Young children may be missing out on 'pretend' games like pirates and spacemen due to the demands of the school curriculum, according to research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).
The project, led by Dr Sue Rogers at the University of Plymouth, found that reception classes were not always designed to meet the needs of 4-5 year olds. 'Children of this age learn to make friends as well as to use their imagination through role play,' says Dr Rogers. 'We know that they are capable of sustained and complex imaginative play and that capturing and engaging their interest is essential. Unfortunately, pressures on time and space, as well as the need to teach literacy, means that playing at shops, pirates and hospitals is difficult to fit into the timetable.'
The researchers made a total of 71 visits to groups of four year olds in schools from three contrasting areas in the South West of England. A total of 144 children and six teachers and six classroom assistants took part in the project. As well as observing how indoor and outdoor play was organised in the three schools, the researchers asked the children about their favourite games and used drawings, stories, role play scenarios and photographs to build a picture of their perspective on role play. 'Listening to children's views on use of space and lay-out could raise the value of play in the curriculum and reduce potential tensions between children and adults,' explains Dr Rogers.
The project findings reveal a need for more outdoor play spaces so that children could have more choice over materials, locations and playmates. Such facilities would encourage girls to take a more active role in building activities and allow boys' play to develop without disrupting people around them. 'It is important that children are allowed to play for sustained periods without interventions from adults,' confirms Dr Rogers.
The research findings illustrate that most children thought the purpose of pretend play was 'for learning things.' However, they liked playing with friends and 'pretending', and disliked 'too much noise.' The favourite theme for both boys and girls was 'playing castles,' although their drawings were strikingly different. The boys drew gory pictures of fighting and chopping off people's heads, while the girls focused on princesses and 'mums and dads' and often embellished their pictures with colour and detail 'to make it look prettier.'
The research highlights a number of gender differences in play. For instance, although girls sometimes combined traditional and less traditional roles, such as mum and astronaut, they more often chose to play domestic/maternal or nurturing and emotional caretaking roles. Boys, on the other hand, preferred to be robbers, superheroes or policemen in predominately action roles, despite teachers' efforts to 'de-gender' role play.
A key observation of the study advises Dr Rogers is "that most children of this age are having their first experience out of the home environment. The importance of role play is learning to socialise, to interact with other children as well as to experiment with language and develop the intellect".