These 19 th century works by Winslow Homer and Eastman Johnson reveal key features of play Absence of adult structure and supervision Physical exercise & absence of obesity Creativity and imagination Contact with the natural world Influence of culture Gender segregation & behavioral compatibility Mixed-age play
And last but not least: The children appear to be having fun!
Golden age of unstructured play Unstructured play refers to play that is structured by children themselves, rather than by adults. During the first half of the 20th century children were relatively freed from long hours of labor, by child labor laws. There was a positive attitude toward children’s free play and the development of parks and other play spaces to promote it.
Decline of Free Play Over the past half-century, in the US and other developed nations, opportunities to play outdoors with other children have been continually declining. This decline in play, over the past five to six decades, is becoming disquieting to developmental psychologists.
The greatest decline has been in children’s outdoor play. Anyone more than a few decades old has seen this change in his or her lifetime. In the 1950s and ‘60s, and to a lesser degree in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was possible to walk through almost any North American neighborhood, after school, on weekends, or any time in the summer, and see children playing outdoors.
Today, in many neighborhoods, it is hard to find groups of children outdoors at all, and if you do find them they are likely to be wearing uniforms and following the directions of coaches while their parents dutifully watch and cheer. These changes have been well documented by historians of play.
Precisely how fast and exactly how much children’s free play has declined over the last half century is difficult to quantify, though all historians of play suggest that it has been continuous and great.
The most objective attempt at such quantification was by sociologists at the University of Michigan, who made assessments of how children spent their time in 1981 and again in 1997. In both years, they asked a large, representative sample of parents in the United States to keep diary records of their children’s activities on days chosen at random by the researchers. They found that children not only played less in 1997 than in 1981, but apparently had less free time for all self-chosen activities in 1997 than in 1981.
From 1981 to 1997 For 6- to 8-year-olds: 25% decrease in time spent playing 55% decrease in conversing with others 19% decrease in watching television 18% increase in time spent in school 145% increase in time spent doing homework 168% increase in shopping with parents.
In this study the “play” category included indoor play, such as computer games and board games, as well as outdoor play. We can only assume that the amount of outdoor play decreased much more than 25%, as the amount of indoor computer play must have increased during this period because it was essentially zero in 1981.
In another study 830 mothers throughout the US were asked to compare their children’s play with their own play when they were children. 85% percent of the mothers said that their own children play outdoors less than they did.
70% of the mothers reported that they had played outdoors daily (vs 31% for their kids) 56% said that when they did play outdoors they generally played for periods of three hours or more (vs 22 %).
Why the Decline? Often blamed on the seductive qualities of television and, more recently, computer games and Internet activities. 85% of mothers cited television. Mothers admitted that they themselves restricted their children’s outdoor play, and 82% cited safety concerns, including fear of crime, as reasons for doing so.
Surveys indicate that children still prefer to play outdoors with friends if they have the chance. 54% of mothers reported that “Playing outside at a playground or park” ranked among the activities that made their children happiest This outranked all other activities, including “Watching television, films, or videos” (41%) and “Using electronic games” (19%). 69% of the US sample of children said that their #1 preferred place to play is outdoors.
Another cause of the decline in children’s play is the increased time and weight given to schooling and to other adult-directed, school-like activities. Children now spend more time at school, and at school they spend less time playing, than in times past. The lengths of the school year and school day have increased; more young children are attending academically oriented kindergartens and preschools than in times past; and recess periods have been reduced or completely eliminated.
Why is this decline in children’s play disconcerting to developmental psychologists? (and parents, educators and psychiatrists) Basic Answer: Because play has always been thought to serve the child’s development in many positive ways, and is viewed as a robust indicator of the child’s health.
Play is critical to development * builds ability to solve problems, negotiate rules, and resolve conflicts; * develops confident, flexible minds that are open to new possibilities; develops creativity, resilience, independence, and leadership; strengthens relationships and empathy; and * helps grow strong healthy bodies and reduces stress.
