Volume 6, Number 1
Welcome to the American Journal of Play special issue on topics in the cognitive psychology of play, another in our series of theme issues that will appear from time to time. Each special issue begins with an interview with distinguished figures in the field of play—this one features Dorothy G. Singer and Jerome L. Singer, pioneers in the study of pretend play. In each such issue, the Journal also invites one or more prominent guest editors on the topic and includes work by leading researchers and thinkers. For this special issue, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Sandra W. Russ, and Angeline S. Lillard asked other scholars to join a discourse prompted by Lillard and colleagues in a recent Psychological Bulletin article probing the current play-studies literature for weaknesses and biases. The authors featured here acknowledge vulnerabilities in present assumptions in the research about play while also finding flaws in several critiques of this research. The articles in this issue shift the terms of the debate and point to new avenues for the investigation of play.
Guest Editors' Foreword
From the ancients to well-known thinkers in the Western canon, play has
been touted as essential to what makes us human and to children’s well-being.
Many people can recall playtimes when they jumped farther than they thought
they could, created a make-believe cave world under their covers, or eagerly learned their multiplication tables in school because a stopwatch and a classmate made it playful. Although we all enjoyed play as children, and believe we can identify it when it happens (Smith and Vollsedt 1985), play nevertheless remains a broad construct difficult to define (Burghardt 2011). Most definitions attribute to play an element of fantasy, the “what-if” that allows children to imagine things as they might be, free from reality. Yet some play, like board games and much physical play, also includes nonfantastical activities. Another element of play is enjoyment. Although children need not be laughing or even smiling when they play, they are immersed in it and enthralled by it. Csikszentmihalyi (1997) characterizes this aspect of play as “flow,” which has the effect of shutting out surrounding distractions and honing attention. The affect accompanying play may be related to another of its features: play is voluntary, and children need no coaxing to engage in it. Whether children are conjuring “pretend school” with stuffed animals, digging to China with friends, or engaging in sidewalk games with bottle caps, their play allows them to use their imaginations and, paradoxically, as the Russian researcher Lev Vygotsky argued, to “instantiate” the rules of the real world. Play occurs universally (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1989) among children even in cultures where adults do not explicitly encourage it (Gaskins 2013). Less obviously, play influences children’s thinking and reasoning and their emotional and social development.
Dorothy G. Singer and Jerome L. Singer have been studying the imaginative play of children for more than forty years, chiefly at Yale University. Currently Dorothy G. Singer is Senior Research Scientist Emeritus and Jerome L. Singer is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the university. Both are Fellows of the American Psychological Association. The Singers also served for many years as codirectors of Yale’s Family Television Research and Consultation Center. They have published widely individually, with each other, and with others, contributing hundreds of articles, chapters, and other scholarly works. Dorothy G. Singer’s books include The House of Make Believe: Children’s Play and the Developing Imagination (1990), Playing for Their Lives: Helping Troubled Children through Play Therapy (1993), Make-believe: Games and Activities for Imaginative Play: A Book for Parents, Teachers, and the Young Children in Their Lives (2001), and Play=Learning: How Play Motivates and Enhances Cognitive and Social-Emotional Growth (2006). Jerome L. Singer’s books include The Child’s World of Make Believe: Experimental Studies of Imaginative Play (1973), Imagery and Daydream Methods in Psychotherapy (1974), The Inner World of Daydreaming (1975), The Human Personality (1984), and Imagery in Psychotherapy (2005). Together the Singers wrote Television, Imagination, and Aggression: A Study of Preschoolers (1981) and Imagination and Play in the Electronic Age (2005), and they edited the Handbook of Children and the Media (2012), a collection that the Journal of Contemporary Psychology called the “most comprehensive resource available about all aspects of children’s media.” In this interview, the Singers reflect on their own early play experiences, their careers and long collaboration in studying play and child development, and the connections that bind pretend play, imagination, and child development. Key words: child development and play; children and the media; daydreaming; imaginative play; make-believe play; pretend play
