Social development in the preschool years permits young children to include others in their pretend and dramatic play. Whereas infants and toddlers use their ability to symbolize in solitary play, preschoolers use their expanded cognitive and social abilities to play with their peers (Bretherton, 1985). In this section, some aspects of social play that contribute to social development and vice versa are discussed. The characteristics include understanding the developmental levels of social play, play and social competence, the expression of emotions or feelings through play, and sociodramatic play.

Developmental Levels of Social Play

We are indebted to the work of Parten (1932) in observing and describing how social play develops in preschool children. In her studies of young children, Parten observed that social play increases with age. She described development of social play into six categories: unoccupied behavior, onlooker behavior, solitary play, parallel play, associative play, and cooperative play. The first two categories are considered to be nonplay behavior, and the last three categories are indicators of social participation (Berk, 2002; Caster, 1984; Frost, 1992). Frost (1992) defines the six categories as follows:

Unoccupied Behavior.  The child is not playing but occupies herself with watching anything that happens to be of momentary interest. When there is nothing exciting taking place, she plays with her own body, gets on and off chairs, just stands around, follows the teacher, or sits in one spot glancing around the room (playground).

Onlooker Behavior.  The child spends most of her time watching the other children play. She often talks to the children being observed, asks questions or give suggestions, but does not overtly enter into the play. This type differs from unoccupied in that the onlooker is definitely observing particular groups of children rather than anything that happens to be exciting. The child stands or sits within speaking distance from other children.

Solitary Play.  The child plays alone and independently with toys that are different from those used by the children within speaking distance and makes no effort to get close to other children. He pursues his own activity without reference to what others are doing.

Parallel Play.  The child plays independently, but the activity chosen naturally brings her among other children. She plays with toys that are like those the children around her are using but she plays with the toys as she sees fit, and does not try to influence or modify the activity of the children near her. She plays beside rather than with the other children.

Associative Play.  The child plays with other children. The communication concerns the common activity; there is borrowing and loaning of play materials; following one another with trains or wagons; mild attempts to control which children may or may not play in the group. All the members engage in similar activity, there is no division of labor, and no organization of the activity around materials, goal, or product. The children do not subordinate their individual interests to that of the group.

Cooperative Play. The child plays in a group that is organized for the purpose of making some material product, striving to attain some competitive goal, dramatizing situations of adult and group life, or playing formal games. 

Parten’s categories of developmental levels of social play provided the first guidelines for understanding how young children progress from playing by themselves to becoming social players. Researchers have continued to refine and redefine Parten’s categories in the light of their own observations of social play. Two areas of research have focused on the definition of solitary play and frequency of play in the six categories.

In Parten’s classification, the child’s movement from solitary play to more social categories of play is a positive developmental step. Although Parten believed solitary play was the least mature form of play, subsequent research defined other more mature roles for solitary play. Kenneth H. Rubin and others have found different indicators for the role of solitary play. In what he defines as nonsocial play, Rubin (1982) found that socially competent 4-year-olds who were popular with their peers engaged in solitary or parallel play activities such as artwork and block construction. From their own work, Moore, Evertson, and Brophy (1974) found that almost half of the solitary play they observed consisted of goal-directed activities and educational play. The findings from these and other similar studies indicate that solitary play might not be the result of social immaturity but rather a desirable form of play (Moore et al., 1974; Rubin, 1982; Rubin, Maioni, & Hornung, 1976).

Studies of solitary play reveal various reasons why children prefer solitary play. The choice may be simply because some tasks are best accomplished alone or because a child wishes to have some time alone for self-reflection (Burger, 1995; Katz & Buchholtz, 1999). Time alone may result in constructive behaviors. Children might experience peace of mind, self-regulation, and control over their environment (Luckey & Fabes, 2005). Although solitary play may indicate shyness or peer rejection for some, solitary constructive play can be related to happier moods and increased alertness (Katz & Buchholtz, 1999).

Another area of research has been the percentages of children who engage in the six categories of social play. Researchers have differed in their findings as to what percentages of children engage in parallel, associative, and cooperative play (Bakeman & Brownlee, 1980; Barnes, 1971; Rubin et al., 1976) when compared to Parten’s findings in 1932. Two conclusions have surfaced from these studies and others: Today’s preschoolers are less skilled in the higher levels of social play (Frost, 1992), and social class can have a bearing on levels of social play (Rubin et al., 1976; Smilansky, 1968). In addition, the context of the child’s play has a bearing on the maturity demonstrated in solitary play.

