Siblings and Play

What influence does play with siblings and peers have on children’s development? The influences that affect a child’s development can be many and varied. More specifically, the various interactions they have with other people can add to their growing understanding of their social world. It is through the everyday occurrences that children learn how to handle and make sense of what can be a complex environment.

In considering the influence of play with siblings and peers on a child’s development four main areas will be discussed; the nature and context of relationships and whether they are complementary or reciprocal; two different kinds of play, socio-dramatic and thematic fantasy; how play can influence development and the role of language and laughter in interpreting social signals. As children develop it would seem that different kinds of relationships influence development in varying ways.

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The nature and context of interactions will differ according to the people involved and will bring unique and significant experiences to the developmental process. These interactions can be seen as complementary and/or reciprocal relationships. As Schaffer (2003) points out that complementary relationships serve to “provide children with security and protection and to enable them to gain knowledge and acquire skills” (Schaffer, 2003, p. 113). These relationships take place when one individual has more power or knowledge than the other, for example parent/child or teacher/student interactions.

On the other hand reciprocal relationships are one of equals. The purpose of reciprocal interactions Schaffer (2003) suggests is to gain experiences/skills that can only be acquired through a mutual, equal relationship, skills such as being competitive, how to co-operate with others and how to resolve conflict. Reciprocal relationships can be seen in the interactions between peers and siblings. What is interesting is that the relationship between siblings can be a mixture of both complementary and reciprocal rather than being distinctly one or the other.

At times an older sibling’s role may be complementary in nature, helping to instruct and guide a younger sibling. Though at other times these same siblings may play and share common interests together making the relationship more reciprocal in nature. This combination, Schaffer (1996) argues makes the sibling relationship potentially very influential in the developmental process. Dunn and Munn’s Cambridge Sibling Study (Dunn, 1988) showed that joint pretend play, in the context of the sibling relationship, was strongly associated with the development of social competence.

Their study observed how older siblings directed the younger siblings in what role to play and what to say in joint pretend play episodes. Children as young as 8 months were able to recognize and share moods and actions with older siblings. And by 14 months were able to co-operate in achieving the other sibling’s goal. Although by the age of 3 years the younger sibling’s ability to challenge the older sibling, in the context of play, was much more evident. By learning from older siblings some children can have quite advanced social skills.

For example, Reuben, the 3 year old boy in Child of Our Time video (Winston, 2006), he had the ability to predict what others may do. He was able to understand that people have minds of their own, and that he may know something others may not. Most 3 year olds have not yet acquired this skill, as they think everyone knows the same thing. The Cambridge Sibling Study (Dunn, 1988) did show however, that joint pretend play was more common in families where the interaction between siblings was harmonious, implying that other factors are involved in a child’s ability to understand and engage in role-playing.

This would seem an obvious point as not all children have siblings or older siblings. As children engage with other children, whether they are siblings or peers, the wider social context needs to be taken into account when considering the influence of play in a child’s development. Psychologists have categorized what they see as two main divisions of play. Socio-dramatic play and thematic fantasy play. Socio-dramatic play are activities that are centred around common domestic scenes and real life experiences, such as playing “mums and dads”, “hospitals” or going shopping, cleaning the house.

The importance of socio-dramatic play is that it helps children make sense of everyday social activities and the routines and rituals that go with those social events (Littleton and Miell, 2005). Stone (1981) suggests that this type of play becomes an “anticipatory socialization device”. Meaning that in this kind of play children are acting out roles in preparation for adulthood. In western society, play reflecting domestic themes is greater amongst girls than boys and may serve more to prepare girls for becoming adults than boys (Stone, 1981).

Evidence suggests, (Littleton and Miell, 2005) that in non western societies both sexes engage in the type of play that helps to construct their understanding of social and cultural experiences. As Read’s (Leacock, 1976) example of Malawian boys playing law courts shows. These boys were imitating what they had seen their fathers do and were preparing themselves for a future role that they may take on. Thematic fantasy play takes place when children act out imaginary, fictional events like a scene from a book or film. Corsaro (1986) states that there are two main purposes in thematic fantasy play.

Firstly, it helps children develop their interpersonal skills and allows the children to trust and support each other. Secondly, in this type of play, “the children gain control over their fears and uncertainties and at the same time communally share this sense of control” (Corsaro, 1986, pp. 93-4). According to Corsaro this communal sharing of uncertainties and fears is necessary in the development of coping strategies which are essential in adulthood. In his analyses of the thematic fantasy play of nursery school children, Corsaro highlighted three recurring themes.

These were; lost-found, danger-rescue and death-rebirth. Although as Wickes (1927/1978) points out, these three themes are basic to every human in every culture and occupy people’s thoughts on an unconscious level. Joint interaction benefits can also be seen in children’s ability to work together to solve problems. Brownell and Carriger (1999) showed in their research that children under 3 years can work together with their peers in solving simple problems. And that 30 month olds were aware of each other’s behaviour and were able to adapt their behaviour to achieve a common goal.

This would seem to suggest that reciprocal, peer relationships are vital for social development and interaction. A child’s willingness to seek out friends and engage socially at 6 years, rather than play by themselves, can be an indicator of their ability to interact socially as an adult (Winston, 2006). Research has shown that people who are more sociable are more intelligent, have less health issues and are wealthier than those reluctant to engage socially (Winston, 2006). A child’s ability to play with others is a “skilled interactional accomplishment” (Littleton and Miell, 2005, p. 9), which involves understanding another persons perspective as well as being able to resolve conflict. The skills children learn through play with peers and siblings are essential for their social skills and understanding. Playfighting, as Smith et al. (1999) point out can be an important part in learning how to control and display emotions, and how to “read” the mood of play. Also in understanding that other people have a point of view and that waiting ones turn is a necessary skill if an individual wants friends. Sometimes pretend fighting can verge on real conflict, although as Smith et al. 1999) state, even these negative confrontations are useful in developing important social skills that are vital for adult life. Blatchford and colleagues (1990) playground study showed the significance of “playground culture”, without adult intervention where children have to learn how to control games and space and also how to deal with bullying and teasing. This, they argued, allowed the child a more mature understanding of the child’s own social environment. Other studies, like Whitney and Smith (1993), have highlighted that this same child governed culture could be a cause for concern.

And that some adult supervision may be needed to make sure conflict is handled constructively and within the right context. Pellegrini (2003) emphasises that the purpose of these more aggressive interactions will usually change as the children mature. He suggests that playful interactions can serve a different function for girls and boys. When boys engage in rough and tumble play or playfighting it probably is about peer dominance, whereas girls generally use playfighting as play. Children also need to be able to interpret the social signals of when playfighting turns angry and boarders on real aggression.

Interpreting social signals is necessary in understanding acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. A common assumption is that boys’ playful interactions can be conflictual, whereas girls are more willing to co-operate. Maccoby (1999) argues that girls do have disagreements and can be conflictual but what separates their disputes from those that boys have is their style of talk. Sheldon (1992), in her discourse analysis highlights two distinct styles. In the first kind, single-voiced discourse, children do not attempt to negotiate or consider the other persons point of view.

Because each child is only interested in their own objectives, conflict can quickly arise. This type of talk is found more commonly amongst boys. The second kind of talk, double-voiced discourse, more common with girls, is more flexible in adapting to another’s perspective and in taking others wishes into account. Corsaro (1986) also sees the role of language and discourse as important for development. He suggests that in socio-dramatic play the exchanges in dialogue between children mirror the content and style of real life and the adults they are imitating.

He points out that these exchanges are virtually the same every time the game is played. In thematic fantasy play the style of talk is much more creative and flexible. These dialogues tend to change from one episode to the next, even though the same children might be playing the same game. As well as talk within play (exchanges within the context of what the children are playing), children also communicate about play, for example telling each other how to “do” the role they are playing and what to say (Goncu, 1998). This distinction can signal the changing form of play to non-play and vice-versa.

The presence of laughter has been shown (Smith et al. , 1999) to be a good indicator that friendly playfighting is continuing and not becoming real fighting. Children can also use humour in making sense of work tasks. Instead of playful banter, within a work related interaction, being seen as messing about, Vass (2004) suggests that the use of verbal humour actually helps. Humorous interactions can have a positive affect, especially in generating ideas and creativity. In conclusion, the influence of play in a child’s development can not be denied. Different types of play help children learn different skills necessary for social integration.

Play helps children to learn how to negotiate and resolve conflict. Play can also facilitate being able to “read” others and to understand that other people have a point of view that may be different and that waiting ones turn is a basic part of life. Role-play may help in preparation for the roles that children will take on as adults, and in making sense of everyday social activities. The use of language and laughter in play can be part of interpreting social signals, thereby understanding what acceptable or unacceptable behaviour is in any given society.