Many researchers have long assumed imaginative play critical to the healthy cognitive, social, and emotional development of children, which has important implications for early-education policy and practice. But, the authors find, a careful review of the existing literature highlights a need for a better theory to clarify the nature of the relationship between pretend play and childhood development. In particular, they ask why children spend so much time engaging in unreal scenarios at a time when they know relatively little about the real world? The authors review the idea that children pretend because it exercises their developing ability to reason counterfactually—an ability essential for causal reasoning and learning. The authors present a look at their study in progress aimed at assessing their theory. According to the model of play they outline, imaginative play serves as an engine of learning. Such play arises out of the human capacity for causal cognition and feeds back to help develop causal-reasoning skills. Key words: Bayesian learning methods; causal learning; counterfactual reasoning; pretend play; probabilistic models
In an article in the January 2013 Psychological Review, Lillard, Lemer, Hopkins, Dore, Smith, and Palmquist set out to critique the customary claim that pretend play contributes to healthy child development. Following Peter Smith, they distinguished three possibilities for the impact of pretend play. Pretend play, they proposed, might serve a crucial causal role in healthy development, function as one of many equifinal routes to healthy development, or represent an epiphenomenon of other factors that promote healthy development. They reviewed a variety of correlational and experimental studies to choose among these three possibilities and, in the absence of consistently strong positive correlations, they cast doubt on the notion that pretend play serves a crucial, causal role. In this article, Harris and Jalloul review the arguments of the Lillard article to reassess this negative conclusion. The authors suggest that studies emphasizing the frequency of pretend play may not be able to tell us whether it serves a crucial role in healthy development. Key words: cross-cultural comparison; children with autism and pretend play; early-child development; pretend play; theory-of-mind tasks and pretend play
Play helps children learn language, the authors claim, and they review the evidence for it. They suggest that play benefits children’s language development because it incorporates many of the socially interactive and cognitive elements known to enhance language skills. Although much of this evidence proves correlational, they point to a series of recent intervention studies that offer evidence of a key variable linking play and language: adult support. In particular, guided play during which adults scaffold child-initiated learning seems ideal for developing language skills. Based on this evidence, they argue that understanding the efficacy of play for learning requires paying careful attention to the type of play involved and to its results. Key words: guided play; language skills; play and language development; scaffolding; sociodramatic play; symbolic play
An article by Angeline S. Lillard and others in the January 2013 issue of Psychological Bulletin comprehensively reviewed and criticized the existing body of research on pretend play and children’s development. Nicolopoulou and Ilgaz respond specifically to the article’s critical review of research on play and narrative development, focusing especially on its assessment of research—mostly conducted during the 1970s and 1980s—on play-based narrative interventions. The authors consider that assessment overly negative and dismissive. On the contrary, they find this research strong and valuable, offering some solid evidence of beneficial effects of pretend play for narrative development. They argue that the account of this research by Lillard and her colleagues was incomplete and misleading; that their treatment of relevant studies failed to situate them in the context of a developing research program; and that a number of their criticisms were misplaced, overstated, conceptually problematic, or all of the above. They conclude that this research—while not without flaws, gaps, limitations, unanswered questions, and room for improvement—offers more useful resources and guidance for future research than Lillard and her colleagues acknowledged. Key words: narrative skills; pretend play and child development; research assessments
Many in the field of early literacy development and learning believe strongly that play and literacy share common ground, but they have found the idea difficult to prove. While some primary research indicates a positive relationship, the impact of play seems to occur at different levels of development, which complicates how researchers view its influence on early literacy policy and practice. The authors use a critical-appraisal process, more common in the medical field, to describe the best available evidence from a corpus of play-literacy studies. Appraising some seventeen studies and their levels of evidence, strength of design, and “worth to practice” findings, they arrive at a description of three major domains in the play-literacy relationship. They assert that the better evidence in each domain shows the effects of play on literacy skills while revealing the research yet needed to demonstrate the relevance of each domain for early literacy. They recommend the further use of the critical-appraisal process in the play-literacy field to build a body of high-level evidence that will have a major impact on early literacy practice. Key words: critical-appraisal process; early literacy; play-literacy relationship; pretend play