Rubin and his colleagues and others have continued to develop their understanding of the progression of social play (Coplan, Rubin, Fox, Calkins, & Stewart, 1994; Rubin & Coplan, 1998; Rubin et al., 1983). Rubin and Coplan (1998) report that Piaget’s structural components of play and Smilansky’s stages of play can be utilized to better understand progress in social play. To understand children’s social participation, observers need to view play content within the context of the play (Rubin et al., 1976). The Play Observation Scale developed to achieve this purpose demonstrates how a broader exploration of social play indicators was achieved (Rubin, 1986; Rubin & Coplan, 1998).

In their continued work, researchers have made the following conclusions about levels of social play:

  1. Social play becomes more prominent during the preschool years to include an increase in the frequency of social contacts, longer social episodes, and more varied social episodes (Jones, 1972; Holmberg, 1980; Rubin, Watson, & Jambor, 1978).
  2. Although preschoolers tend to spend more time playing alone or near others, they play with a wider range of peers (Howes, 1983).
  3. The major developmental change in preschool play is related to cognitive-developmental maturity within the categories rather than change in the amount of play in the categories. The frequency of play in the categories remains the same during the preschool years; the significant changes come in sociodramatic play and games with rules (Rubin et al., 1978).

Sociodramatic Play

Sociodramatic play is the most advanced form of social and symbolic play. In sociodramatic play, children carry out imitation and drama and fantasy play together. Sociodramatic play involves role playing in which children imitate real-life people and experiences that they have had themselves. Make-believe is also a component because it serves as an aid to imitation. It allows the children to represent real-life events and include their imaginations in carrying out their roles. The child’s abilities in sociodramatic play improve with experience, and, as she plays with different children, play becomes more varied to include new interpretations and ideas (Smilansky & Shefatya, 1990).

Smilansky (1968) characterizes six criteria of dramatic play that evolve into sociodramatic play. She defines the first four criteria as dramatic play and the last two as sociodramatic play as follows (Smilansky & Shefatya, 1990):

  • Imitative role play.  The child undertakes a make-believe role and expresses it in imitative action and/or verbalization.
  • Make-believe with regard to objects.  Movements or verbal declarations and/or materials or toys that are not replicas of the object itself are substituted for real objects.
  • Verbal make-believe with regard to actions and situations.  Verbal descriptions or declarations are substituted for actions and situations.
  • Persistence in role play.  The child continues within a role or play theme for a period of time at least 10 minutes long.
  • Interaction.  At least two players interact within the context of a play episode.
  • Verbal communication.  There is some verbal interaction related to the play episode.

Smilansky and Shefatya prefer the terms make-believe and pretend play to symbolic play and feel that role play is too narrow a description of what children are doing when they are engaged in sociodramatic play. They prefer the term sociodramatic play because “[i]t involves not only representation and pretense, but also reality orientation, organizational skills, reasoning and argumentation, social skills, etc.” (Smilansky & Shefatya, 1990, p. 27).

Sociodramatic play is the vehicle whereby young children use all of their developmental attributes. Children combine physical, cognitive, language, and social play in carrying out a play theme or event. Observation of sociodramatic play provides snapshots of a child’s development.

Play as Expression of Feelings

Unlike adults, preschool children are not able to verbalize how they feel. They experience the same feelings and express them through play. Because they feel safe in play, and because play is a primary activity in the preschool years, young children exhibit the full range of their feelings in play activities (Landreth & Hohmeyer, 1998).

Freud (1935) proposed that play can be cathartic. Children use play to reduce anxiety and understand traumatic experiences. They may recreate an unpleasant experience over and over to assimilate it and diminish the intensity of feelings (Frost, 1992; Schaefer, 1993).

Children also use play to express positive feelings such as joy and contentment as well as aggressive feelings. As they externalize these feelings through play, they develop a sense of mastery and control. After they express negative feelings, such as fear and aggression, they can move on to express more positive feelings. When negative feelings have been resolved, children can move to other types of expression in their play (Landreth & Hohmeyer, 1998).

Although expression of emotions can be exhibited in solitary play, sociodramatic play has a major function in emotional development. As they take roles in dramatic play, young children can act out relationships and experience the feelings of the person in the role they are playing. By engaging in different roles, they can express emotional responses to the roles, which lead them to understand differences in feelings and develop problem-solving skills (Cohen & Stern, 1983). Sociodramatic play promotes emotional development and feelings that results in
a greater feeling of power, sense of happiness, and positive feelings of self (Piers & Landau, 1980; Singer & Singer, 1977).