Through play children learn to: question, predict, hypothesize, evaluate, and analyze; form and substantiate opinions; and persist through adversity.
All mammals show an initial rise in play during infancy followed by a gradual decline. Play in mammals is costly 5-10% increase in energy consumption Can also involve significant risk of injury, predation
Functions of Play These costs of play must be offset with substantial benefits Play serves multiple functions in mammals Exercise and physical development Acquisition of information and skills Delayed benefits because adult skills are practiced.
Primate Play Following infancy, same-sex peer play groups are usually the primary socializing group for males. These juvenile male cohorts often spend much of their time on the fringes of the troop territory in active physical play. For example, nearly half of the waking hours of young male gorillas are spent in rough play.
For primates, play is critical for developing social bonds and social skills. However, the manner in which male and female primate juveniles are socialized often differs. Let’s take a closer look at function by comparing play in rhesus macaques and in human children.
Why Rhesus? Common ancestor: 25 million years ago 93% genetic identity extensive range intensive study
Sex Differences in Play Behavior: Rhesus Macaques Like humans, sex differences among rhesus monkeys are typically relative rather than absolute, with some overlap between the sexes. Compared to males, young females spend considerably more time in the presence of adult females, and at sexual maturity they remain with their mothers, sisters, aunts & daughters for the rest of their lives.
Female rhesus monkeys show considerably more interest in young infants and engage in allo-parenting or play parenting, throughout their juvenile years much more than males. Research in five species show that the chances of survival of the monkey’s firstborn offspring is two to four times higher for mothers with previous experience in caring for infants.
Female rhesus monkeys hold their daughters closer and show more concern if they should wander, compared to male offspring. In contrast, rhesus mothers will more often direct displays of anger to male offspring, and males are weaned at an earlier age. Young male rhesus monkeys spend more time in the company of peers, often without the mother close by, and engage in high energy games of chasing and play fighting, and leave their natal troop at sexual maturity
From an evolutionary standpoint, these aggressive displays are costly, they involve a high expenditure of energy and risk of injury. While females do not shun this rough and tumble play entirely, they participate rarely and with less energy. As adults, male rhesus monkeys engage in more aggression than females, who generally avoid aggression and direct competition
The pattern of greater aggression in males may in part be due to selection pressures resulting from their forced exodus from the troop during adolescence when as many as 40-50% may perish before restablishing themselves in the hierarchy of a new troop (Suomi, 2006).
Rough-and-tumble play is influenced by hormones, social rearing and context. The clearest evidence for direct influence of sex hormones on behavior may be found in experimental research on sex differences in play in rhesus macaques. Prenatal exposure to higher levels of androgen in females increases their physical competition and high-energy physical play (Hines, 2003).
Monkey infants of both sexes begin to prefer same-sex peers at an early age, and among juveniles, sex segregation is the rule. While differential socialization of male and female monkeys certainly supports the divergence in behaviors between the sexes, research of isolated rhesus monkeys also demonstrates sex differences in behavior that cannot be attributed to socialization.
Many research findings on animal play are also true for children. As with most mammals, play appears to be a primary affective-motivational system. It shows the characteristic inverted U-shaped curve—gradual development in infancy, a peak in childhood, and decline in adolescence as children approach sexual maturity. Naturalistic studies of play deprivation in children also demonstrate a rebound effect, and the frequency of play appears highly sensitive to contextual factors. Gender segregation also appears in young play groups, and the two types of play in which sex differences are widely observed in primates, play parenting and rough-and-tumble play, are also evident in children’s play.
Children’s Social Play Psychologists regard children’s play as providing delayed benefits because adult skills are practiced. Social play facilitates positive peer relationships, self assessment with respect to future risk-taking, and enhancement of emotion regulation skills. We also see different play styles in girls vs. boys.