The authors discuss the association between make-believe play and the development of executive-function (EF) skills in young children. Some forty years ago, Lev S. Vygotsky first proposed that make-believe fosters the development of symbolic thought and self-regulation. Since then, a small body of research has produced evidence of an association between pretend play and such EF skills as inhibitory control, but its results have been inconclusive and more studies are needed. Still, some research points to the potential mediating role of private speech in the association between pretense and EF, and other evidence suggests that adults can support children’s EF development by facilitating and encouraging (but not controlling) young children’s make-believe play. Yet other research indicates that the influence of make-believe on EF may be moderated by child characteristics and by the content and themes of play. The authors specifically call for more research on the potential causal link between pretense and EF development in early childhood. Keywords: executive function; inhibitory control; make-believe; pretend play; private speech; sociodramatic play
The authors consider the analysis of the literature on play research by Lillard and others in the January 2013 Psychological Bulletin, an analysis that questioned the prevailing assumption of a causal relationship between play and child development, especially in the areas of creativity, reasoning, executive function, and regulation of emotions. The authors regard these connections as critical for teachers in early-childhood classrooms and for other advocates of child play. They claim that the conclusions of Lillard and her coauthors place these professionals in a difficult position because they already face sharp pressure to replace play with academic activities. The authors suggest that the difficulty researchers have in linking play to development partly results from a failure to account for both cognitive and non- cognitive developments across a complex trajectory. To help see the problem more clearly, they argue for a return to the Vygotskian and post-Vygotskian theories that differentiate between immature and mature play. The authors then describe their creation, an observational tool based on such theories, that helps researchers and practitioners judge the quality of pretend play. Key words: Lev Vygotsky; mature play; Mature Play Observation Tool; play and child development; self-regulation
An article by Angeline S. Lillard and others published in the January 2013 issue of Psychological Bulletin about the impact of pretend play on child development raised a number of issues about play studies and child psychology. The article claimed that, contrary to current theories on the subject, the evidence of many studies does not support causal explanations of play’s relationship to most childhood development. Here authors Kasari, Chang, and Patterson review these arguments about play and development in relation to children with autism—children who show specific deficits in pretend play. The authors argue that the study of these children provides a unique opportunity to consider which elements in play are important and how play skills are associated with different periods of child development. They conclude that, because pretend play requires intervention for the majority of children with autism, improving pretense in these children may shed more light on the causal impact of pretense on later developing skills in children. Key words: child development and pretend play; children with autism; functional play; intervention in play; symbol play
The authors contend that many cognitive abilities and affective processes important in creativity also occur in pretend play and that pretend play in childhood affects the development of creativity in adulthood. They discuss a variety of theories and observations that attempt to explain the importance of pretend play to creativity. They argue that rigorous research supports the association between the two but note that experimental studies are difficult to conduct for a number of reasons. A few promising, well-done studies, they conclude, suggest that engaging in pretend play fosters the development of creativity. And they call for further research—correlational, experimental, and longitudinal—to focus on specific processes in both play and creativity. They suggest that large-scale, multisite studies planned by researchers from different perspectives would be optimal. Key words: affect in creativity; creativity: divergent thinking; pretend play
In the second edition of Childhood in World History, Peter Stearns updates his earlier study of the global history of childhood with expanded discussions of theory, methodology, childhood in Africa and South Asia, and a new chapter on children’s happiness. Stearns addresses these and other themes with clear prose and little professional jargon. He delivers, instead, a lucid analysis of new research and synthesis of previous secondary works in the field.
Though its reputation is greatly diminished today, the circus was one of the most popular forms of public amusement in the United States from the early nineteenth century until the dawn of the television era. During the circus’s so-called “golden age” (from about 1870–1910), circus performers were household names, circus posters blanketed city walls, and traveling exhibitions by the likes of P. T. Barnum, James Bailey, and Wisconsin’s Ringling Brothers attracted millions of spectators a year. The appeal of what Barnum deemed “The Greatest Show on Earth” is not difficult to understand. Cheap to attend and considered safe for the entire family, the circus incorporated a wide array of popular and exotic entertainments, from acrobatics and equestrian displays to “freak shows” and animal menageries. The result was a dazzling and often bewildering feast for the senses.
