skip to content

Click here to search our resources

PEDAL Hub: Resource Library

Few psychologists would argue that play is linked to positive cognitive, emotional and social outcomes. However, what is less understood and scientifically investigated, is exactly how play supports development. One way is the relationship between play and self-regulation. A child’s ability to monitor their own mental activities, identify and remedy errors, focus and maintain attention, and develop and apply increasingly effective mental strategies, has been shown to predict cognitive ability, academic achievement and emotional well-being.
 
The importance of play for child development was first theorised by the influential Russian psychologist, Vygotsky. He suggested that during play children exercise control over their mental activity, set themselves appropriate challenges, and create their own 'zone of proximal development’, within which learning is most powerfully enhanced1. More recent research has supported this view. Play has been shown to provide a powerful context for the development of language skills and vocabulary, which in turn support self-regulation2, 3. In particular, playful collaborative activities support young children’s abilities to express their ideas, explain their reasoning and talk about their own learning. This significantly improves their self-regulatory abilities4.
 
The amount of less-structured ‘free play’ time in 6-7 year old children’s daily lives5 and their attendance at pre-schools that emphasise play-based learning6 have been shown to predict higher scores on measures of self-regulation.
Recent studies have shown the role of pretence
in supporting young children’s emotion regulation7 and their working memory – both key parts of self-regulatory development8.
 
In the area of literacy, classroom based studies examining playful approaches to writing with 5-10 year olds9 have reported a close relationship between playfulness and socially-shared regulatory talk, and enhancements in the children’s achievements in their writing.
 
There is growing evidence that children’s self-regulatory abilities develop in early infancy and are supported by play experiences and activities that also enhance oral language development. It is also clear that the manner in which adults interact with young children can affect their self-regulatory development. An emotionally warm and playful environment, in which children are cognitively challenged and given opportunities to talk about their thought processes, appears to positively benefit the development of self-regulation10.
 

Play research in action

Give your child lots of unstructured and unscheduled time in which to get lost in play – either alone, with friends of with you! Providing toys and objects that are flexible and help a child create imaginary scenarios are an ideal way to get things started. Don’t interfere too much in what your child is doing, but talk to them about why they are making certain choices and decisions – sometimes provide a commentary describing what you see, sometimes ask questions. If a child is playing in character – pretending to be a monster, pirate or animal – ask them how they feel whilst they are playing that role, and how and why that character is different to their real selves. Show your child that you know play is important and make it a priority at home and at school.
 

Barker, J. et al. (2014) Less-structured time in children's daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning (Journal Article)

Abstract:

Executive functions in childhood predict important life outcomes. Thus, there is great interest in attempts to improve executive functions early in life. Many interventions are led by trained adults, including structured training activities in the lab, and less-structured activities implemented in schools. Such programs have yielded gains in children’s externally-driven executive functioning, where they are instructed on what goal-directed actions to carry out and when. However, it is less clear how children’s experiences relate to their development of self-directed executive functioning, where they must determine on their own what goal-directed actions to carry out and when. We hypothesized that time spent in less-structured activities would give children opportunities to practice self-directed executive functioning, and lead to benefits. To investigate this possibility, we collected information from parents about their 6-7 year-old children’s daily, annual, and typical schedules. We categorized children’s activities as “structured” or “less-structured” based on categorization schemes from prior studies on child leisure time use. We assessed children’s self-directed executive functioning using a well-established verbal fluency task, in which children generate members of a category and can decide on their own when to switch from one subcategory to another. The more time that children spent in less-structured activities, the better their self-directed executive functioning. The opposite was true of structured activities, which predicted poorer self-directed executive functioning. These relationships were robust (holding across increasingly strict classifications of structured and less-structured time) and specific (time use did not predict externally-driven executive functioning). We discuss implications, caveats, and ways in which potential interpretations can be distinguished in future work, to advance an understanding of this fundamental aspect of growing up.

Date:
January 2014
Publisher or Journal:
Volume:
5
Page/s:
1-16
Synonyms:
  • Correlational
  • Developmental outcomes
  • Free play
  • Playful learning
  • Self-regulation
  • Executive function
Relevant age group/s:
Research discipline:

Bodrova, E. et al. (2013) Play and Self-Regulation: Lessons from Vygotsky (Journal Article)

Abstract:

The authors consider the analysis of the literature on play research by Lillard and others in the January 2013 "Psychological Bulletin," an analysis that questioned the prevailing assumption of a causal relationship between play and child development, especially in the areas of creativity, reasoning, executive function, and regulation of emotions. The authors regard these connections as critical for teachers in early-childhood classrooms and for other advocates of child play. They claim that the conclusions of Lillard and her coauthors place these professionals in a difficult position because they already face sharp pressure to replace play with academic activities. The authors suggest that the difficulty researchers have in linking play to development partly results from a failure to account for both cognitive and noncognitive developments across a complex trajectory. To help see the problem more clearly, they argue for a return to the Vygotskian and post-Vygotskian theories that differentiate between immature and mature play. The authors then describe their creation, an observational tool based on such theories, that helps researchers and practitioners judge the quality of pretend play.

