Why is play with siblings and peers important for children’s development? Research into the ways in which social experiences impact on childhood development has predominantly focused on the interactions between a child and their immediate caregivers. However, recent research has shown that relationships with siblings and peers also provide an important context for development and socialisation.

As this assignment focuses specifically on play, as opposed to other types of interactions, it is important to clarify a working definition of play from the outset and also to specify which areas of children’s development will be considered when answering this question. Various types of relationships prevalent in a child’s experience will be outlined in terms of their different characteristics and how these are likely to influence development in particular ways. This discussion will highlight the specific roles played by siblings and peers and consider why these relationships are especially important for child development.

Different types of play that siblings and peers are likely to engage in will then be identified and will also be shown to be important for children’s development in distinct ways. Finally, limitations of the current research will be considered. Play is an important means by which children interact with and learn about the world around them but it is an extremely difficult concept to define as it has different meanings for different people and in different contexts. It has even been asserted that it is futile to try and agree on a universal definition of a concept as ambiguous as play (Sutton-Smith, 2006).

Whilst psychologists have often proposed only deterministic and utilitarian definitions of play, anthropologist, Huizinga (1950) presents the idea that play exists for its own sake. In any case a universal definition of play would have to be as flexible and all encompassing as play itself, taking into account the full range of forms conventionally understood as play, including social and solo play, competitive and co-operative games, intrinsically and extrinsically motivated play, etc.

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However, the question we are addressing is specifically focused on play between children and their peers and siblings and so for the purposes of this assignment we are concerned only with social, interactive play. In this case play requires a mutual understanding amongst participants that they are involved in play and that they are free to play or to not play. As such it is a highly skilled interactional accomplishment. It is interesting to note Millar’s suggestion that play is best defined as an adverb, used to describe the way in which an action or activity is performed as opposed to a particular type of action in itself (Millar, 1968).

Using this as a basis, we can define play as being any activity which is entered into freely and playfully by all participants. Throughout their social interactions children may engage in play activities which help to progress their development in a wide range of areas. However, some developmental areas would also have been influenced had the play been independent or with an adult, for example, physical development such as gross and fine motor skills, personal skills such as perseverance and concentration or cognitive development such as understanding of material properties, number awareness, sound awareness, etc.

Although recognising that vast opportunities across a wide range of developmental areas may be provided through play with siblings and peers, for the purposes of this question it will be necessary to focus only on the areas of development which are influenced particularly because of the socially interactive nature of the play. Interactive play with others has been shown by research to be important for children’s development, especially play with an experienced other such as a primary caregiver.

However, it is helpful to isolate play with siblings and peers as being worthy of study in its own right, as the different nature of these relationships and the diverse qualities they bring to the experience of play have distinct implications for children’s development. All interactions with others are emotionally laden and this is further affected by the type of relationship in question, as well as by additional factors such as age and gender.

For example, boys’ play has been noted as being more frequently on the point of aggression than girls’ play, as evidence suggests that discourse between girls during conflict tends to have different characteristics than the discourse between boys during disagreements (Maccoby, 1999). In exchanges between children and adults there is an imbalance of knowledge and power in the relationship and so these interactions are characterised by their complementarity of roles.

Adults often scaffold children’s learning and so complementary interactions enable children to gain knowledge and acquire skills, ideally in a non-threatening and supportive environment, in which they feel secure, nurtured and protected (Schaffer, 2003). By contrast, exchanges between children and their peers take place between individuals with similar knowledge and power and are therefore characterised by reciprocal processes rather than complementary ones.

It is asserted that through these reciprocal interactions children have the opportunity to, ‘acquire skills that can only be learned among equals,’ (Schaffer, 2003:113) including skills which involve co-operation and competition, friendships, resolution of conflict and the shared task of constructing social understanding. They also provide a context in which children can learn about the social world with increasing independence from their parents (Dunn, 2004).

Relationships between siblings are particularly distinctive as they involve some difference in knowledge and power and therefore hold the potential for the elder to act as a ‘teacher, guide and model,’ yet the gap may be narrow enough to allow the siblings to sometimes play and talk on an equal level and to ‘tackle jointly the task of social understanding’ (Schaffer, 1996:267). Siblings are therefore uniquely placed in their potential to contribute to early development as they may be able to move somewhat seamlessly between these complementary and reciprocal roles.

Relationships between siblings are subject to intense emotions and the emotional quality of the relationship has particular significance for the development of children’s social understanding (Dunn ; Kendrick, 1982:210). The emotional nature of these relationships influences children’s emotional development, helping them to understand attachment, rivalry, affection, the family world and their place within it (Dunn, 1988:73).

Despite possible rivalries, research indicates that siblings often display highly protective emotions towards each other, suggesting that the relationship promotes the development of important social emotional skills such as understanding other people’s feelings and caring for others. Psychologists have identified two broad categories of social pretend play in the early years. These are socio-dramatic play and thematic fantasy play. Whilst there may be many overlaps as to the areas of development influenced by these kinds of play, they can also contribute to children’s development in very distinct ways.

For example, although children develop broadly applicable personal skills through socio-dramatic play such as collaboration, co-operation and negotiation, a lot of what is learnt through this type of play may be culturally specific, as socio-dramatic play helps children to become familiar with the routines, social events and rituals which they are part of or which they witness in the world around them (Stone, 1981). It also helps them to develop the language and communication skills necessary to become participants in them, for example, social conventions and related vocabulary.