There remains much confusion between discussions of “game theory” and “game studies,” depending on the disciplinary company you keep. Of course, they sound like similar pursuits. The emerging field of game studies, little more than a decade old, tends to build on anthropological studies of play where the focus lies on the sociological and cultural implications of games and play practices. This group is particularly interested in digital games. Game studies emerged quite apart from game theory and its economic and political science models for decision making that systematized games during the last century. Game studies has in part ignored the slightly more established field, perhaps due to a need to study the game-playing experience from so many other methodological approaches and perhaps from game theory’s seemingly inflexible style of conflict analysis. In general terms, game theory purposely ignores the cultural context for decision making, and game studies ignores mathematical models. The two relatively recent disciplines have stayed in their separate corners for some time—until now.
Early in my former life as a computer programmer, I was chastised by a boss for my interest in personal computers. “PCs are fine, if you like toys,” he said, “but business will never accept them.” Play, he was arguing, has no place in the business world, and despite the obvious sea-change in corporate attitudes towards the PC, this view persists in many industries.
The More We Know tells the story of a partnership between NBC News and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in their attempt to revolutionize the way young people view network news and learn U.S. history in schools. NBC News desperately needed a way to connect to a younger demographic, and scholars at MIT were looking for opportunities to bring their innovations in using games and social media in education to a wider audience. By all appearances, it seemed to be an excellent match, and they partnered to create iCue, described on the book flap as “an interactive learning venture that combined social networking, online video, and gaming in one multimedia educational site.” Despite what seemed like auspicious circumstances, iCue failed to establish a regular audience, and NBC pulled the plug on the site after less than three years. So what went wrong?
As the second and third titles in the Platform Studies series from MIT Press, The Future Was Here (2012) by Jimmy Maher and Codename Revolution (2012) by Steven E. Jones and George K. Thiruvathukal continue the series beyond the launch title coauthored by its editors, Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort. In their Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System (2009), Bogost and Montfort advanced a critical approach to historicizing the Atari VCS by reading the relationships among its technical affordances and influence on and by human culture. These latest titles share this fundamental interest in the links involving the artifacts produced on a platform, the technology involved, and the culture that surrounds both. But the chronological and thematic breadth of the works under review also demonstrate that the Platform Studies approach can provide insight both to older systems as well as emerging situations of play. The Future Was Here will be of greatest value to those wishing to learn a good deal about an important transitional system, the Commodore Amiga (produced from 1985 through the mid-1990s), and Codename Revolution will interest those following shifts in the social contexts of play that are accompanying new motion- controlled gaming paradigms. In other words, while The Future Was Here takes a deeper look into the system itself, the scope of Codename Revolution is broader, using a rigorous analysis of the Wii as a social platform to support the argument that “all platforms are social platforms.”
Guest Editors' Afterword
Understanding the role of play in children’s learning and development is crucially important because such understanding should inform decisions about how young children spend their time. Yet decision makers are increasingly treating play as dispensable and replacing preschoolers’ playtime with academics (Bassock and Rorem 2013). This state of affairs has led to a surge of interest in improving understanding of play’s importance (Hirsh-Pasek et al. 2009; Lillard et al. 2013) and prompted this special issue. In addressing the current state of affairs in play research, these articles provide ample fuel for further inquiry. The authors of these articles raised many key issues, among them: (1) the need for clearer operational definitions of play; (2) the importance of improving methodological rigor in studies of play; (3) the difficulty of eliciting authentic play in experimental settings; and (4) the need to look separately at play quantity and play quality in examining the role of play in development. Before discussing these issues further, we raise the overarching concern of researchers subscribing to a “play ethos.”
