in which to use materials, time, and space. “Learning play” in the nursery school exists only within adult defined frameworks (Romero, 1989, 1991).
Work and Play
The day-to-day sequence of events in the classrooms of young children includes not only the things children do, but also with whom they interact. The social dimensions of school also provide rules for the classroom, and, in later life, rules for the workplace. Children’s views of the distinction between work and play provide another way of understanding play’s place in the world of childhood. In a series of studies, kindergarten children who responded to open-ended questions about experiences at school spontaneously used the categories of work and play to describe and define their daily classroom actions (King, 1979, 1990).
King (1979, 1990) studied four profoundly different kindergarten classrooms, two child-centered and two teacher-directed. Her study revealed that children describe most of their classroom experiences as work. Whereas the relationship between work and play in culture is not clear, anthropologists have begun to critically question the work/play dichotomy of Western societies. In a cross-cultural study of fifty Chinese and fifty
In several studies of how children view school, the categories of work and play emerged as significant factors (Fein, 1985; King, 1979; LeCompte, 1980; Reifel, 1988, Wiltz, 1997). Prior to entry into kindergarten children view school as a place where they do what other people want them to do (LeCompte, 1980). Kindergarteners associate learning, mandatory events, and teacher-controlled activities with work, while voluntary, self-chosen activities where the teacher is not involved are consider play (King, 1979). Young children view work as extrinsically oriented and internally obligatory, while play is “fun.” (Fein, 1985). Researchers report that preschool children are able to classify work and play activities (Fein, 1985; Hennessey & Berger, 1993; Romero, 1989, 1991). When asked, “Do you ever work at school?” three-year-olds unanimously agree that they do not work at school, while four- and five-year-olds disagree, defining work as activites such as playing, coloring, drawing, and making pictures (Wiltz, 1993). When Romero (1991) asked four-year-old children to choose whether they had played or worked in school the previous day and gave them a list to choose from, the children classified more classroom activities as work than as play.
Hennessey and Berger (1993) used an innovative procedure to study children’s notions of work and play. Twenty-seven children listened to stories that contrasted two activities that needed to done, one “fun” and one “not-so-fun.” They were then shown two paper dolls, asked to decide which of the dolls was working and which was playing, and to award a sticker to the doll they believed deserved a reward. Most preschoolers awarded stickers to the doll they believe to be playing, and when asked which of the dolls really liked what he/she was doing, they were also significantly more apt to choose the doll that was playing. Chi-square analysis revealed that “not-so-fun” activities were consistently labeled as work. While these children were able to distinguish between work and play tasks, they saw no reason to reward the doll that was working over the doll that was playing.
The criteria children use to differentiate work from play change as children mature (King, 1979; Wiltz & Klein, 1994). . Repeated documentation indicates that four- and five-year-old children describe most of their classroom experiences as work, defining the activity as play only if it is voluntary, if there is an absence of obligation, if it is child controlled, and if the teacher is not involved (Fein, 1985; King, 1979: LeCompte, 1980). Activities that are tedious or hard are called work while pleasurable activites are called play (King, 1982). Whereas kindergartners label as work activities that are not clearly play, as children move through the elementary grades, activities that are not clearly work are recategorized as play. First- and second-graders offer an interesting compromise by characterizing some activities as “in between” work and play (Wing, 1995).
In attempting to understand the relationships between work and play, one cannot assume that play is necessarily the opposite of work. There is a discontinuity, however, between preschool where play is emphasized, and public school kindergarten, where work is the major construct (Fernie, 1988). Children at younger and younger ages seem to be developing a sense of the differences between the two (Romero, 1991; Wiltz & Klein, 1994), perhaps because the academic curriculum is beginning earlier and earlier. Paley (2004) suggests that academics is not “the villain in our midst” (p. 46); instead it is the time we are subtracting from play.
Work and Play in the Elementary School
King (1982; 1983, 1986) states that the single most important quality differentiating work and play experiences in the elementary school is pleasure. “The . . . categorization of specific activities becomes more idiosyncratic and less uniform” (King, 1986, p. 234). She posits three distinct types of play in the elementary school classroom: instrumental play, real play, and illicit play. Instrumental play includes activities that are required, controlled, and evaluated by the teacher, such as watching a movie, writing poems, listening to a story, doing a science experiment, or drawing an mural. Elementary school children enjoy all these activities even though they are not voluntary and serve academic goals beyond the participants’ pure enjoyment.