Through role-play children can learn to understand the importance and function of different roles and responsibilities and to practice important social and participation skills particular to the environment and institutions surrounding them. Thematic fantasy play allows children to practice interpersonal skills, and to develop trust and mutual support and understanding for each other. It allows great opportunity for the development of creativity and imagination.

Corsaro has identified some of the recurring themes of thematic fantasy play as being cross-cultural, such as death-rebirth, lost-found and danger-rescue and play surrounding these themes can also help children to gain control over fears and anxieties and to develop appropriate coping strategies which can be applied outside of the play context (Corsaro, 1986:93). Play fighting is another category of play which research has identified as providing a rich context for important social and emotional development (Smith et al. 1999). Through play fighting children can practice turn taking and learn to understand another person’s point of view. For play fighting to be classified as play, children need to be able to transmit and receive subtle cues and play signals and conventions and so they have the opportunity to practice and hone communication skills of encoding and decoding. Children will also need to be able to regulate their emotional display and physical strength use, in other words they need to be able to apply restraint.

Where genuine conflicts and disputes occur during play, even these seemingly negative disagreements can be turned into positive opportunities for development if children can learn to successfully negotiate and work together to find a resolution. These are important social skills to develop and use throughout childhood and adulthood. Research even suggests that the ability to resolve conflicts, to negotiate and to collaborate actually contribute towards healthy intellectual development (Littleton et al. 2004). Insights into the different types of play considered in the previous paragraph have relied heavily on detailed research into children’s face to face interactions. However, this does not take into account the recent development and increase of technological communications between children, particularly in affluent societies, which offers children a very different kind of freedom, independence and dimension to their interactions with others.

The research considered also doesn’t take into account the possible impact of play deprivation on children’s development and doesn’t consider the particular experiences of individual children e. g. the experience of a child growing up in a single-child family; the experience of a child who does not attend a nursery before their school experience but is looked after at home; the experience of a child growing up in an extended family setting, etc. Research findings are also largely imbalanced, focusing predominantly on Western industrialised society (Littleton ; Miell, 2005:121).

In other cultures children may interact with their peers mainly in a work environment; or older siblings may undertake greater child rearing responsibilities. This has important implications for the nature and quality of interactions which take place between children and their peer and siblings in those cultures. The evidence referred to throughout this assignment does not allow us to generalise findings or to address the question, ‘why is play with siblings and peers important to children’s development? in a global context. Although the research referred to has sought to place central importance on the views and interpretations of children and young people and so give them a voice throughout the research process, it has been suggested that children need to be empowered to undertake research, setting their own agendas rather than merely participating in research which has been designed with adult agendas in mind (Kellet et al. , 2004).

Although research chosen, designed, carried out, analysed and reported entirely from the perspective of children and young people themselves has the potential to provide a rich and distinctive contribution to our understanding of children’s play with siblings and peers, it would be a very difficult and delicate task to ensure that the research genuinely had children and young people’s agendas at its heart given the different balance of knowledge and power between the researchers and the adults seeking to empower them.

This assignment has shown that whilst all play is important for children’s development, social play has particular importance for certain areas of development. Where play occurs between siblings and peers this provides a rich and distinct context and special opportunities for learning given the unique blend of reciprocal and complementary roles inherent in these relationships. The types of play that peers and siblings are likely to engage in, was also shown to influence development, each in distinctive ways.

Although research into this area was shown to be limited and to raise important questions which would need to be addressed for a deeper understanding of this topic, this assignment has identified many ways in which play with siblings and peers is important for children’s development. References Corsaro,W. (1986) ‘Discourse processes within peer culture: from a constructivist to an interpretative approach to childhood socialisation’, Sociological Studies of Child Development,vol. 1, pp. 81-101. Dunn,J. 1988) The Beginnings of Social Understanding, Oxford, Blackwell. Dunn,J. (2004) Children’s Friendships: The beginnings of intimacy, Oxford, Blackwell. Dunn,J. ; Kendrick,C. (1982) Siblings: Love, envy and understanding, London, Grant McIntyre. Huizinga,J. (1955) A study of the play element in culture, Boston, Beacon Press. Kellet,M. , Forrest,R. , Dent,N. ; Ward,S. (2004) ‘Just teach us the skills, we’ll do the rest: empowering ten-year-olds as active researchers’, Children and Society, vol. 18, pp. 329-43. Littleton,K. amp; Miell,D. (2005) ‘Children’s Interactions: siblings and peers’, in Ding,S. ; Littleton,K. (eds) Children’s Personal and Social Development, Milton Keynes, Open University. Littleton,K. , Miell,D. ; Faulkner,D. (2004) Learning to Collaborate, Collaborating to Learn, New York, NY, Nova Science. Maccoby,E. (1999) The Two Sexes: growing up apart, coming together, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press. Millar,S. (1968) The psychology of play, Penguin. Schaffer,H. R. (1996) Social Development, Oxford, Blackwell . Schaffer,H. R. 2003) Introducing Child Psychology, Oxford, Blackwell. Smith,P. K. , Bowers,L. , Binney,V. ; Cowie,H. (1999) ‘Relationships of children involved in bully/victim problems at school’, in Woodhead,M. , Faulkner,D. ; Littleton,K. (eds) Cultural Worlds of Early Childhood, London, Routledge. Stone,G. P. (1981) ‘The play of little children’, in Stone,G. P. ; Faberman,H. A. (eds) Social Psychology Through Symbolic Interaction, New York, NY, Wiley. Sutton-Smith,B. (2006) The Ambiguity of Play, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press


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