The use of play in the development of children. By Emily Harris

This paper was an assignment for The Mulberry Bush Level 5 Foundation Degree in ‘therapeutic work with children and young people’, its full title was:

With reference to relevant literature, in what ways do you consider play, whether formal or informal (or both) important to the development of the Children and Young People you work with.

To begin with, it seems important to define what play is.  The dictionary definition is to ‘engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose’ (Oxford University Press, 2018).  Can play really be described so simply, however?  Indeed, play often looks fun, but is it always enjoyable?  Golding and Hughes (2012) give the example of a tennis match where there are both moments of fun but also intense periods of hard work.  More importantly, however, is play purposeless? Panksepp (1998) says that play is one of our most primitive impulses for survival and therefore holds a very important purpose.  It is extremely complex and broad.  Play can be anything from a serious, rule-based board game played by only a few, to a game of chase played by more than 10 people. Golding and Hughes (2012) point out, that even adults play when they are out socializing with their friends or taking part in other activities.  Play is central to our culture and is an inner drive that we all experience, seemingly for a certain purpose in our development and survival.  This essay will look at its purpose and the particular importance it holds for children at The Mulberry Bush School, a school for children aged between 5 and 11 who have experienced trauma, abuse and neglect at a young age and who struggle to function in a standard school and home environment.  For them, play has not always been straight forward, but is an area which may provide the tools to help them develop and overcome some of the hurdles of their past.

The Mulberry Bush School on a typical day would seem overcome with children playing.  Indeed, play is one of the most promoted values of the school.  You might see a child playing table tennis against an adult, a group of children playing tag on the field, two children in an intense battle of chess or a group playing rough and tumble in the ball pool.  On the surface these may look like displays of happiness and joy, however, if you look closer it might be possible to see a greater complexity. The child playing table tennis may be balancing on a thin rope of self-esteem, waiting for failure and his self-hate to be fed but desperately hoping for success so he can feel some sense of self-worth.  The game of tag may have been initiated by a child whose only sense of self-worth is through his speed, and therefore is desperate for affirmation; yet another child may be joining in because running and the thrill of being chased is one of the few ways he can gain release from the adrenaline he experiences all the time; the game of chess may be being played by a child who is governed by rules and needing to be in control; the rough and tumble may be the result of the children having missed out on their early experience and desperately needing the physical feedback they have not had.  At the same time, these activities may be having a positive impact on a child’s development, improving their mental health, helping them develop their social skills, their cognition or their motor skills.  This displays the need to understand play in more detail and to see the importance play has on a child in their context and the purpose it serves on an individual and wider scale. The essay will look at the literature to see what it has to say and relate it to the children at The Mulberry Bush School.

Firstly, much of the evidence and theories around play seem to suggest a strong impact on a child’s cognitive and motor-sensory processes.   As Piaget (1936) recognizes in his Cognitive-Developmental Theory, play is an essential part of a child understanding the world around them both physically and mentally.  Piaget’s approach is a Constructivist one suggesting that the child themselves constructs their own knowledge and it is built on top of what they already know. Therefore, a child needs to have achieved a certain level of knowledge before they can progress in their development. The first form of play that Piaget recognizes as important in order to progress is sensory.  For example, from birth a child will explore objects and people through their mouth, followed by touching with their hands, and so forth.  Through this a child will start to understand the physical world it is living in and the effect it has on objects around it.  At about 2 years old, Piaget suggests a child will start to ‘pretend play’ and move further away from the mother.  Initially, pretend play is mostly imitative with a child copying things they have seen around them before they later progress to more imaginative play.  McCune-Nicolich (1981) proposes that children copy actions of those around them in their play as a way to understand and make sense of reality and to digest information.  Even once this imitative play moves on to a more complex form, Harris (2000) suggests there is usually real physical and psychological rules that are involved (eg. A superhero may fly but they have wings, and they may fight, but only against bad guys), showing that the child is still interpreting and digesting knowledge of the real world in this play.

