Three general characteristics—corresponding to trends in the areas of intellectual, social, and personality development—capture the essence of the period of middle childhood.
From an intellectual standpoint, the major development is that the child's thinking is becoming more orderly, more structured, and more logical. Therefore, the school-age child at play will be more realistic and more rule-oriented than was the preschooler. Play will thus reflect a developing need for order.
The school-age child is more socially involved with age-mates than ever before, and the peer group provides support that formerly was offered only within the family. Acceptance by one's peers is of great importance to children in this age group, and their play reflects a sometimes overwhelming need to belong.
Finally, in the realm of personality development a major challenge to the emerging self-concepts of school-age children is to demonstrate to themselves and others that they are competent, that they have talents, skills, and abilities that they can be proud of. In their play, there is reflected this need for industry.
The Emergence of Logical Thinking: A Need for Order
Even as early as the beginning of the second year of life, children are able to represent the world mentally to themselves. They are starting to use symbols in that they can let objects represent one another and can let words stand for objects, people, or events. Therefore, as was pointed out in Chapter 3, they can now begin to engage in make-believe play. In a sense, the preschooler's intelligence consists of mental activity, as compared to the sensory and motor intelligence of the younger infant (Flavell, 1985; Piaget, 1983; Piaget & Inhelder, 1969).
Preschoolers are limited, however, in that their mental representations of reality are not regulated by a consistent system of thought. They are easily distracted. When solving problems, they often focus on irrelevant aspects of the materials they are working with, while they ignore information that is highly relevant. They are influenced too easily by appearances and too often fail to attend to substance. A preschool child may conclude, for example, that a tall, thin glass of water contains more liquid than a wide bowl even if the child has watched beforehand the liquid being measured in exactly equal amounts into both containers. The tall glass looks bigger and so it must hold more liquid—never mind the fact that the taller glass is also wider.
Children of five or six are entering a new stage in the development of thinking, what Piaget (1963, 1983) referred to as the stage of concrete operations. Now the child's mental representations of reality are organized into an overall system of related representations. The result is that thinking takes on a more logical, more orderly appearance. When asked to sort objects into groups, for example, the child in concrete operations sorts with reference to the logically defining properties of the objects. Thus, a collection of geometric forms might be sorted according to size, color, shape, or the number of straight lines they contain. By contrast, the preschool child would have sorted the geometric shapes perceptually rather than logically and arranged them into what Piaget referred to as graphic collections, which are pleasing perceptual arrays: The preschooler may have arranged the shapes into a circle to make a necklace or into a straight line to make a choo-choo train (Inhelder & Piaget, 1964).
The emergence of a logical system to govern one's thinking allows children to perceive the universe as an orderly place. In addition to acquiring the ability to classify materials logically, the child develops an understanding of cause-and-effect relationships, a mature understanding of the concepts of time and space, and an ability to reason by induction, which involves the postulation of general principles on the basis of particular observed instances.
Now, because the child's thinking is patterned and orderly, the universe assumes the patterns of the child's mind. As will be seen, children's play during the years of middle and later childhood reflects the transition from the stage of prelogical thinking to that of concrete operations, in the sense that play becomes increasingly realistic and increasingly characterized by a need for order.
The Childhood Peer Group: A Need to Belong
Preschool children, even if they spend considerable amounts of time in nursery school or day-care settings, are primarily home centered in orientation. That is, the family is the social unit around which most of their social activities are focused. By the age of five or six, however, children are becoming increasingly peer oriented and decreasingly family oriented (Hughes, Noppe, & Noppe, 1988; Minuchin, 1977; Williams & Stith, 1980). The reason for this transition is that school-age children spend a greater and greater proportion of their waking hours in the company of peers; when they are not actually in school they may be out roaming the neighborhood looking for playmates, and parents often comment that their child no longer wants to spend time in their company.
The composition of a childhood peer group is highly variable, with children drifting into and out of a circle of friends, sometimes on a week-to-week basis (Hartup, 1993). Nevertheless, the peer group is a close-knit society, with definite, if unwritten, rules for membership. Children who are different in any way, whether because of physical characteristics, personality traits, manner of dress, access to material possessions, or socioeconomic status, may be quickly excluded (Dodge, 1983).
The peer group is a major socializing agent in middle childhood. It is from their peers, not from parents or teachers, that children learn about the culture of childhood. Peers will teach a child quite effectively, and sometimes very harshly, about social rules and about the importance of obeying them. Peers establish a certain moral order that may differ somewhat from that established by adults (Hartup, 1993). For example, parents may teach their children to inform on a child who is misbehaving, but in the peer culture "ratting" may be a major crime that qualifies the child for exclusion from the group.
Peers teach children a variety of physical and intellectual skills that are necessary for group acceptance. Parents may provide instruction in riding a bicycle, but rarely do they teach their children how to do "wheelies" on their bikes or how to jump them across ditches! Such education is usually provided by more experienced children in the peer group. Similarly, many of the jokes, stories, riddles, and slang expressions heard among the "coolest" of grade-school children were never taught to them by adults, but were transmitted directly by the peer group (Williams & Stith, 1980).
The significance of the childhood peer group as a socializing agent cannot be overestimated, nor can the importance to grade-school children of being accepted by their age-mates. What is the context in which the transmission of peer culture takes place? What is the battleground on which children fight to gain acceptance and to avoid rejection by the group? It should not be surprising, considering the amount of free time that is spent in play, that the battleground is often the playground—both figuratively and literally. Indeed, it would be surprising if the play of school-age children did not comprise a large portion of their socialization experience and did not enhance the socialization process. In fact, play serves that very function and is often used to satisfy the school-age child's preeminent need to belong.
The Developing Self-Concept: A Need for Industry
One of the most pressing needs of elementary school children is the need for what psychoanalytic theorist Erik Erikson (1963) called a sense of industry. As children develop, Erikson wrote, they come to realize that there is no future for them "within the womb of the family", and so they begin to apply themselves to a variety of skills and tasks that are necessary for success in the larger world of adults. They become eager to be productive, to achieve a sense of mastery and a feeling of accomplishment. In more traditional cultures, children's feelings of accomplishment were acquired by their learning to use the tools, utensils, and weapons that adults in their culture needed for survival; in the United States, the "tools" are often acquired in the classroom.
When Erikson spoke of the need for industry, he was referring to accomplishment in the world of work, however that may be defined. He was not speaking specifically of play, and, in fact, he even suggested that as children strive for industry, they leave behind the "whims of play". It seems, however, that an ego-building sense of mastery can be acquired in the performance of activities other than those that have as their specific purpose the acquisition of skills. Indeed, why could a sense of mastery not be acquired from the performance of activities that have no external purpose at all? From activities that fall under the definition of play? As will later be indicated, the need for industry is often reflected not only in the classroom activities of grade-school children, but also in their play.
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