64 Play

Martha Lally and Suzanne Valentine-French

Freud saw play as a means for children to release pent-up emotions and to deal with emotionally distressing situations in a more secure environment. Vygotsky and Piaget saw play as a way of children developing their intellectual abilities (Dyer and Moneta, 2006). All three theorists saw play as providing positive outcomes for children.

Four boys playing together in a forest with a ball
Figure 4.22: Which type of play are these boys engaging in?

Mildred Parten (1932) observed 2- to 5-year-old children and noted six types of play. Three types she labeled as non-social play (unoccupied, solitary, and onlooker) and three types were categorized as social play (parallel, associative, and cooperative). Table 4.4 describes each type of play. Younger children engage in non-social play more than those older; by age five, associative and cooperative play are the most common forms of play (Dyer and Moneta, 2006).

Table 4.4: Types of Play
Category Description
Unoccupied play The least common form of play, wherein children’s behaviour seems more random and without a specific goal.
Solitary play Children play by themselves, do not interact with others, nor are they engaging in similar activities as the children around them.
Onlooker play Children are observing other children playing. They may comment on the activities and even make suggestions but will not directly join the play.
Parallel play Children play alongside each other using similar toys, but do not directly interact with each other.
Associative play Children will interact with each other and share toys but are not working toward a common goal.
Cooperative play Children are interacting to achieve a common goal and may take on different tasks to reach that goal.
Box 4.2: Imaginary Companions

An intriguing occurrence in early childhood is the emergence of imaginary companions. Researchers differ in how they define what qualifies as an imaginary companion. Some studies include only invisible characters that the child refers to in conversation or plays with for an extended period of time. Other researchers also include objects that the child personifies, such as a stuffed toy or doll, or characters the child impersonates every day. Estimates of the number of children who have imaginary companions varies greatly (from as little as 6 percent to as high as 65 percent) depending on what is included in the definition (Gleason, Sebanc, and Hartup, 2000).

A girl with a teddy bear
Figure 4.23: Imaginary companions

Little is known about why children create imaginary companions, and more than half of all companions have no obvious trigger in the child’s life (Masih, 1978). Imaginary companions are sometimes based on real people, characters from stories, or simply names the child has heard (Gleason, et. al., 2000). Imaginary companions often change over time. In their study, Gleason et al. (2000) found that 40 percent of the imaginary companions of the children they studied changed (such as developing superpowers, switching age or gender, or even dying) and 68 percent of the characteristics of the companion were acquired over time. This could reflect greater complexity in the child’s “creation” over time and/or a greater willingness to talk about their imaginary playmates.

In addition, research suggests that contrary to the assumption that children with imaginary companions are compensating for poor social skills, several studies have found that these children are very sociable (Mauro, 1991; Singer and Singer, 1990; Gleason, 2002). Some studies have reported that children with imaginary companions are more likely to be first-borns or only children (Masih, 1978; Gleason et al., 2000; Gleason, 2002). However, not all research has found a link between birth order and the incidence of imaginary playmates (Manosevitz, Prentice, and Wilson, 1973). Moreover, some studies have found little or no difference in the presence of imaginary companions and parental divorce (Gleason et al., 2000), number of people in the home, or the amount of time children are spending with real playmates (Masih, 1978; Gleason and Hohmann, 2006).

Do children treat real friends differently? The answer, it appears, is not entirely. Young children view their relationship with their imaginary companion to be as supportive and nurturing as with their real friends. Gleason has suggested that this might suggest that children form a schema of what is a friend, and use this same schema in their interactions with both types of friends (Gleason et al., 2000; Gleason, 2002; Gleason and Hohmann, 2006).

Children and the Media

Children view far more television today than in the 1960s; so much that they have been referred to as Generation M (for media). Almost all American families have at least one TV set, and half own three or more (Nielsen Company, 2009). For children age six and under, two-thirds watch television every day, usually for two hours (Rideout and Hamel, 2006). Even when involved in other activities, such as playing, there is often a television on nearby (Christakis, 2009; Kirkorian, Pempek, and Murphy, 2009). Research has consistently shown that too much television adversely affects children’s behaviour, health, and achievement (Gentile and Walsh, 2002; Robinson, Wilde, and Navracruz, 2001). Young children are less able to focus on active, hands-on play while the television is on, and background TV can negatively affect cognitive and language development as well as be linked to attention problems later in childhood (Schmidt, Pempek, and Kirkorian, 2008; Courage, Murphy, and Goulding, 2010).

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