Academic journal article School Psychology Review

Playground-Based Observational Systems: A Review and Implications for Practitioners and Researchers

Academic journal article School Psychology Review

Playground-Based Observational Systems: A Review and Implications for Practitioners and Researchers

Article excerpt

Abstract. Behavioral observation systems allow for a relatively objective way to record important academic, behavioral, and/or interactional processes. Not surprisingly, the majority of school-based observational methods have been designed for and evaluated within the classroom setting. Although this is understandable, the playground context during recess provides an important unstructured school context in which to understand young children's peer relationships, play behaviors, and aggressive actions. This article provides a critical review of six playground-based observation systems and discusses implications for use by practitioners and researchers.

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The school playground provides a key naturalistic context in which to study children's social competence and social conflicts. Play behaviors are extremely useful to examine in this context because important issues in the development of peer relationships often occur through play, including companionship, intimacy, and inclusion/exclusion (Leff, Costigan, & Power, 2004). Further, school recess has been associated with the development of social competence and social cognitive abilities, as well with the development of aggressive and coercive behaviors (Pellegrini & Bjorklund, 1996). For instance, research has demonstrated that many children are involved in low-level conflicts in school every day (Nansel et al., 2001), and that the majority of these aggressive behaviors occur within unstructured school settings (see Leff, Costigan, et al., 2004). The school playground during recess also can be an opportune setting in which to promote children's prosocial skills (Leff, Costigan, et al., 2004) and where social skills and conflict management abilities can be taught, reinforced, and/or monitored (Leff, Power, & Goldstein, 2004). Thus, understanding children's behaviors on the school playground during recess has important implications for both research and practice.

Many types of measures can be used to assess children's play and aggressive behavior on the playground, including discipline referrals; nursing logs of injuries; and self-, teacher-, and peer-report measures. Each methodology has certain strengths and limitations (Leff, Power et al., 2004). For instance, self-report measures can provide specific information about a child's experience of being victimized, but are also somewhat subjective and may underestimate rates of aggression (Ladd & Kochenderfer-Ladd, 2002). Nursing reports and discipline referrals are relatively easy to collect and tabulate, but have questionable reliability and validity, and are not typically standardized and systematized across schools (Brener, Krug, Dahlberg, & Powell, 1997). Teacher reports, such as standardized rating scales, are also relatively easy to administer and interpret, and many have established psychometric properties (Leff, Kupersmidt, Patterson, & Power, 1999). However, they are often insensitive to the playground context (Leff, Power, et al., 2004), and especially to victimization (Leff et al., 1999). Finally, peer report measures, which are widely accepted by researchers and have strong reliability and validity (Terry & Coie, 1991), are very time-consuming and labor-intensive, and require extensive parental permission procedures.

Observational methods provide an alternative means for understanding the play and aggressive behaviors of children on the playground during school recess. Observational methods enable researchers and practitioners to identify behavioral patterns within the naturalistic contexts at the time during which they actually occur, and, thus, the social validity of these systems is often a strength (Hintze, Volpe, & Shapiro, 2002). Direct observations of playground behaviors tend to also be more objective than peer, teacher, or parent reports. To inform school-based practitioners and researchers about playground observational systems, this review has the following goals: (a) to systematically review existing playground-based observation systems; (b) to discuss the utility of established observation systems for research and practice; and (c) to highlight key issues and implications for use of these systems by practitioners and researchers. …

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