Academic journal article American Journal of Play

Play It High, Play It Low: Examining the Reliability and Validity of a New Observation Tool to Measure Children's Make-Believe Play

Academic journal article American Journal of Play

Play It High, Play It Low: Examining the Reliability and Validity of a New Observation Tool to Measure Children's Make-Believe Play

Article excerpt


Educators vigorously debate how to balance play with formal classroom instruction in early-childhood education. For many years, play received minimal attention in child development books (Pellegrini 2010) and diminished attention in educational settings (Hirsh-Pasek et al. 2009). A renewed interest in play has led educators to develop a number of play-based preschool interventions intended to support self-regulation and learning, and subsequent research has begun to investigate the relationship between play and the classroom.

Following the seminal work of Vygotsky (1967), developmental theorists and classroom-based practitioners frequently posited that make-believe play supports children's acquisition of social and self-regulatory skills in early childhood (e.g., Bateson 2000; Bodrova and Leong 2007; Brown 2009; Bruner 1976; Diamond 2007; Erikson,1972; Freud 2003; Leslie 1987; Piaget 1962; Saifer 2009). According to Vygotskians, make-believe play, when it reaches its mature state, fosters self-regulation and provides the basis for other activities or interactions that in turn foster the learning of symbolic and emotional thinking, spoken language, and the beginnings of literacy. From this theoretical perspective, mature make-believe play becomes a critical driver of learning in childhood that provides an opportunity for children to push their individual "developmental edge" (Elkonin 1978).

During mature make-believe play, children create imaginary situations, take on explicit roles (using the language and rules of the roles), and use objects symbolically (Bodrova and Leong 2011; Elkonin 1978). Thus, play affords children opportunities to project an internal, mental representation on the external environment (Leslie 1987; Lillard 1993) and to adopt roles and responsibilities that extend beyond their typical daily activities and represent everyday objects or environments in nonconventional ways. For example, when pretending to be a shopkeeper, a child might engage in new forms of cognitive and social interaction (counting money, for example, or interacting with a pretend patron); develop and maintain internal goals in the presence of conflicting environmental signals (inhibiting the use of a playmates' given name and instead using a pretend name, for example, or using playing cards as money and ignoring their typical use); and practice perspective taking (considering, for example, what another child might do in an imagined scenario).

Several interventions have attempted to support self-regulation and early literacy through play. Although some of these interventions have yielded benefits to child self-regulation and socioemotional skills (Han et al. 2010; Toub et al. 2018; Thibodeau et al. 2016), others have not. One factor that may complicate studies of preschool play is the absence of instruments to measure the quality of mature play in preschool classrooms. Although past work has defined, measured, and espoused the effect of play on education (Pellegrini 2010) and developed taxonomies for categorizing types of play (e.g., Burghardt 2010), no instruments have been developed to evaluate the quality of children's make-believe play in typical classroom settings. In the absence of valid, reliable measures of play, it is difficult to determine whether curricular interventions supported predicted changes in child play. For this reason, most extant studies of classroom play interventions have not tested for proximal effects on child behavior, which are critical precursors to change in child self-regulation.

Defining Mature Make-Believe Play

With such an important role attributed by Vygotskians to make-believe play in child development, we think it important to determine if there is a specific level of play that needs to be reached for it to become beneficial. Elaborating on Vygotsky's insights about the nature of play, Elkonin (1978, 2005a, 2005b) introduced the idea of mature play, claiming that only this kind of play can be a source of development in early childhood. …

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