Real play includes voluntary and self-directed activites, such as during recess. Most all children say they like recess and many think it is the best part of school (King, 1983; Wiltz & Klein, 1994). Recess provides children an opportunity to indulge in exuberant play, develop autonomy and self-expression, freely organize their time, choose their playmates, and plan, select and carry out their own activities without adult intervention. Even in preschool, children value outdoor play as a favorite activity, and 82.5 percent perceive outdoor play as a social activity (Cullen, 1993).
The third type of play, illicit play, is defined as unauthorized, surreptitious interactions during classroom events (King, 1982, 1983). It includes actions like whispering, passing notes, making faces, and giggling. Children are aware that this type of play is against the rules. They are careful to conceal it and use it in nondisruptive ways. Illicit play not only provides children with a resistance to the dominant social structure, but it allows them to develop autonomy within the classroom organization (King, 1983). Preschool children also engage in illicit play. During dramatic play periods, children enforced play rules when the teachers were nearby and disregarded them when teachers were not around (Romero, 1989, 1991). Illicit play also occurs in the kindergarten during snack time. Interviews with twenty-one kindergartners during snack time revealed that play activities included “playing with your drink,” “pretending,” “telling a joke,” “fooling around,” and “goofing.” Although “goofing and “fooling around” were only recorded in 57 of 386 episodes, these types of illicit play lead to verbal reprimands from the teacher if children were caught in the act. These behaviors were exclusively performed by boys, and, in fact, forty of the illicit play episodes were performed by five of the most popular boys in the class (Romero, 1989, 1991).
The research discussed thus far has explored children’s views of the distinction between work and play. If the children’s views are lined up against Sutton-Smith’s (1995) six rhetorics, how do the children come out? To the degree that the youngest children stress the obligatory nature of work and the voluntary nature of play, the children would seem to be operating within the rhetoric of power. Some children stress the social aspects of play: whom one plays with rather than who controls the activity. These children operate within the rhetoric of identity. The oldest children pay more attention to the pleasures of play in a way similar to the rhetoric of frivolity. No child mentioned that play was good for children or that they played because it improved them in some way. Sutton-Smith’s rhetoric of power has not influenced children of these ages. There appear to be no efforts to systematically analyze these relationships, but from a sociocultural perspective, one would expect that as children get older, they would increasingly express the dominant rhetoric of their culture.
Children’s Views of Pretend Play
From Piaget (1962) comes the idea that three different cognitive forms of play emerge during the first six years of live: “Practice games, symbolic games, and games with rules, while constructional games constitute the transition from all three to adapted behaviours” (p.110).
What do children think is happening when they engage in one of these forms? Researchers have asked this question for only one of these forms: pretense. There have been two ways of studying children’s understanding of their own pretense, one drawn from theory of mind research, and the other from children’s memories of their pretend play.
Theory of Mind Research.
One virtue of theory of mind research is that children are being queried directly. One problem is that the experimental paradigms used are highly constraining and depend on the child’s understanding of the question that the experimenter is presenting. At issue is whether or not children can envision a mind—their own or others—capable of thinking about events that are not happening, may never have happened, and even may never happen. In the simplest case, how do children understand what happens mentally when someone pretends that a banana is a telephone? Most theorists assume that pretense involves a mental representation, or perhaps, a “representation of a representation.” When children talk into the tip of the banana, they are “thinking” of a telephone. Do children understand that pretense involves the mental representation of an object or event that is concurrently known not to be, in fact, present? Where children stand on this issue bears upon their “theory of mind.”
Most of the research that deals with this issue presents children with a hypothetical situation (Lillard, 1993). In one task, four- and five-year-olds were shown a troll doll and told, “This is Luna, and she’s from the land of the trolls. Luna doesn’t know what a rabbit is—she’s never seen a rabbit before – but she’s hopping up and down like a rabbit. Rabbits hop like that.” To ensure that the children heard the premises the interviewer asked, “Does she know what a rabbit is?” and “Is she hopping like a rabbit?” If the children answered correctly, the third question was, “Would you say she’s pretending to be a rabbit, or she’s not pretending to be a rabbit?” Follow-up questions were, “Why do you say that? And “If you . . . said, ‘ey Luna! What are you doing?’ what would she say?”