Date:
January 2013
Publisher or Journal:
Volume:
6
Page/s:
111-123
Synonyms:
  • Creativity
  • Developmental outcomes
  • Literature review
  • Metacognition
  • Pretend play
  • Self-regulation
  • Executive function
Relevant age group/s:
Research discipline:

Christie, J. et al. (2006) Standards, Science, and the Role of Play in Early Literacy Education (Book Section)

Abstract:

In Play=Learning, top experts in child development and learning contend that in over-emphasizing academic achievement, our culture has forgotten about the importance of play for children's development.

Date:
January 2006
Publisher or Journal:
Volume:
Page/s:
57-73
Synonyms:
  • Academic outcomes
  • Literacy
  • Pre-academic skills
  • Pretend play
Relevant age group/s:
Research discipline:

Gilpin, A. et al. (2015) Relations Between Fantasy Orientation and Emotion Regulation in Preschool (Journal Article)

Abstract:

Research Findings: Emotion regulation is a strong predictor of both short- and long-term peer relationships and social competence and is often targeted in preschool curricula and interventions. Pretense is a natural activity of childhood that is thought to facilitate the development of socialization, perspective taking, language, and possibly emotion regulation. This study investigated whether fantasy-oriented children, who engage in more pretense, demonstrate higher levels of emotion regulation. Prekindergartners (n = 103) and teachers were given a battery of measures assessing children’s emotion regulation, fantasy orientation, theory of mind, and language. Results from hierarchical regression analyses indicated that children’s proclivity toward fantastical play (their fantasy orientation) uniquely predicted 24% of the variance in their emotion regulation skills over and above typical predictors: age, theory of mind, and language skills. That is, children who participated in more fantasy pretense demonstrated better emotion regulation skills than their peers. Practice or Policy: The present study suggests that future research, curriculum, and interventions should focus on targeting fantastical pretense to assess causal mechanisms of emotion regulation development. Teachers and parents should encourage children’s fantastical pretense, as research suggests it may be an important contributor to the development of critical socialization skills such as emotion regulation.

Date:
January 2015
Publisher or Journal:
Volume:
26
Page/s:
920-932
Synonyms:
  • Affective behaviour
  • Correlational
  • Developmental outcomes
  • Pretend play
  • Social cognition
  • Social-emotional
Relevant age group/s:
Research discipline:

Hyson, M. et al. (2006) Early childhood development and education (Book Section)

Abstract:

This chapter examines the complex relationships between early childhood education programs and child development research. A context for this examination is provided by a case example: the relatively new and still evolving, Vygotskian-influenced tools of the mind curriculum. After an overview of the functions and limitations of developmental theory and research in relation to early childhood education, the chapter focuses on two educationally relevant areas: the development of cognitive essentials, specifically children's representational thinking, self-regulation, and planning, and the development of emotional competence, specifically emotional security and emotion regulation. Principles and research related to the assessment of young children's development and learning are reviewed, with emphasis on assessment within classroom environments. The practical, systemic and policy challenges of linking developmental theory and research with early childhood curriculum and teaching practices are the focus of the final section of the chapter, including the challenges of taking a demonstration program to scale, issues of variability and quality in the system of U.S. early care and education, issues in delivering professional development, challenges of maintaining integrity and coherence, expectations for evidence and accountability, and gaps in the field's knowledge base. The chapter concludes with a summary and recommendations for linking research with practice.

Date:
January 2006
Publisher or Journal:
Volume:
4
Page/s:
3-47
Synonyms:
  • Affective behaviour
  • Developmental outcomes
  • Self-regulation
  • Social-emotional
Relevant age group/s:

Janet, M. et al. (2015) Play beyond the Foundation Stage: play, self-regulation and narrative skills (Book Section)

Abstract:

This is a must-read book for all students studying early childhood at a range of levels and practitioners who are looking to deepen their understanding of play and playful practices.

Date:
January 2015
Publisher or Journal:
Volume:
Page/s:
84-93
Synonyms:
  • Academic outcomes
  • Creativity
  • Developmental outcomes
  • Guided-play
  • Literacy
  • Playful learning
  • Pretend play
  • Self-regulation
  • Construction play
Relevant age group/s:

Moyles, J. et al. (2017) Developing young children as self-regulated learners (Book Section)

Abstract:

The fourth edition widens the scope of previous topics, aiming to support beginning teachers working and playing with early years.

