We have characterized the preschool years as the play years. This description is particularly apt for social development because much of the progress occurs through play. Here, we review the relationship of theory to social play.

Theoretical Views of Play and Social Development

Piaget’s cognitive-developmental theory, Erickson’s psychosocial theory, and Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory have significant contributions for understanding the relationship between play and social development. In addition, Sutton-Smith has advocated that play can also be viewed from an evolutionary perspective.

Although Piaget (1962) felt that play has a primary role in the child’s development, he placed little emphasis on play as a factor in the child’s responses to the social environment. Nevertheless, he saw a role for peer interactions within play for social-cognitive development. More specifically, play interactions helped children understand that other players have perspectives different than their own. Play, for Piaget, provides children with opportunities to develop social competence through ongoing interactions.

Erikson (1963) maintained there is a relationship between make-believe play and wider society. Make-believe permits children to learn about their social world and to try out new social skills. Moreover, play facilitates the understanding of cultural roles and to integrate accepted social norms into their own personalities. For Erikson, like Piaget, play promotes a child who is socially competent (Creasey et al., 1998).

Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory has a significant role for play in that he proposed that make-believe play in the preschool years is vital for the acquisition of social and cognitive competence. Vygotsky suggested that make-believe play required children to initiate an imaginary situation and follow a set of rules to play out the situation; the child is able to act separately from reality. This type of play helps children choose between courses of action (Creasey et al., 1998). Make-believe play also forces young children to control their impulses and subject themselves to the rules of play; moreover, Vygotsky believed that all imaginary situations devised by young children follow social rules. Through make-believe play, children develop an understanding of social norms and try to uphold those social expectations (Berk, 1994b).

Sutton-Smith (1976) and others maintain that there is a relationship between play and evolution. Much of children’s social play resembles that of primates and is necessary for survival. For example, rough-and-tumble play, in which both children and primates engage, offers a survival benefit in that it provides experiences in being dominant that later promote self-confidence in social interactions. It must be noted that more recently Sutton-Smith (1997) has embraced a wider understanding of play. He suggests that the usual psychological theories of play present a sanitized, middle-class perspective of play (Vandenberg, 1985). The negative social attributes of play, such as violence and aggression, are given less importance. In addition, he believes that too much stress has been placed on the function of play to promote development and progress and to describe what is done by immature organisms (Sutton-Smith, 1997).