Academic journal article Merrill-Palmer Quarterly

Influence of a Playful, Child-Directed Context on Preschool Children's Peer Cooperation

Academic journal article Merrill-Palmer Quarterly

Influence of a Playful, Child-Directed Context on Preschool Children's Peer Cooperation

Article excerpt

Empirical and theoretical literature on cooperative problem solving in preschool children suggests that integrating features of play into structured, experimental settings should increase the benefits of ioint peer interactions and task performance. Four- and five-year-old peer dyads completed a playful, flexible, and child-driven building task or a more structured, adult-driven building task. As predicted, children in the playful condition built more complex structures, used more observational learning, and engaged in greater positive ioint communication than did children in the structured condition. Condition differences carried over into a subsequent ioint building task. Results suggest that cooperative problemsolving activities that allow children greater control of the task goals and interaction, similar to play contexts, can promote higher levels of cooperation and more effective learning and performance in young children.

Shared activities with peers provide children with unique opportunities to learn, practice, and develop their communicative, interactive, and social skills (Rubin, Bukowski, & Parker, 2006). Cooperative problem solving, when two children work together to solve an external goal (Ashley & Tomasello, 1998), can also increase school-age children's understanding within the problem domain and thereby contribute to their learning and cognitive development (for reviews, see Azmitia, 1996; Gauvain, 2001; Rogoff, 1998; Tudge & Rogoff, 1989). However, the benefits of cooperative peer interactions for preschool-aged children are not as clear, and existing experimental literature has not focused on the appropriate contexts and situations for promoting learning during preschool peer interactions. Nevertheless, researchers and theorists agree that, in the context of play, cooperative peer interactions are essential to young children's cognitive development (HirshPasek, Golinkoff, Berk, & Singer, 2009; Pellegrini, 2009; Rogoff, 1998; Vygotsky, 1976). Play can promote young children's skills in areas such as mathematics, language, and literacy (Golinkoff, Hirsh-Pasek, & Singer, 2006). The goal of this study is to examine how features of play contexts promote young children's cooperative problem solving. To achieve this goal, preschool children's joint behavior and task performance in a playful, child-driven setting were compared to their behavior in a more structured, adult-driven setting. Findings from the study can provide insight into how playful contexts that allow children to control the task goals and interaction can influence their cooperative problem solving.

Theoretical Perspectives

The work by Piaget has been one of the most influential theoretical approaches that posit peer interactions and play are both critical for children's development. Piaget (1932) suggested peer interactions provide children with opportunities to learn, practice, and develop cognitive concepts and skills. When peers solve problems together, they must understand each other's views to reach a joint goal. Through discussion, children can resolve their differing perspectives and, in doing so, they may advance their understanding of problems. Piaget also acknowledged the significant role of play on children's development. During play, children interact with materials around them that assist in constructing their knowledge of the world (Piaget, 1962).

Contemporary theorists and researchers also describe how informal contexts where playful interactions take place are critical for promoting learning and development. According to Pellegrini (2009), during social play children must effectively communicate verbally or nonverbally with each other to initiate a cooperative interaction, establish the goals and rules of the interaction, and work through any disagreements. Tomasello (2009) argues that successful cooperation requires that both children have a mutual understanding of these shared goals and the processes to achieve them. …

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