Much research has been done into childrens play behaviour. Theories and models have been proposed detailing the phases and stages through which a child will develop. These phases lie along a linear plane with each child advancing through them showing different traits along differing timescales. Piaget (1951) described a developmental sequence from practice play through symbolic play, to games with rules acknowledging that these stages were overlapping.
There have also been numerous attempts to try and define the characteristics of play; of which a concise definition seems almost impossible, with each party placing it emphasis on different criteria that encompass playful behaviour.
For the purpose of my observation I shall define play as being physically active behaviour with no external goal present, they are not doing the activity for any reason other than self-pleasure. If a goal becomes applicable then play ceases.
The purpose of this report is to see how these theories and models correlate to my cross sectional observations of nursery and primary school age children (3-11) in visits within Loughborough and also to my work at a Junior Boys School (grade K-7, age 4-12) in Victoria, BC Canada.
Two separate visits were made firstly to the on campus nursery (ages 3-4), then to Thorpe Acre Junior School (key stage 1, ages 4-9). Due to the differing observation requirements, prior to each visit I prepared separate observation protocols (annex 1).
My initial impression of Peter on being introduced to him was that he was of about average size compared to the other boys in the group.
Squatting down to his level I introduced myself. At first he seemed shy but at the same time very curious of his new friend. I initiated conversation relating to the upcoming activity session whilst waiting for the rest of the group to be assigned to the remaining students. He soon lost his shyness and a proceeded to inform me what he was going to do in the session. On the walk from the nursery to the gym there was quite a variation in the childrens moods. Some were very shy and unsure of their guides others were very chatty and interacted a lot more.
Peter seemed to be very aware of his surroundings, vigorously checking roads that we crossed and pointing out anything he spotted, birds on the grass, large lorries etc. What became evident from Peter and some of the other nursery children was their use of humour in their language play, with rhymes, repetition and wordplay variations of well known verses very common (smith et al 1998). By the time children have reached this nursery age they have already started to adopt relational roles (Howes & Matheson 1992), Peter seemed to already have quiet a strong character and after his initial shyness he wanted to dominate our relationship. We were not allowed to cross the road until he was happy it was safe to do so.
Already it had seems that he had decided that our relationship, playful in a sense is governed by some rule structure, we both had constraints, he must walk on the road side, and I must not lag behind. Peter saw me as a new playmate, wanting me to join in with his playful language, and asking me whether Id play with him in the session. Hartup (1992) believed that by the time children were aged 3 or 4 they appear to prefer to play with peers rather than alone and that their play is much more cooperative and coordinated, with much of the pretend play being organized along gender lines.
Once in the changing room, the children proceeded to undress and change. Peter seemed to be very keen to get ready for the session compared with some of the other children. Although his hast in trying to undress himself restricted his fine motor skills and his ability to undo his shirt buttons, frustrating him. His elasticated trousers and the velcro on his shoes proved no problem, they were slipped off with relative ease. Other children, especially the girls, did not seem as motivated for the session and were asking for a lot more assistance in changing from the other students.
In the gym the teachers asked the children to perform a variety of physical tasks, running both forwards and backwards, standing up and sitting down, throwing and catching and balancing activities. When it came to gross motor skills there seemed to quite a difference in ability. On the whole the boys in the group were at a more advanced stage of development in their gross motor skills than the girls. With the majority showing the Elementary stage of running, a limited flight phase, but increasing stride length arm swing and speed. Peter fitted in with an obvious social group of four other boys, all of similar build and all of similar development. Again their motivation for the session seemed to restrict their ability to perform the task set, indeed they received more than one reprimand from the teachers to calm down.
There was an obvious difference in development from the nursery children to those in the junior school playground. Play was divided into defined groups. Very few children were playing on their own, and the majority in groups of five and up. The games that they played varied in gender and age of the children, with the boys being far more motivated for physical activity than the girls. Indeed sex segregation in childrens play is a pattern that exists in every culture of the world (Harkness & Super, 1985).
The children seemed to be much more developed than those of the nursery school. Play fighting and chasing was common between male peers, Smith et al (1998) characterised this to ages 3 and up. The play fights or wrestling usually involves a tussle for superior position, one child trying to get on top of another, or to get him onto the floor, laughing and smiling signal friendly intent. Fights are short, children dont hit hard. Primary school teachers believe that often play fight can generate into real fights. From my own experience working at a junior school, any incidents of fighting however playful were all dealt with very seriously.
They first group of children that I observed was a large group of around 10 boys aged about 6 or 7, much larger than any social group seen in the nursery. Bee (1995) stated that as children get older they spend more time with friends and there social groups get larger. I arrived at the playground just as break time began and the group was just initiating a game of football. By the time children reach this age rule governed games such as hopscotch, tig or football take up much more playground time, sometime these games have public rules applicable to all play events, giving much less latitude for change (smith et al 1998).
The group huddled round as two individuals picked teams as the game progressed it was apparent that the boys of highest ability served as the captains, they were chosen to play first, indeed dictated who would play, and were given key positions. While the less skilled boys played minor roles in the game.
Waldrop and Haverson (1975) refer to boys relationships as extensive and girls intensive. Boys friendship groups are larger more accepting of newcomers than are girls. Boys play more outdoors and roam over a larger area; their friendships are focused more on competition than dominance. Girls are more likely to play in pairs of smaller exclusive groups spend more time indoors and their relationships are show more compliance intimacy and agreement (Bee 1995).
My next group of observation was a younger group of boys. They were deep in sociodramatic play so I approached them and inquired as to what they were doing who they were. One boy told me he was a Pokemon another was action man. The roles seemed to have set rules that governed their behaviour. Within other younger children that I observed sex differences in sociodramatic play were inconsistent, although the choice of roles is very different, girls employ more domestic scenes; boys rather imitate characters from books TV or fantasy. With rough and tumble play almost always preferred by the boys.
From viewing a range of children all of differing ages, the stages of development become easily apparent, with physical development on one scale and the social development on another. Peer relationship seemed very important amongst the school age children and social groups had expanded, the children now preferred to play with peers rather than interact with adults.