The context and nature of relationships can also be a factor in the influence of play. Older siblings do have an influence on younger siblings, though this can not be singled out as the biggest influence. There are many other factors that need to be considered and this would not account for children born first or those with no siblings. So, play with siblings and peers do influence a child’s development but it needs to be considered within the wider cultural and social context. (1,982) References: Blatchford, P. , Creeser, R. and Mooney, A. 1990) “Playground games and play time: the children’s view”, Educational Research, vol. 32, pp. 163-74 in Ding, S. , and Littleton, K. , (2005) Children’s Personal and Social Development , Milton Keynes, The Open University. Brownell, C. A. and Carriger, M. S. (1999) “Collaborations among toddler peers: Individual contributions to social contexts” in Woodhead, M. , Faulkner, D. and Littleton, K. (eds) Cultural Worlds of Early Childhood, London, Routledge in Ding, S. , and Littleton, K. , (2005) Children’s Personal and Social Development , Milton Keynes, The Open University. Corsaro, W. 1986) “Discourse processes within peer culture: from a constructionist to an interpretative approach to childhood socialization”, Sociological Studies of Child Development, vol. 1, pp. 81-101in Ding, S. , and Littleton, K. , (2005) Children’s Personal and Social Development , Milton Keynes, The Open University. Dunn, J. (1988) The Beginnings of Social Understanding, Oxford, Blackwell in Ding, S. , and Littleton, K. , (2005) Children’s Personal and Social Development, Milton Keynes, The Open University. Goncu, A. (1998) “Development of intersubjectivity in social pretend play”, in Woodhead, M. Faulkner, D. and Littleton, K. (eds) Cultural Worlds of Early Childhood, London, Routledge in Ding, S. , and Littleton, K. , (2005) Children’s Personal and Social Development , Milton Keynes, The Open University. Leacock, E. (1976) “At play in African villages”, in Bruner, J. S. , Jolly, A. and Sylva, K. (eds) Play: its role in development and evolution, Harmondsworth, Penguin in Ding, S. , and Littleton, K. , (2005) Children’s Personal and Social Development, Milton Keynes, The Open University. Littleton, K. and Miell, D. (2005) Children’s interactions: siblings and peers in Ding, S. , and Littleton, K. (2005) Children’s Personal and Social Development, Milton Keynes, The Open University. Maccoby, E. (1999) The Two Sexes: growing up apart, coming together, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press in Ding, S. , and Littleton, K. , (2005) Children’s Personal and Social Development, Milton Keynes, The Open University. Pellegrini, A. D. (2003) “Perceptions and functions of play and real fighting in early adolescence”, Child Development, vol. 74, pp. 1522-33 in Ding, S. , and Littleton, K. , (2005) Children’s Personal and Social Development , Milton Keynes, The Open University. Schaffer, H. R. 2003) Introducing Child Psychology, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing in Ding, S. , and Littleton, K. , (2005) Children’s Personal and Social Development , Milton Keynes, The Open University. Sheldon, A. (1992) “Preschool girls” discourse competence: managing conflict and negotiating power’, in Bucholtz, M. , Hall, K. and Moonwomon, B. (eds) Locating Power, Volume 2 of the Proceedings of the 1992 Berkeley Women and Language Conference, pp. 528-39, Berkeley, CA, Berkeley Linguistic Society in Ding, S. , and Littleton, K. , (2005) Children’s Personal and Social Development , Milton Keynes, The Open University.

References: Smith, P. K. , Bowers, L. , Binney, V. and Cowie, H. (1999) “Relationships of children involved in bully/victim problems at school”, in Woodhead, M. , Faulkner, D. and Littleton, K. (eds) Cultural Worlds of Early Childhood, London, Routledge in Ding, S. , and Littleton, K. , (2005) Children’s Personal and Social Development, Milton Keynes, The Open University. Stone, G. P. (1981) “The play of little children”, in Stone, G. P. and Faberman, H. A. (eds) Social Psychology Through Symbolic Interaction, New York, NY, Wiley in Ding, S. , and Littleton, K. (2005) Children’s Personal and Social Development , Milton Keynes, The Open University. Vass, E. (2004, unpublished) “Understanding collaborative creativity: an observational study of the effects of the social and educational context on the processes of young children’s joint creative writing”, PhD thesis, The Open University in Ding, S. , and Littleton, K. , (2005) Children’s Personal and Social Development, Milton Keynes, The Open University. Whitney, I. and Smith, P. K. (1993) “A survey of the nature and extent of bullying in junior/middle and secondary schools”, Educational Research, vol. 5, pp. 3-25 in Ding, S. , and Littleton, K. , (2005) Children’s Personal and Social Development , Milton Keynes, The Open University. Wickes, F. G. (1927/1978) The Inner World of Childhood: a study in analytical psychology, Boston, Sigo Press, pp. 156-8 in Ding, S. , and Littleton, K. , (2005) Children’s Personal and Social Development, Milton Keynes, The Open University. Winston (2006) in The Open University (2006) Media Kit, ED209: Child Development DVD-ROM (Media Kit Part 1, Video Band 2), Milton Keynes, The Open University.

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