When thinking about the children in the context of The Mulberry Bush School, it may be important to think about the context in which this play is happening.  Piaget refers a lot to exploration being at the core of this playfulness.  However, Bowlby (1969) suggests through his Theory of Attachment that exploration generally only happens fully when a child has a safe base from which to explore and return to, usually a trusting relationship with the mother.  With this in mind, it may make this play all the more important for the children who are currently at The Mulberry Bush School, knowing they have not always had a strong attachment at birth and therefore may have been unable to explore and develop in this way.  Certain forms of sensory play which seem to fit that of a toddler can definitely be observed at The Mulberry Bush School suggesting they may have missed out on this as a younger child.  For example, children will commonly seem to have the urge to put their hands in their food and play with it, will love messy play and will often go round with a chewy toy in their mouth.  I have even experienced one child walk over a pile of lego and seem to get enjoyment out of it.  Hopefully, if a safe base is provided they may start to make use of this form of play and gain the experiences they may have been deprived of previously, and progress to a higher level.

Furthermore, there is other evidence to suggest that play has a strong impact on a child’s emotional development.  As has already been mentioned in Piaget’s theory, make-believe and pretend play serves an important role in a child’s early development.  As well as cognitively, this appears to help in a child coming to terms with and managing their emotions (Slade and Wolfe, 1994).  Scarlett, Naudeau, Salonius-Pasternak and Ponte (2004) talk about this in the context of a child being able to work through their inner drives which may sometimes be unhelpful in a real life situation, saying a child can ‘put symbols between their impulses and actions’.  In addition, they may use it to diffuse conflicts in their mind and get rid of bad feelings (Piaget,1951) or channel some of their frustration by being able to ‘realise unrealisable wishes’ such as driving a car (Vygotsky (1976).  Freud (1908) (cited in Holland, 2003) takes the example of someone who may have experienced something traumatic, and says that make-believe play, may also be a way of gaining control of that event and reducing the anxiety around it.  By replaying it, and becoming the master over it, you regain a sense of control.

Again, thinking about the children at The Mulberry Bush School, the regulation of emotions can be extremely difficult.  Angry outbursts where objects are thrown and rooms destroyed are a common occurrence, and the adults have to put a large amount of effort into containing lots of anxiety, fear, confusion and other emotions that the children can’t manage themselves.  By referring to Piaget’s theory of stages once more, it may be that they have been unable to reach a high enough complexity of imaginary play in order to experience some of the benefit. This would make make-believe play a highly important form of play to introduce to these children.   In addition, if Freud’s theory of the cathartic effect is true, being able to play certain traumatic events out and gaining mastery over them seems even more relevant for those that have suffered the sort of abuse that the children at The Mulberry Bush School may have.  I have experienced one child at The Mulberry Bush asking me to pretend to be a baby and wrapping me up in ‘rough cloth’ and then flitting between looking after me and then shouting at me.  This could easily be a way of switching her position and taking control of the adult to re-enact a situation she may have been in herself but this time in a more empowering role.

Finally, another highly researched area in which play seems to be extremely important for a child is in their social development.  Interestingly, most play that children partake in even from a very young age is social in some way.  A longitudinal study by Haight and Miller (1993) where they studied children between 12 months and 48 months, observed that 75% of play was social, starting with the mothers and then later with other peers. Indeed, unlike Piaget who states a child’s development is fairly universal across contexts, Vygotsky (1978) provides us with the theory that in fact a child’s development is embedded in their social interactions and the culture around them.  He suggests a child learns through scaffolding, which is where a child will need the support of adults or more able peers in order to help them progress to a higher level of development.  We see here, that interacting with others through play is a basic need for a child in their development as a whole. There are many ways in which a child plays socially, whether  through giving toys to its mother at an early age to see her reaction, or playing a rule-based game such as a board game or sport with others.  One of the types of social play, Panksepp (1998) suggests is particularly important, is rough and tumble play.  He suggests it is a primitive form of play that all mammals do.   According to him, through rough and tumble play, ‘the animal is learning physical skills, whilst being assimilated into the structure of the society it will grow up in.’ Hughes and Golding (2012) also add, that it helps all mammals learn limits of aggression and how to accept defeat gracefully whilst also learning important social knowledge such as who to cooperate with and who to avoid.  Another central aspect of development through social play is the ability to start being able to share experiences with others and to learn to see things from other perspectives and think what another might be thinking (Selman & Schultz,1990). It is clear that social play is paramount in understanding social rules, becoming part of the culture around you, learning how to deal with other’s emotions as well as your own and being able to see things from more points of view than your own.

