Siblings and Play

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What influence does play with siblings and peers have on children’s development?

The influences that affect a child’s development can be many and varied. More specifically, the various interactions they have with other people can add to their growing understanding of their social world. It is through the everyday occurrences that children learn how to handle and make sense of what can be a complex environment. In considering the influence of play with siblings and peers on a child’s development four main areas will be discussed; the nature and context of relationships and whether they are complementary or reciprocal; two different kinds of play, socio-dramatic and thematic fantasy; how play can influence development and the role of language and laughter in interpreting social signals.

As children develop it would seem that different kinds of relationships influence development in varying ways. The nature and context of interactions will differ according to the people involved and will bring unique and significant experiences to the developmental process. These interactions can be seen as complementary and/or reciprocal relationships. As Schaffer (2003) points out that complementary relationships serve to “provide children with security and protection and to enable them to gain knowledge and acquire skills” (Schaffer, 2003, p. 113). These relationships take place when one individual has more power or knowledge than the other, for example parent/child or teacher/student interactions. On the other hand reciprocal relationships are one of equals. The purpose of reciprocal interactions Schaffer (2003) suggests is to gain experiences/skills that can only be acquired through a mutual, equal relationship, skills such as being competitive, how to co-operate with others and how to resolve conflict. Reciprocal relationships can be seen in the interactions between peers and siblings. What is interesting is that the relationship between siblings can be a mixture of both complementary and reciprocal rather than being distinctly one or the other. At times an older sibling’s role may be complementary in nature, helping to instruct and guide a younger sibling. Though at other times these same siblings may play and share common interests together making the relationship more reciprocal in nature. This combination, Schaffer (1996) argues makes the sibling relationship potentially very influential in the developmental process. Dunn and Munn’s Cambridge Sibling Study (Dunn, 1988) showed that joint pretend play, in the context of the sibling relationship, was strongly associated with the development of social competence. Their study observed how older siblings directed the younger siblings in what role to play and what to say in joint pretend play episodes. Children as young as 8 months were able to recognize and share moods and actions with older siblings. And by 14 months were able to co-operate in achieving the other sibling’s goal. Although by the age of 3 years the younger sibling’s ability to challenge the older sibling, in the context of play, was much more evident. By learning from older siblings some children can have quite advanced social skills. For example, Reuben, the 3 year old boy in Child of Our Time video (Winston, 2006), he had the ability to predict what others may do. He was able to understand that people have minds of their own, and that he may know something others may not. Most 3 year olds have not yet acquired this skill, as they think everyone knows the same thing. The Cambridge Sibling Study (Dunn, 1988) did show however, that joint pretend play was more common in families where the interaction between siblings was harmonious, implying that other factors are involved in a child’s ability to understand and engage in role-playing. This would seem an obvious point as not all children have siblings or older siblings. As children engage with other children, whether they are siblings or peers, the wider social...
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