It is not surprising that preschoolers do poorly on this task. In fact, the premises are so
intricate, it is conceivable that many adults would lose the subtle contrast between “like a rabbit” and “pretending to be a rabbit.” In other words, the task requires a high level of comprehension monitoring in order to catch the shift from an observer’s perspective (“Like a rabbit”) to a participants’ perspective (“pretending to be a rabbit”). If one adopts the observer perspective throughout, there is no contradiction, because presumably one can observe someone doing something that the observer then characterizes as pretense. For the younger children, therefore, this may be a question about an observer’s mind and not a question about Luna’s mind.
A second problem comes from the supposition that these preschoolers are so sophisticated that they can imagine a creature from another universe that truly knows nothing about a familiar animal. They must be able to imagine such a mind for the task to make sense. If preschoolers can imagine such a naïve mind—a mind that does not know what the children themselves know—they will have a far greater appreciation of other minds than the task itself assesses. An “uninformed mind” task is used as the setting for a “pretend mind” task.
Custer (1996) designed a simpler task that investigated the question: Do three- and four-year-olds understand that mental representations are involved in pretense, memory, and false belief? In this task, the children might view pictures of a child who was pretending that a fish was hooked at the end of a fishing line, when there was actually a boot at the end of the line. The children first viewed the picture of the hooked boot and then viewed alternative “thought” pictures placed over the protagonist’s head. One thought picture depicted the real situation (catching a boot), and the other depicted the pretend situation (Catching a fish). The latter choice was the correct one because it depicted how the situation would be depicted if the protagonist were pretending. On this task, three-year-olds did extremely well, with eleven of the eighteen children correct on all trails. Thus, young children might understand the representational nature of pretense.
A somewhat different approach is to ask the children to reminisce about their own pretend behavior. Ultimately, one would want to ask three- and four-year-olds to explain how they play, but in one study we asked twenty-five five- to six-year-olds (N= 13 girls) and twenty-five seven- to eight-year-olds (N = 12 girls) to tell us how they pretended when they were four and how they pretend now. Of course we cannot be sure that their accounts are accurate playbacks of what happened at four years of age; however, almost all children, regardless of age, recalled playing pretend games at age four. No child described pretend episodes that occurred in nursery school even though most children had attended. In fact, most of the play took place at home, in the yard or bedroom, away from adult scrutiny. Some of their accounts were so vivid that they conveyed the excitement and pleasure of the activity. Here is an especially vivid account of the pretense that a five-year-old claims to have played at the age of four:
I played cops and robbers. My uncle James, we used to play
cops and robbers. I was the little one and I used to go to the
store and act like I be stealing something, and he used to take
my hands and put them behind my back and tie something to the
back of my hand and I couldn’t break out. Then he used to tie
me against the tree with a rope and I couldn’t break out and
then he be hitting me with sticks. Not that hard. Then he said
he’s going to do that again and I said no and then I go do it again
and he can’t catch me. I be hiding under the car.
Keep in mind that this five-year-old is offering a vivid account of a pretend scenario that happened sometime in the past. The child is in the present, representing events about a previously represented event. Further, the events are “act like.” The narrator makes it clear that even being hit with sticks was “not hard.” In pretense, children act, speak, dress up, and in as many other ways they can think of, present themselves as the pretend characters they seek to be. However, these actions, statements, and clothing are not meant to be replicas of the real thing. They are exaggerations, abbreviations, and highlighted caricatures of whatever the children know and feel about what they are representing. To an adult, some childhood memories are unsettling. Why would children pretend that cops tied up robbers and beat them? Keep in mind, however, that the memories reveal what children play on their own time and in their own spaces. Another five-year-old described the following pretense:
Mar: My brother keep making me wash the dishes, set the table, and my
other brother telling me to wash the floor and wash the stairs.
Interviewer: And what did you do?
Mar: I done it all.
Interviewer: In your game, what did you pretend to be?
Some memories of pretense reveal personal and painful pasts. A second-grader reported, “I pretend like when I lived with my grandparents again that I used to pretend that they were the bad guys . . . and we used to play that my parents and our grandparents were the robbers and we were the cops and we used to tie them up and everything. The interviewer asked, “Why did you play your grandparents were robbers?” The child answered, Because [in real life] she was mean to our parents when they were our age, so we pretend like they’re the bad guys.”
Some children simply gave a popular label for the pretense theme (house, school), whereas others told the stories that they played. Some children described particular roles; one child described how she and her friend set out blankets to get a suntan: “We’re pretending we are
womens.” Another said, “We pretend my sister is my sister and we go to school and that we have babies.” Superheroes were overrepresented, but some children spontaneously described episodes of thematic fantasy play built around Jack the Giant Killer, Hansel and Gretel, Pinocchio, and other characters.
Of fifty children, forty-four admitted to pretending when they were four, a figure that did not differ by age. A different picture, however, emerged in response to the question of whether they played pretense now. For the younger children, all but two said they did. But eight of the twenty-five older children, denied playing pretend games, and of these, six were boys. One third-grader explained, “I’m too old to play like that . . . people say that pretend is baby stuff.”
Five- and six-year old boys are big role-players, and most of their roles are superhero or fantasy figures. But when children talk about past self-directed pretense, they often describe scenes. This tendency shows a marked drop in accounts of their current play, which are fairly sophisticated accounts of mimed activity.
Some children describe object-substitution pretense, playing ball games such a football, kickball or basketball without a ball. One third-grader described playing pretend kickball with his brother. “My brother was throwing the ball and I act like I kick it and ran to all the fake bases.” One child pretended that he had a television in his room, another described running around the house as if he were riding a bike, and another talked about pretending that dolls were people.
What do these data tell us about children’s understanding of pretense? A major theme in reminiscences of early play was the story-like character of the children’s accounts. Many described enactments and/or theatrical renditions of stories, some conventional and some quite unique. In a sense, these enactments “represented” things, actions, and relationships. No child referred explicitly to a pretending mind; no child explicitly described pretense as an inner mental experience. They liberally used the terms like, as if, and pretend interchangeably, as if these terms adequately captured the phenomenon. As Lillard (1993) believes, children even at these ages might not consider pretense as a matter of “mental representations.”
Another interpretation is that this way of thinking about pretense might better characterize psychological theories than the theories of “folk” culture. One kindergarten child described playing with his dog: “We play going to the woods and we saw a fox. Casey grabbed it and pounced on it.” Just think of the questions we would like to have asked, but did not. Does Casey know what a fox is? Did Casey think he was pouncing on a fox? Was he pretending? Such questions should be asked in the context of a reported scene. If Lillard is correct the child will answer yes to the last two questions. If Custer (1996) is correct, the child will answer no. We think that the child will find the questions puzzling because, after all, he said, “we play.” Perhaps it is only psychologists who think about representational minds; others may simply represent the representations of representations of others and themselves, in effect, play without reflectivity.
The Debate Continues
Most children in Western culture think that play should be fun, active, spontaneous, free, unconstrained, self-initiated, and natural (Frost & Klein, 19799; Stevens, 1978); whereas at the same time, the seriousness, purposefulness, and intensity of play contribute to its role as a vehicle of learning during childhood. Play is a context or frame (Bateson, 1955), with an emphasis on process rather than goals. Play’s major characteristics are active involvement, intrinsic motivation, attention to process rather than product, nonliterality, freedom from external rules, and self-reference rather than object-reference (Rubin, Fein, & Vandenberg, 1983).
Not everyone subscribes to the notion that play contributes to child development. For example, the value of play “in the life of the children . . . is perhaps something of little importance which he undertakes for the lack of something better to do” (Montessori, 1956, p. 122). Some would argue that play provides children with opportunities to imitate and practice culturally appropriate adult roles (Schwartzman, 1978a). Others make a case that play involves social invention and therefore is a more original, creative process (Fein, 1987). Still others take the position that, during play, some children learn to create their own worlds within the adult-imposed physical and social world of school (Gracey, 1975). Kindergartners note that “Play is at a different time; it is easy. Play is fun” (LeCompte, 1980, p. 123). Experiences described in this way, as fun, spontaneous, and improvisational, suggest an apparent lack of externally imposed rules (Schwartzman, 1978b). Children seem to know what play is, and they know that “play is not working” (LeCompte, 1980, p. 123).