These are often areas that the children in The Mulberry Bush School struggle with and this suggests that not having the opportunities for social play at a young age could have been detrimental.  We know that neglect was certainly evident for a lot of the children and therefore, the availability of others to play with was probably not there a lot of the time. Again highlighting, the level of importance this style of play has for them.  An example from The Mulberry Bush School is of one occasion when observing two children playing with a doll’s house.  They are both desperately controlling in their personalities, possibly due to having little control over their past experience, but they are also both desperate for social interaction.  Being fairly new to the school, these children’s activities are often governed by the adults and with high levels of supervision, however, in this situation, adults were able to step back more and let these children interact more independently.  They both wanted control in different ways but began to start to be able to compromise and problem solve, (eg. with one child giving the doll he wanted to the other) they were able to rely less on the adults around them and concentrate on their imaginative play.  In a more intense situation such as sitting around the table, these children would have been far more likely to be throwing something at the other or shouting, but through their imaginary play they were beginning to start to learn important ways of channeling their emotions and learning social skills.

It is obvious by looking at the literature that play holds a very high importance in all areas of a child’s development.  It has also been made clear, that play is particularly relevant when looking at the children that come to The Mulberry Bush School.  In most cases it is an area they have previously had inadequate experience of.  By looking, at the research it may seem that certain forms of play are most relevant at a certain age in relation to the developmental benefits, particularly when looking at Piaget’s solidly defined stages of development which are constructed on top of each other.  However, there is hope that the children at The Mulberry Bush School may be able to rewrite some of their history by having these early types of play reintroduced and facilitated for them.  Unlike other areas of a child’s development, such as attachment which Bowlby (1969) seems to suggest needs to take place early on and is much harder to require later, play seems to be something that is more easily reintroduced.  A research study mentioned by Panksepp (1998), where rats were deprived of stimulation for an extended period of time, reveals that the rats were still able to fully engage in play as soon as they were taken out of these conditions.  Furthermore, The Mulberry Bush School works hard at going back to the basics in providing children with a safe environment, secure relationships with adults and plenty of stimulus which we have seen are prerequisites for fully-beneficial play.  Therefore, more in line with Vygotsky’s theory of development, with the right scaffolding in place, play can hopefully form a key way in which the children can develop whilst at the school.

However, to go back to what was said at the start, certain forms of play may not always be positive, and this is particularly relevant for those from the backgrounds of the children we see at the school.  Donovan (2015) having experienced being an adoptive parent to children from traumatized backgrounds, notes that play isn’t the same for these children.  She points out the issues surrounding competitive games in particular.  She describes a ‘snakes and ladders’ effect, in which games are ‘symbolic of life and will either confirm what they already know about themselves (snake) or conflict with it (ladder)’ (p.71).  Therefore, ‘to a child who believes themselves to be bad, being moments from success only to slide down a very long snake into inevitable loss can be too much to take’ (p.71).  She also provides an anecdote of how one of her children had an ability for sport, and having all the evidence to suggest that sport was great for a child, she encouraged him to play.  However, because of his past he struggled with loud noise and being in a crowd of people sent him into panic. This shows that for children in the context we are talking about, play needs to be carefully thought about in order for it to have positive effects. It is not automatically good and organic informal play may sometimes need to become more formalised.   To go back to the example at the start, for the child playing table tennis with incredibly low self-esteem, it may be best to avoid competitive sports or provide an alternative winning/losing game which can ease him into losing more gently without it damaging his self-esteem further; it may be important to develop a wider range of play options for the child who continually plays sport in order to give him self importance, to show him that he can achieve in other areas; for the child who only willingly plays rule-based games because anything else makes her feel out of control, may need to play a more spontaneous game but in a group of people she trusts;  whereas, the boy who always plays rough and tumble may need adults to facilitate that more instead of getting anxious, in order for him to learn to deal with aggression and learn about himself more in regards to others.

Overall, this essay has sought to express how highly important (albeit complex) play is for the children in the context of The Mulberry Bush School.  The children that we are working with have in most cases not experienced the right environments that enable formative play and therefore have been unable to experience the same levels of development.  We have seen, however, ways in which play now is of paramount importance and can be reintroduced within the right setting.  With the scaffolding of adults, a safe base, careful thought, and lots of opportunity for a variety of play, the children should be able to thrive in areas from cognitive development, motor-sensory development, emotional and social development.


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Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.





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