Date:
January 2017
Publisher or Journal:
Volume:
Page/s:
121-138
Synonyms:
  • Developmental outcomes
  • Learning
  • Self-regulation
Relevant age group/s:

Pino-Pasternak, D. et al. (2014) Interventions and Classroom Contexts That Promote Self-Regulated Learning: Two Intervention Studies in United Kingdom Primary Classrooms (Journal Article)

Abstract:

This paper has 2 aims: (a) identify pedagogical practices and classroom arrangements that foster self-regulated learning (SRL) on the basis of extant research and (b) illustrate, through the description of 2 intervention studies conducted in the United Kingdom, how those SRL promoting features can be used to design educational interventions appropriate for young students. Through a purposive sample of primary schools, both studies investigated the effects of collaborative problem solving, play, and dialogue on children’s SRL and academic achievement, following quasiexperimental pre- and post-test designs, comprising concurrent (Study 1) and retrospective (Study 2) comparison groups. Assessment and intervention data was video recorded and coded. In Study 1 the intervention group (57 1st grade students) participated in 8 collaborative problem-solving activities. ANOVAs analysis revealed improvements in declarative and monitoring aspects of SRL with enhanced improvements for initially low SRL students. In Study 2 (ongoing; 108 1st, 3rd, and 5th grade students) participants engage in 12 episodes of pretence and constructional play involving LEGO©, used to stimulate the generation of different genres of texts. Preliminary findings indicate positive uptake of the programme by students and teachers.

Date:
January 2014
Publisher or Journal:
Volume:
23
Page/s:
Synonyms:
  • Academic outcomes
  • Collaborative skills
  • Cross-sectional
  • Developmental outcomes
  • Learning
  • Literacy
  • Object play
  • Peers play
  • Pretend play
  • Self-regulation
  • Social-emotional
Relevant age group/s:
Research discipline:

Thibodeau, R. et al. (2016) The effects of fantastical pretend-play on the development of executive functions: An intervention study (Journal Article)

Abstract:

Although recent correlational studies have found a relationship between fantasy orientation (FO; i.e., a child’s propensity to play in a fantastical realm) and higher order cognitive skills called executive functions (EFs), no work has addressed the causality and directionality of this relationship. The current study experimentally examined the directionality of the observed relationship between FO and EF development in preschool-aged children through an innovative play intervention employing a randomized controlled design. A sample of 110 children between the ages of 3 and 5years were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: fantastical pretend-play intervention, non-imaginative play intervention, or business-as-usual control. Results revealed that children who participated in a 5-week fantastical pretend-play intervention showed improvements in EFs, whereas children in the other two conditions did not. Within the fantastical pretend-play condition, children who were highly engaged in the play and those who were highly fantastical demonstrated the greatest gains in EFs. These data provide evidence for the equifinal relationship between fantasy-oriented play and EF development, such that engaging in fantasy-oriented play may be one of many ways to directly enhance EF development.

Date:
January 2016
Volume:
145
Page/s:
120-138
Synonyms:
  • Developmental outcomes
  • Experimental
  • Pretend play
  • Executive function
Relevant age group/s:
Research discipline:

Vallotton, C. et al. (2011) Use your words: The role of language in the development of toddlers’ self-regulation (Journal Article)

Abstract:

Self-regulation emerges throughout early childhood, and predicts later success in socially and cognitively challenging situations. Vygotsky proposed that symbols, particularly words, serve as mental tools to be used in service of self-regulation. Cross-sectional research indicates a positive but inconsistent association between language and self-regulation skills throughout toddlerhood, but research has not accounted for general cognitive development, nor gender differences in these domains. We used growth modeling of longitudinal data for 120 toddlers collected when children were 14, 24, and 36 months to test the impact of two expressive language skills – spoken vocabulary and talkativeness – on the growth of toddlers’ self-regulation, and to determine whether associations between these domains exist when controlling for cognitive development. Results reveal gender differences in self-regulation trajectories, and in the impact of language on self-regulation. Vocabulary is a better predictor of self-regulation than talkativeness, and both concurrent and prior vocabulary positively predicted children's levels of self-regulation. When cognitive development was controlled, 24-month vocabulary still predicted the trajectory of self-regulation. Results reveal that, even in early development, words are tools that can be applied to the task of self-regulation, and may be a more necessary tool for boys than for girls at this age.

Date:
January 2011
Publisher or Journal:
Volume:
26
Page/s:
169-181
Synonyms:
  • Developmental outcomes
  • Language
  • Longitudinal
  • Self-regulation
  • Social-emotional
Relevant age group/s:
Research discipline: