Play and the phases in children’s cultural development

Research within pedagogical and developmental psychology is visible by virtue of the sheer numbers of theories about play. Such theories are also oriented towards the prevention of malfunction in children. This applies particularly to theories in developmental psychology dealing with the phases of child development.

Unfortunately, children’s incredible, constant and playful experimentation with texts and contexts in their social lives is often misinterpreted because the sole motivation for research has been theories for locating flaws in different phases of children’s creative, cognitive or psychological development.

Where the phases of children’s cultural development  which they reveal through cultural expression, e.g. in their “play life” are concerned, the story is a completely different one.

Children’s manipulation with objects (including toys), their aesthetic and social forms for expression etc. on the basis of a conscious distinction between real situations and fictional spheres, is under constant cultural development. The way in which children try to adapt to new recognition, their consciousness of what is real and what is imaginary, their experiments and testing of the value and importance of opinions/things are naturally included in play.

Play is therefore not only a contributory factor in creating new recognition but also in creating serious and sometimes painful crises and ruptures.

From the age of three, children are aware that play belongs to themselves because there is a kind of specific difference between adults and children but also because play permits them to manipulate and experiment with individual and social competence. Throughout childhood, this is expressed in many linguistic, bodily and social experiments in play partly as:

  • fictive content, “tomfoolery”, sounds and rhythmic squealing, rough-and- tumble, etc., and partly with
  • real thematic content, circumstances in daily social life, scenes and parodies of these, etc.

Children’s play lives and childhood are the opposite of adult life and adulthood. Play (in all its aspects) is what is meaningful for children in childhood while children (their upbringing, socialisation, cultivation to culture) are an expression of what is meaningful for adults in adulthood! Generally, children are communicative and conscious of this from about the age of three years.

To summarise children’s cultural development

  • From 12 months old and onwards the child achieves greater and greater competence relative to his surroundings. This is achieved with the help of touch, imitation, mimicry and repetition through which he learns to recognise/control/master things and situations in his surroundings.

The small child works hard - literally - to achieve an understanding of the world around him, his immediate surroundings and the many functions found there.

  • From the age of 2-3 years play is parallel, egoistic and egocentric but becomes gradually oriented towards others. The child gains autonomyor self-recognition. He experiments and tests his conscious choices, discovers for himself the limits between possible/impossible, real/unreal.

The child seeks an understanding of the “realistic”, an understanding of real life. 

  • From the age of 3-5 years children play together and gradually achieve social insight and understandingfor each other’s possibilities within play.

There are variations in role and group play. There is also play with visions and fictions on a realistic foundation where all imaginable possible and impossible situations are tested out. During this phase, children gain knowledge about the limits between true/false, right/wrong, etc. (i.e. basic ethical and existential values) on the basis of the concrete aspects of their own lives.

Apart from play, the children communicate the world of their recognition and fantasy which they experience through the fictive content of play (“tomfoolery”, sounds and rhythmic squealing, rough-and-tumble, etc.) and the real thematic content of play (circumstances in daily social life, scenes and parodies of these, etc.) in drawings - a sign language is both symbolic and realistic.

Before the age of 5-6, the child has experienced and communicated three significant cultural transitions through play and drawings:

From recognition of his environment to egocentric awareness to social awareness.

One special cultural transition (and possibly the most significant breakthrough  in childhood’s play life) which is more important and vastly different from the transitions of developmental psychology and which is also included in the above-mentioned transitions, is the transition to consciousness of possessing literacy.

Literacy changes the child’s mental, physical, social and cultural recognition so completely that the meaning for the child of playing and drawing (and of communication by drawing) changes character.

Children are illiterate until they are 10-12 years old - i.e. until literary culture is achieved.

The language of literary culture is different from the spoken word and the child gradually recognises that adults rate the symbolic value of the written word higher than “children’s talk” and “nice drawings”.

From having been direct, spontaneous and imaginative, the child’s play life becomes cultural, by which I mean that “oral cultural manifestations” as characteristics of play are replaced by “written cultural relativities”, as Mouritsen (1990) expresses it.

Language characterised by oral cultural manifestations is dependent on situations and contains analogue imagery or visible metaphorical expressions.

By contrast, language characterised by written cultural relativity is abstract and contains digital concepts.

The special attributes and originality of the child’s play life disappear gradually along with the unbelievable qualities this represents. The transition changes the nature of the child’s play as many children cease to play childishly, stop singing spontaneously, stop drawing, cutting and sticking, painting and fantasising randomly, etc. (This is also why this book concentrates on toys and play of the 4-10 year olds and their families.)



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