Academic journal article American Journal of Play

Psychological Approaches to the Study of Play

Academic journal article American Journal of Play

Psychological Approaches to the Study of Play

Article excerpt

Psychological Methods for Studying Play

PSYCHOLOGISTS HAVE USED a wide array of methods to study the play phenomenon, and they have drawn on research methods from many disciplines. Because play takes many forms, researchers offen ffnd it diffcult to deffne, and this has led to ongoing controversies about the appropriate methods to study such an elusive subject. In particular, psychologists have long disputed the characteristics of play they can usefully study. As a consequence, Schlosberg (1947) once declared that play was not even a researchable phenomenon.

Although most psychological researchers do not share his view, nevertheless the methods they have chosen to study play remain tied to the different ways they define it. Play can be viewed as an individual or a cultural phenomenon, a phenomenon defined by a particular theory, a speciffc phenomenon governed by motive or content, or a rule-governed behavioral phenomenon; and each of these viewpoints elicit a different research methodology (Sponseller 1982). Rubin, Fein, and Vandenberg (1983), for example, defined the researchable aspects of play as including psychological dispositions, observable behaviors, and contexts of occurrence. More generally, a number of theorists and researchers have agreed that play includes qualities such as self-imposed motivation, control, goals, and rules, as well as active engagement and nonliterality (see Hutt 1971; Krasnor and Pepler 1980; Lieberman 1977; and Neumann 1971 for further discussion of these variables.)

The major studies of play have included naturalistic observations in various settings (parks, playgrounds, homes, and schools); experimental studies in controlled-laboratory or school settings; clinical observations in therapeutic settings; and the collection of questionnaire or test data from children, teachers, or parents. Each of these methods differs in regard to types of hypotheses investigated, subjects observed, settings for data collection, procedures for data collection, methods of analysis, and venues for reporting results.

Classic examples of observation studies include time samples of social play of young children in preschool classrooms (Rubin and Maioni 1975); outdoor play of elementary-age children on playgrounds (Eiferman 1971); elementary play fighting in public parks (Aldis 1975); animal play fighting in natural settings (Schaller 1972); parent-infant play in homes (Bruner 1982: Bruner and Sherwood 1976); and toddler social play with peers in child-care centers (Mueller and Lucas 1975).

Examples of experimental, controlled-setting studies of the second type include investigations of toddlers' level of object transformation in pretense (Fein 1975, 1979); elicitation of preschoolers' exploratory versus play behaviors with objects (Hutt 1971); kindergartener's problem solving in play or nonplay conditions (Sylva, Bruner, and Genova 1976); and toddler social play and language during pretense (Garvey 1977).

Clinical examples of play's therapeutic effects include analyses of child scenarios during play with "small worlds" (Lowenfeld 1935); block constructions of children who have family relationship problems (Erikson 1977); dollhouse play as preparation for hospitalization (Axline 1947); and reworking traumatic events through play elaborations (Rothenberg and Schiffer 1976).

Examples of research using self-report or parent-teacher report instruments include studies of game preferences of elementary-age children (Sutton-Smith and Rosenberg 1961); adult retrospective accounts of childhood play (Bergen, Liu, and Liu 1997); and parent reports of child imaginative play predispositions (Singer and Singer 1976, 1978).

Although the studies reported in the literature vary widely in hypotheses, methodology, and analysis, although they focused on different aspects of the play phenomenon, and although the emphasis given to each of these research directions differs at various times, the following four overarching research questions have been examined in the psychological study of play. …

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