Laura E. Berk is Distinguished Professor of Psychology Emerita at Illinois State University. Her work on the effects of school environments on children’s development, the development of private speech, and the role of make-believe in development has appeared in Child Development, Developmental Psychology, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, and Development and Psychopathology. She is the author, coauthor, or coeditor of Private Speech: From Social Interaction to Self-regulation; Scaffolding Children’s Learning: Vygotsky and Early Childhood Education; and A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool: Presenting the Evidence. Adena B. Meyers is Professor of Psychology at Illinois State University. She has spoken extensively at professional conferences and contributed to numerous journals. Her coauthored chapters appear in Handbook of School Psychology, Handbook of Research in School Consultation: Empirical Foundations for the Field, and the Encyclopedia of Applied Psychology, among others. She currently serves on the editorial advisory board of Psychology in the Schools.
Elena Bodrova is Director for Research and Development at Tools of the Mind and a Research Fellow at the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. Deborah J. Leong is Professor Emerita of Psychology at Metropolitan State College of Denver and Research Fellow at the National Institute for Early Education Research. Bodrova and Leong codeveloped the Tools of Mind curriculum and coauthored, among other works, Tools of the Mind: The Vygotskian Approach to Early Childhood Education, Basics of Assessment. Each has also cowritten other works on childhood assessment. Carrie Germeroth is Assistant Director for Research at the Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy at the University of Denver. Her research has been published in the Journal of Developmental Psychology and Early Child Development.
Alison Gopnik is Professor of Psychology and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the University of California. Her research explores how young children come to know the world around them. She has published scores of articles and essays and is the author, coauthor, or editor of The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us about Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life; The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us about the Mind; Causal Learning: Psychology, Philosophy, and Computation; and Words, Thoughts, and Theories. Gopnik has lectured extensively and has made appearances on The Charlie Rose Show, Frontline, This American Life, and Ted Talks, among others. Caren Walker is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology at the University of California. She has spoken widely on children’s casual learning and coauthored chapters in An Introductory Handbook for Philosophers and Teachers and the Development of Imagination.
Paul L. Harris is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Education at Harvard University. His work on early development of cognition, emotion, and imagination appears in a number of anthologies and in journals such as the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Journal of Cognition and Development, and Developmental Psychology. He is the author of Trusting What You’re Told: How Children Learn from Others; The Work of the Imagination; and Children and Emotion: The Development of Psychological Understanding, among others. Harris is the former editor of the British Journal of Developmental Psychology and Child Development. Malak Jalloul served as instructor of psychology at the University of Nantes and as a trainer in speech and language therapy at Saint-Joseph University of Beirut. Her research focuses on imagination and reasoning in young children, and she has spoken on her work in Switzerland, Lebanon, and France.
Connie Kasari is Professor of Psychological Studies in Education at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Principal Investigator at the university’s Center for Autism Research and Treatment. Her research considers social-emotional and cognitive development in atypical children and social and communication behavior in children with autism. She has coauthored scores of articles and has contributed to Autism Spectrum Disorders, Textbook of Autism Spectrum Disorders, The Clinical Manual of the Treatment of Autism, and other works. She has also lectured extensively and serves currently as Associate Editor of the International Review of Research in Mental Retardation. Ya-Chih Chang is a Post-Doctoral Scholar at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her coauthored work appears in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disabilities and the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. Stephanie Patterson is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Education at the University of California, Los Angeles. Recipient of more than twenty research funds and scholarships, she is the coauthor of Getting Into the Game: Sports Programs for Kids with Autism and has contributed to Autism: International Journal of Research and Practice and to Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology.
Angeline S. Lillard is Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia and Director of the university’s Early Development Lab. Her primary research interests involve how children’s interactions with pretend, fantasy, imagination, and media influence cognitive and social development. Lillard is the author of Montessori: The Science behind the Genius and numerous articles and essays, she has contributed content to the Blackwell Handbook of Cognitive Development, the Oxford Handbook of the Development of Play, The Child: An Encyclopedic Companion, and other works. She has also lectured internationally and serves currently as Associate Editor of the Journal of Cognition and Development.
