Summary of Ethological and Cultural Perspectives on Children's Play
Animal play is found only among those animals who occupy the highest positions on the phylogenetic ladder and typically only occurs among the immature of the species. Adults rarely play. The major characteristic of the play of animals is that it involves simulation, in that behaviors are applied in out-of-context situations. This pretend component of animal play requires a high degree of flexibility on the part of the player and resembles the nonliteral element in human play.
Play in animals resembles but differs from aggression in a number of ways. It is, first of all, a joyful experience, which aggression typically is not. Play also involves a withholding of strength in order to protect the players from harm. Finally, play differs from aggression in that there are pauses and even complete role changes in play, which are not found in acts of aggression. Play is also related to animal socialization; the most socially oriented animals are also the most likely to play. Play appears at just about the time that the animal is beginning to establish its position within the social hierarchy and may have a function in providing valuable social experience and defining social roles within the peer group.
Play has been observed in virtually every culture studied, although there is considerable variation in the amount of play and in the extent to which it involves competition or cooperation. The greatest amount of competitive play is found in technologically advanced and affluent cultures, while competition is rare in underdeveloped societies, in which survival is a day-to-day affair. The type of competitive game that is played reflects the values of the particular culture, and the skills required in play resemble the skills that are necessary for success in life. Games of physical skill are most evident in societies in which physical prowess is necessary for work and survival. Games of chance depend on luck or fate, and are emphasized in a variety of cultures that have in common a high degree of individual, social, and environmental uncertainty. The outcome of games of strategy depends on the ability of the players to make rational choices. These games are found in complex and sophisticated cultures in which intellectual strategies are required to achieve success.
Cooperation and competition are not mutually exclusive categories of games. Most children play both competitively and cooperatively, even within the same game. Nevertheless, competition is emphasized over cooperation in some cultures: those that are well-to-do and in which individual identity and achievement are valued more than group identity, loyalty, and dependence. Cultures that emphasize cooperation are either poor and underdeveloped or proponents of a collectivist philosophy, placing responsibility to the group ahead of individual identity and achievement.
Cross-cultural, and particularly subcultural, differences have been found repeatedly in research on children's symbolic, or make-believe, play. Lower-class children typically engage in less of this type of play than do middle-class children. It is still not known, however, which particular variables associated with socioeconomic status are responsible for the observed differences in the children's performance. Do they stem from differences in education, ethnic background, approaches to parenting, or familiarity with the props that are used to stimulate imaginative play? In fact, the research is characterized by a failure even to provide clear and consistent definitions of social class.
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