Peer Relationships and Play Encourage Healthy Development

Play is part of the fundamental learning process of childhood, and playing with other children helps a child develop the social skills necessary for living and working with others as they make their way through life. Through play and engagement with others, children make critical connections in their developing brains. When children don’t have an opportunity to play, or to play with other children, their cognitive, social, and emotional development can be effected negatively. Consider these two stories:

Play and Peer Interaction: A Success Story

Briana, a healthy three-year-old, sits in her family room, toys and books strewn around her. Right now Briana is playing with colorful blocks in a variety of shapes and sizes. Her five-year-old brother coaches her as they build a tall tower, and they scream with delight when she knocks the entire tower down and the blocks “go boom.” Once the blocks have crashed onto the floor, Briana and her brother crawl into the kitchen on their hands and knees like Charlie, the family dog. They bark, wag make-believe tails, and do tricks as their mom plays along, “Roll over, puppies. Good puppies.” Continuing this pretend play, mom bends down to “rub the puppies’ bellies” and together they all begin to joyfully laugh together.

The next day, when Briana’s mom drops her off at preschool, she runs to join her classmates at the bookshelves. Briana selects a book from the shelf just as Eddie selects the same book. Briana asks if Eddie wants to share, and then the two sit down and look at the book together. The teacher notices how nicely they shared together, and, wanting to praise this behavior, makes Briana and Eddie “star students” for the day.

Compromised Peer Interaction and Play

Across the city, three-year-old Alecia watches television alone while holding her favorite dolly. Alecia’s toys are few and there are no books for her at home. After spending much of her afternoon with the television and her dolly, Alecia toddles off into the kitchen looking for someone to play with. Although she finds no one there, she discovers cabinets full of pots and pans. Eagerly, Alecia pulls these new “toys” onto the tile floor and begins to bang out a rhythm. From across the tiny apartment, Alecia’s grandmother comes running into the kitchen, shushes her, takes the pots and pans away, and tells her not to wake her mother who has just returned from work exhausted.

Alecia’s family can’t afford to send her to preschool. Instead, she stays home with her grandmother and infant brother while her mother works long hours to make sure there is just enough money to pay the bills. Grandma tries to sit down with Alecia and tell her stories, but oftentimes Grandma is too busy doing the laundry, cleaning, and taking care of the baby. Alecia cannot play outside with the neighborhood children because Grandma worries for her safety.

What do these Differences Mean?

How do Briana and Alecia’s environments differ, and what does this mean for their social, emotional, and cognitive development?

The most obvious differences between Briana and Alecia’s environments concern their families’ financial situations, which have far reaching impacts on each family’s involvement and interactions with their child as well as the family’s ability to provide developmentally appropriate experiences. Briana’s family has the financial capabilities to provide her with plenty of toys and send her to preschool where she can interact with peers. These resources also help reduce stress in the household, so that family members can enjoy spending time together. Through play with adults and peers, Briana not only learns about the world around her and can try out new behaviors, but also she develops socially, learning to initiate interaction and play with others. Early peer interaction at preschool also supports Briana’s early development. Through practice and experience, Briana has learned to share and communicate effectively. She is also able to benefit from play time with family members, who have the leisure time to spend with her and see play time as an opportunity for growth and learning. Briana actually learns more from these interactions because family members share their personal knowledge with her. Briana’s family also recognizes that play should be child-directed and allows her to explore what specifically interests her. She is given free reign to knock the blocks over rather than continuing to build, and as a result finds the answers to her own questions.

On the other hand, Alecia’s limited access to resources hinders her cognitive, social, and emotional growth. Limited access to books and toys shrinks Alecia’s world to discover. Alecia’s family doesn’t have the leisure time to play with her, and stress makes it more difficult for them to have patience with her developing mind. The only person with whom Alecia interacts regularly is her grandmother, who is often too busy working around the house. As a result, Alecia’s learning is restricted to her own personal discoveries through play, without the added enrichment of other children and grown-ups. Alecia spends long hours watching television rather than playing. Children learn much more through face-to-face interaction than they do from the television. Television also brings high levels of violence into her world. These differences in her early environment put Alecia at a developmental disadvantage.

What does this mean for children in Memphis?

Unfortunately, too many of Memphis’ children grow up in environments similar to Alecia’s. Thirty-two percent of Shelby County’s children live in poverty (and the numbers are higher for younger children). Like Alecia, these children grow up with few resources, stressful conditions, parents with hectic schedules, and limited opportunities for healthy play and peer interaction. All of these setbacks compound to hinder social, emotional, and cognitive growth. However, there is hope for children like Alecia. Despite poverty and the difficulties it presents, children can grow up healthy and can take advantage of opportunities for peer interaction and play.

Developmentally appropriate learning doesn’t require expensive toys. In fact, many experts believe that cardboard boxes and paper towel rolls may do more to stimulate the developing mind because they require that children use their imaginations. The City of Memphis even offers a number of free or reduced-price admissions to city museums and parks.

Parents who make play and peer interaction a priority in their child’s life are helping to support their optimal early childhood brain development.

The Urban Child Institute would like to thank our summer intern, Sara Greenberg, for writing this month's editorial. Sara is currently pursuing her undergraduate degree in Child Studies at Vanderbilt University.