The seeming dichotomy between work and play helps educators develop curricula that organize schools into routine, controlled workplaces that serve society. Education, then, is a part of the socialization process that takes place in the school (Apple & King, 1978; Gracey, 1975; Tyler, 1986; Weinstein, 1983). The dichotomy continues. Play complements and supports the work ethic of the school. Play provides a relief from the drudgery of work, and after periods of relaxation and/or physical exercise, adults expect children to return to work refreshed. Play serves as a reward, a prize, a compensation for those who are obedient, who complete assigned tasks, and who follow the rules. Likewise, the loss of recreational privileges serves to punish disruptive, disobedient children or those who do not finish their work (King, 1983).
Spontaneous, flowing play is not what one see children do at school. Play at school is play in a workplace, confined to particular times, relegated to specific areas, limited to certain materials, and controlled by teachers. This is not memorable play that children describe with relish and delight many years later. Children’s descriptions of their school day and their play enrich researchers’ understanding of their experiences in early schooling, at play, and the role of each in development. Although these reminiscences may also be unreliable, they provide another source of information about how children perceive school.
Apple, M. W., & King, N. R. (1978). What do schools teach? In G. Willis (Ed.). Concepts and
cases in curriculum criticism (pp. 444-465).
Bateson, G. (1955). A theory of play and fantasy. In N. S. Kline (Ed.), Approaches to the study
of human personality, Psychiatric Research Reports, 2 (pp. 39-51).
Berlyne, D. (1960). Conflict, arousal, and curiosity.
Bredekamp, S., & Copple, C. (Eds.), (1997). Developmentally appropriate practice in early
Corsaro, W. A. (1986). Discourse processes within peer culture: From a constructivist to an
Interpretive approach to childhood socialization. In P. A. Adler & P. Adler (Eds.),
Sociological Studies of Child Development, Vol. 1 (pp. 81-101).
Cullen, J. (1993). Preschool children’s use and perceptions of outdoor play areas. Early Child
Development and Care, 89, 45-56.
Custer, W. L. (1996). A comparison of young children’s understanding of contradictory
representations in pretense, memory, and belief. Child Development, 67 (2), 678-688.
Elias, C. L., & Berk. L. E. (2002). Self-regulation in young children: Is there a role for sociodramatic play? Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 17 (2), 216-238.
Fein, G. G. (1985). Learning in play: Surface of thinking and feeling. In J. L. Frost &
Childhood Education International.
Fein, G. G. (1987). Pretend play, creativity, and consciousness. In D.
(Eds.), Curiosity, imagination, and play (pp. 281-304).
Fernie, D. (1988). Becoming a student: Messages from first settings. Theory into Practice,
27 (1), 3-10.
Fernie, D., Kantor, R., Klein, E., Meyer, C., & Elgas, P. (1988). Becoming students and
becoming ethnographers in a preschool. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 3, 132-141.
Fivush, R. (1984). Learning about school: The development of kindergartners' school scripts.
Child Development, 55 (5), 1697-1709.
Fowell, N., &
education. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 7, 53-73.
Frost, J. L., & Klein, B. L. (1983). Children's play and playgrounds.
Garza, M., Briley, S., & Reifel, S. (1985). Children's views of play. In J. L. Frost & S.
Sunderlin (Eds.), When children play. (pp. 31-37).
Gracey, H. L. (1975). Learning the student role: Kindergarten as academic boot camp. In H. R.
Stub (Ed.). The sociology of education: A sourcebook (3rd ed., pp. 82-95).
Hennessey, B. A., & Berger, A. R. (1993, March). Children's conceptions of work and play:
Exploring an alternative to the discounting principle. Poster presented at the Society for Research in Child Development,
King, N. R. (1979). Play: The kindergartner's perspective. The Elementary School Journal, 80
King, N. R. (1982). Children’s play as a form of resistance in the classroom. Journal of
Education 164 (3), 320-329.
King, N. R. (1983). Play in the workplace. In M. W. Apple & L. Weis (Eds.), Ideology and
practice in schooling (pp. 262-280).
King, N. R. (1986). When educators study play in schools. Journal of Curriculum and
Supervision, 1 (3), 233-246.
King, N. R. (1990). Economics and control in everyday school life. In M. W. Apple (Ed.),
Ideology and curriculum (pp. 43-60).
Klein, E. L. (2001). Children ‘s perspective on their experiences in early education an
child-care settings. In
Education: reframing dilemmas in research and practice (pp.131-149).
Klein, E. L., Kantor, R., & Fernie, D. E. (1988). What do young children know about school?
Young Children, 43(5), 32-39.