In preindustrial and industrial societies a pattern of results emerges showing sex differences in rough-and-tumble play favoring boys and play parenting favoring girls. Example: American boys engage in rough- and-tumble play involving playful pushing, shoving, hitting, tripping, wrestling, etc, 4 to 5 times as often as girls.
Cross-cultural research indicates that the magnitude of these sex differences varies across cultures, but the direction of the differences is constant. In a multi-national study of preschoolers’ social behavior in 12 countries, girls were found to be significantly less aggressive during play than boys in each country studied.
Play chasing In games involving chasing, children prefer the fleeing position (e.g. in the game of tag, the preferred position is to be chased). While girls often avoid fighting, they frequently engage in play chasing. Chasing builds cardiovascular strength and may also play a role in learning to flee from predators, enemies, and other dangers. Such abilities may still be adaptive because running away and hiding can still save lives.
Benefits of physical-exercise play Typical playground forms of physical-exercise play, including tag, hopscotch, jump rope, and climbing, benefit children in a variety of ways. short-term benefits involve cardiovascular health and muscular development. Combined with proper dietary habits, long-term habits of healthy exercise may help prevent obesity, which had reached epidemic proportions in the US. Currently, two out of three American adults are overweight or obese, and the number climbs annually. Minority and low-socioeconomic groups are disproportionately affected at all ages.
Childhood Obesity Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past thirty years. The prevalence of obesity in children increased from 6.5 percent in 1980 to 19.6% in 2008. Among adolescents it increased from 5.0 percent to 18.1%. Because exercise and eating habits, once established, tend to remain stable over time, overweight adolescents have a 70% chance of becoming overweight or obese adults. Besides burning calories and helping to prevent obesity, different forms of playground play may also provide other long-term benefits. For example, sustained jumping as in jump rope increases bone density in childhood.
Other benefits from regular exercise are sustained and focused attention. Younger children, especially boys, need opportunities for vigorous play. Without it they become increasingly restless in the classroom after long periods of sedentary activity. When children are deprived of exercise indoors then given an opportunity for outdoor play, the intensity and duration of their exercise play increases. This is quite similar to the “rebound effect” in the play deprivation studies of animals. These rebound effects are greatest for boys.
Vigorous social play also generates positive emotional states that mediate social bonding. Other benefits, such as enhanced emotion regulation, especially under conditions of high arousal, may remain as important today as ever. Animal research suggests that emotionally arousing play provides a unique context in which the young child can safely practice the expression, control, and regulation of highly arousing affective states, both positive and negative.
Unsupervised social play provides an opportunity for learning about emotional communication, not only by sending and decoding signals, but also by affective perspective taking and emotion management. Like any language, the language of play requires developmentally appropriate experiences for children to speak it fluently.
In his clinical research, Stuart Brown (2009) has followed this learning trajectory by taking general play histories of some six thousand individuals (mostly men). He believes that the absence of unsupervised preschool play results in a deficit in reading play signals that leads to major integrative difficulties as group play becomes more complex on elementary-school playgrounds. Deficits in reading play signals can lead to the inappropriate management of aggression, manifested by hyperaggression or withdrawal. In his retrospective clinical analysis, Brown repeatedly finds that the roots of this dysfunction precede elementary school.
For boys especially, rough-and-tumble play in early childhood provides a scaffold for learning emotion- regulation skills related to managing anger and aggression in the peer group in the absence of adult control.
Summary 1. Free play gives children a chance to find and develop a connection to their own self-guided interests. 2. Through play children first learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self control, and follow rules. 3. Children learn to handle their emotions, including anger and fear, during play. 4. Play helps children make friends and learn to get along with each other as equals. 5. Most importantly, play is a source of happiness.
Key References Howard P. Chudacoff, Children at Play: An American History (2007). LaFreniere, P.J. (2011). Evolutionary functions of social play: Life history, sex differences and emotion regulation. American Journal of Play. Smith, P.K. (2010). Children and Play. Oxford: Wiley/Blackwell. THANK YOU!