Ageliki Nicolopoulou is Professor of Psychology at Lehigh University. Her research focuses on children’s narrative activities, the influence of peer culture on children’s development, and the foundations of emergent literacy. She is coauthor of Play and the Social Context of Development in Early Care and Education and she has contributed chapters to Play and Development: Evolutionary, Sociocultural, and Functional Perspectives and Play=Learning, and the International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, among others. Articles by Nicolopoulou have appeared in Human Development, Pedagogies: An International Journal, and Mind, Culture, and Activity: An International Journal. Hande Ilgaz is an Assistant Professor in the Psychology Department of Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. Her primary research interests include pretend play and narrative and theory of mind development in preschool children from a cognitive-development perspective. Her coauthored articles have appeared in Mind, Culture, and Activity and in Cognitive Development.
Kathleen A. Roskos is Professor of Education at John Carroll University. She is coeditor of Play and Literacy in Early Childhood: Research from Multiple Perspectives and coauthor of Designing Professional Development in Literacy: A Framework for Effective Instruction (Solving Problems in the Teaching of Literacy) and Nurturing Knowledge: Building a Foundation for School Success by Linking Early Literacy to Math, Science, Art, and Social Studies. She has contributed to numerous journals, and her coauthored chapters have appeared in the Multimedia and Literacy Development: Improving Achievement for Young Learner; Play and Literacy in Early Childhood: Research from Multiple Perspectives; and Literacy for the New Millennium: Early Literacy, among others. James F. Christie is Professor of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University. He has written and cowritten scores of articles and book chapters and is the author, coauthor, or editor of more than fifteen books, including Teaching Language and Literacy: Preschool Through the Elementary School (forthcoming); Helping Young Children Learn Language and Literacy: Birth through Kindergarten; Teaching Language and Literacy: Preschool through the Elementary Grades; Building a Foundation for Preschool Literacy: Effective Instruction for Children’s Reading and Writing Development; and Play and Early Childhood Development. Christie has served in various editorial capacities for numerous scholarly journals, including the Journal of Early Childhood Literacy and Reading Research Quarterly.
Sandra W. Russ is Professor of Psychology at Case Western Reserve University. Her publications include Affect and Creativity: The Role of Affect and Play in the Creative Process; Play in Child Development and Psychotherapy: Toward Empirically Supported Practice; and articles and chapters in numerous journals and other works. Russ developed the Affect in Play Scale to assess pretend play in children and has held offices in a number of professional organizations in her field. Claire E. Wallace is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology at Case Western Reserve University, where she is studying pretend play and creativity in children, including the role pretend play in the clinical treatment of young children.
Deena Skolnick Weisberg is Senior Fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on the development of imaginative cognition and how children use imaginative capacities to help them learn language, reason scientifically, and uncover the structure of the real world. She has lectured widely, and her coauthored work has appeared in several books and in journals such as Mind, Brain, and Education; Review of Philosophy and Psychology; and Cognitive Development. Jennifer M. Zosh is Assistant Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Pennsylvania State University and Director of the university’s Brandywine Child Development Lab. She has lectured extensively, and her work has appeared in a number of journals including Journal of Child Language and Behavioral and Brain Science. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek is The Debra and Stanley Lefkowitz Faculty Fellow for the Department of Psychology at Temple University. She is cofounder of L-rn (Learning Resource Network), has made more than 400 professional presentations, published scores of articles and essays, and is the author, coauthor, or editor of eleven books including A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool: Presenting the Evidence; Play=Learning: How Play Motivates and Enhances Children’s Cognitive and Social-emotional Growth; and Action Meets Word: How Children Learn Verbs. She is the recipient of more than twenty grants for research and serves currently as a columnist for Huffington Post. Roberta Michnick Golinkoff is the H. Rodney Sharp Professor of Education at the University of Delaware. She is the author, coauthor, or editor of scores of journal articles and book chapters and more than a dozen books including A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool: Presenting the Evidence; Play=Learning: How Play Motivates and Enhances Children’s Cognitive and Social-emotional Growth; and Einstein Never Used Flash Cards: How Our Children Really Learn and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less. She has given scores of professional presentations, serves currently on the editorial board of Journal of Child Language, Language Acquisition, and Child Development, and contributes blogs to the Huffington Post.