LeCompte, M. D. (1980). The civilizing of children: How young children learn to become students. Journal of Thought, 15 (3), 105 -127.
Leseman, P. M., Rollenberg, L., & Rispens, J. (2001). Playing and working in kindergarten:
Cognitive co-construction in two educational situations. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 16 (3), 363-384.
Light, P. (1987). Taking roles. In J. Bruner & H. Haste (Eds.), Making sense: The child’s constructions of the world (pp. 41-61).
Lillard, A. S. ((1993). Young children’s conceptualization of pretense: Action or mental
representational state? Child Development, 64, 372-386.
Mandler, J. E. (1983). Structural invariants in development. In L. S. Liben (Ed.), Piaget and the foundations of knowledge (pp. 97-124).
Montessori, M. (1956). The child in the family.
Nelson, K. (1978). How children represent knowledge of their world in and out of language: A preliminary report. In R. S. Siegler (Ed.), Children’s thinking: What develops? (pp.
Nelson, K. (1993). Events, narrative, memory: What develops? In K. Nelson (Ed.), Memory and affect in development. The
Nelson, K., & Gruendel, J. (1981). Generalized event representations: Basic building blocks of cognitive development. In M. E. Lamb & A. L. Brown (Eds.), Advances in
Developmental Psychology, 1 (pp. 131-158).
Paley, V. G. (2004). A child’s work: The importance of fantasy play.
Piaget, J. (1962). Play, dreams and imitation in childhood.
Reifel, S. (1988). Children's thinking about their early education experiences. Theory into Practice, 27 (1), 62-66.
Reifel, S., Briley, S., & Garza, M. (1986). Play at child care: Event knowledge at ages three to six. In K. Blanchard (Ed.), The many faces of play (Vol. 9, pp. 80-91). Association for
the Anthropological Study of Play.
Romero, M. (1989). Work and play in the nursery school. Educational Policy, 3 (4), 401-419.
Romero, M. (1991). Work and play in the nursery school. In L. Weis, P. Altback, G. Kelly, & H. Petrie (Eds.), Childhood Education.
Rubin, K., Fein, G., & Vandenburg, B. (1983). Play. In P. Mussen (Ed.), Manual of child psychology, Vol. 3 (pp. 693-774).
Schank, R. C., & Abelson, R. P. (1977). Scripts, plans, goals and understanding.
Schwartzman, H. B. (1978a). Transformations: The anthropology of children's play.
Schwartzman, H. B. (1978b). The dichotomy of work and play. In M. A. Salter (Ed.), Play: Anthropological perspectives (pp. 185-249).
Smith, P. K., & Vollstedt, R. (1985). On defining play: An empirical study of the relationship
between play and various play criteria. Child Development, 56, 1042-1050.
Stevens, P. (1978). Play and work: A false dichotomy? In H. B. Schwartzman (Ed.), Play and culture: 1978 proceedings of the Association for Anthropological Study of Play (pp. 316
Sutton-Smith, B. (1995). The persuasive rhetorics of play. In A. Pellegrini (Ed.), The future of
play theory: Essays in honor of Brian Sutton-Smith (pp.275-295).
Tyler, L. (1986). Meaning and schooling. Theory into Practice, 25 (1), 53 - 57.
Weinstein, R. S. (1983). Student perceptions of schooling. Elementary School Journal, 83 (4),
Wiltz, N. W. (1993). What children know about school: Interviews with young children. Unpublished master's seminar paper,
Wiltz, N. W. (1997). Four year-olds’ perceptions of their experiences in high and low
quality child care. Unpublished doctoral dissertation,
Wiltz, N. W., & Klein, E. L. (1994, April). What did you do at school today? Activities in child
care from the child's point of view. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting, American Educational Research Association,
Wiltz, N. W., & Klein, E. L. (1995, March). Young children's perceptions of activities in child
care. Paper presented at the Biennial Meeting, Society for Research in Child Development.
Wiltz, N. W., & Klein, E. L. (1996). Children's understanding of the structure of activities
in child care settings. Making a difference for children, families and communities:
Wiltz, N. W., & Klein, E. K. (2001). "What do you do in child care?" Children's
Perceptions of high and low quality classrooms. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 16 (2), 209-236.
Wing, L. A. (1995). Play is not the work of the child: Young children’s perceptions of work and
play. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 10 (2), 223-247.
Zhang, X., & Sigel,
Educational Research Association,