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Gender Differences In Play, Cultural Differences In PlayConclusion

Play serves different purposes at different ages. Jean Piaget (1962) delineated play into three major periods: (1) imitation and practice play; (2) symbolic play, which is pure assimilation or distortion of reality and implies representation of an absent object; and (3) games with rules, such as board games or marbles.

Imitation and practice, the earliest form of play, occurs in the sensory-motor period from birth to approximately twenty-four months. The infant copies the sounds and actions of the persons or animals in the environment. Practice games leading to mastery are evidenced by the infant or toddler swatting a mobile in the crib to make it move, stacking cubes or blocks, or putting plastic sticks into a jar. Fine motor skills develop as the toddler explores the many objects in the crib or playroom. As the baby gets older, large motor skills are practiced through walking, climbing, and through play with push and pull toys.

Symbolic or pretend play emerges around age two, although researchers such as Greta Fein (1981) have found evidence of pretend play among eighteen-month-old toddlers.

Play is at peak during the preoperational stage, especially from ages three to six. Children move from solitary pretend play to social play, where they interact with other children. In simple solitary pretend play, a child may move a truck along the floor, imitate a cat or dog by crawling along the floor, put a teddy bear to sleep, or rock a doll in a cradle. Two toddlers may even play side by side (parallel play) without playing with each other. They may occasionally exchange a toy or a word, but their major focus is on their own play game.

At about age three, cooperative social pretend play begins and reaches its peak by ages four and five. Carolee Howes (1985) makes a distinction between social play and social pretend play. Social play involves turn-taking and sharing, but may not involve the make-believe elements found in symbolic play episodes.

The use of symbolic play continues even past the preschool years. When first, third, and fifth grade children played with representational objects such as cars and figures compared to children playing with tranformational objects (a vehicle changes into a robot), those children who played with the representational objects displayed more social play and symbolic play (Bagley and Chaille 1996). Low structured toys such as dress-up materials, toy doctor kits, blocks, stuffed animals, and puppets lead to more imaginative play than structured objects such as crayon, chalk, and puzzles that are more conducive to nonpretend play (Singer and Singer 1990, 2001).

Not only the kind of toy, but parental support and encouragement help to promote children's engagement in fantasy, imagination, and pretend play (Taylor and Carlson 2000). It is interesting to note that mood also affects the involvement in symbolic play. For example, researchers found differences between the play of depressed and nondepressed children (Lous et al. 2000). The depressed children played significantly less in general than the nondepressed children, and much less symbolic play was evident.

Games with rules is the last stage in Piaget's theory of play. Around age seven, the stage of concrete operations, children begin to move away from pretend play and involve themselves with board games. As children move from the preoperational stage to the stage of concrete operations, they begin to think more logically and can understand that rules are constant and cannot be modified. Observation of children in this stage, however, reveals that rules are sometimes changed by the leaders in the game to suit themselves. Only later, as children become older and move into Piaget's last developmental stage of formal operations, do children truly abide by rules and see them as inviolate.

Children play jump rope on South Caicos Island. These children are forming and developing social skills for later life as they interact with their peers. PHIL SCHERMEISTER/CORBIS

Play, especially symbolic or pretend play, may be the training ground for the inventive mind and the attitude toward the possible. Parents or caregivers can foster play through their willingness to give a child space to play in, a few unstructured toys or props to play with, encouragement to use imagination and pretense, and most of all the sanction to enjoy the fantasies and fun of childhood without the threat of shame or embarrassment.


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