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Social Development Through Role Play

Understanding Child Development

Many teaching practices are based on Vygotsky’s social constructivist model of child development, as it highlights a child’s potential learning ability and demonstrates the importance of whole-person development.

The areas of development (traditionally split into cognitive, social and physical) overlap and reinforce each other. Social development facilitates both cognitive and physical development.

For example, poor social development (inability to share/take turns) hinders peer learning whereas appropriate communication skills can increase learning opportunities. Peer learning is a powerful tool in helping children through the buffer zone that Vygotsky identified as representing those skills that children are next able to learn, given the range of their current abilities. Vygotsky termed this the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).

It is well-documented that boys generally develop social skills more slowly than girls. This puts them at a significant disadvantage as they enter formal education. There is still debate as to whether this difference is biologically or socially constructed (e.g. Greta Pernell) but in either case, it is important to look at the function of gender-based play in child development. In particular, fantasy or role play is a very powerful tool for promoting social development and imagination.

Barry Kudrowitz analysed the toy choices of young children using his Play Pyramid, and found that whilst very young babies engaged with toys at a high level of sensory play, in the preschool age group, there were marked differences between the play preferences of girls and boys: approximately 50% of boys’ play had a fantasy element. In comparison, all of the girls’ toys had an element of fantasy play.

It is therefore worth discussing whether there are toy or play scenarios that should be encouraged to give to their boys to encourage social development, or whether the toys that encourage social development don’t really appeal to boys. If that’s the case, should teachers and toy manufacturers try to develop a toy or play scenario that does appeal to young boys, and that also promotes the development of social skills?

Role play is very sociable and develops skills such as imagination, communication and cooperation, but most role play is biased towards more feminine activities (mummies and daddies etc).

However, there are toys that might help boys engage with and benefit from this traditionally ‘girly’ type of play.

Farm toys and military role play products are likely to be beneficial in helping boys to play cooperatively and develop the social skills that will level the playing field for them at school.

The problem lies in whether parents, teachers and childcare workers are willing to allow the boys to play with these toys in their own (often energetic and sometimes aggressive) ways in order to enable them to develop the social skills that this type of play facilitates.