As social beings one of the most important tasks during childhood is to develop adequate social and communicative skills, to enable successful interaction with the wide variety of people and situations encountered throughout life (Moore, 2010). Social cognition refers to the understanding of our own behaviour and that of others, and is at the heart of an individual’s ability to get along with other people (Astington & Olson, 2010).
The foundations of social competence that are developed in the first few years of life have been closely linked to a child’s later ability to functionally adapt in school and to form successful relationships throughout life (Cohen, 2005). The No Child Left Behind Act brought in in 2001 in the US, requires that all children attending state funded schools sit a standardised test to measure basic literacy, language and mathematical ability.
Cognitive ability is an important aspect of a child’s development, but this essay puts forward that play, social-emotional understanding and theory of mind are more important aspects in a child’s development, each impacting on a child’s cognitive and social development in some way. Social-emotional development refers to a child’s experience, management and expression of emotions as well as their ability to establish positive and rewarding relationships with others (Cohen, 2005).
Functionalists view emotion as an individual’s attempt to adapt to specific contextual demands (Lindon, 2012) and from this perspective emotions are seen as relational, intrapsychic phenomena linked to an individual’s goals, rather than purely internal. Emotions are influenced by an individual’s biological foundations and lived experience (Brownell, Kopp, & Kopp, 2010). For example, children who are born blind, and so have never seen a smile or frown, still exhibit these facial expressions themselves (Lindon, 2012).
These expressions are the same across cultures, what differs are the social rules surrounding the emotional display and associated behaviours (Kastanakis & Voyer, 2013). As such emotional development is interlinked with social development, encompassing both intra- and interpersonal processes. As children develop, maturation of the cerebral cortex allows for a decrease in unpredictable expressions of emotion and an increase in the ability to self-regulate emotions (Wolfe & Bell, 2007). Self-regulation consists of the ability to effectively manage and control states of arousal in order to reach a goal.
Well regulated individuals are expected to be able to respond in a spontaneous manner, as well as exhibit effortful control to inhibit their approach or avoidant tendencies as appropriate (Eisenberg et al. , 2001). The development of effortful control and self-regulation are closely associated with each other and are vital in the child’s ability to control their behaviour and direct their attention in a school environment (Raver, 2003). Research into early attention regulation, has found negative affect to be associated with a child’s ability to direct their attention.
A study, which compared frustrated and non-frustrated infants at 6 months of age, found that those deemed as frustrated, through laboratory tests and reports from the mother, exhibited less focused attention during an attention task. They were also less likely to shift their attention away from the frustrating task of their own accord (Calkins, Hungerford, & Dedmon, 2004). Another study (Eisenberg et al. , 1999), found that pre-schoolers who scored high on effortful control, were relatively unlikely to experience strong negative emotional arousal in response to peer interactions of moderate to high intensity.
A criticism of this however, is that the intensity of the interaction is subjective and potentially dependent upon the child’s temperament, not their level of effortful control. Once children become aware that they are distinct and separate from others, they begin to experience self-conscious emotions such as pride, shame, guilt and embarrassment (Thompson, Lewis, & Calkins, 2008). The acquisition of language enables children to learn about the cause and consequence of emotion and feelings through their primary care givers (Moore, 2010).
How the primary care giver responds to these emotions has been found to impact on the child’s emotional and social understanding. Calkins et al. , (2004) found that the mothers of frustrated infants were less sensitive, more intrusive and provided less physical stimulation to their infant, than mothers of the less frustrated infants, who were better at controlling their child’s attention as needed. A longitudinal study (Belsky, Pasco Fearon, & Bell, 2007) found that higher levels of observed maternal supportive behaviour predicted higher levels of observed child attention control.
When measured across two different time series, results showed that supportive, responsive behaviour affected the child’s attention control both concurrently and over time. Social-emotionally developed children possess the ability to self-regulate, are curious, more confident, cooperative and more able to communicate, all of which contribute to their readiness for school (Raver, 2003). This is illustrated by The Children’s Plan (Harris & Goodall, 2008) which proposed a new focus on social and emotional skills, in order to develop greater resilience and preparedness for change in the child.
Children with a positive disposition, who are able to self-regulate through shifting and focusing attention as required, are more able to engage in education programs. This in turn facilitates the development of cognitive capabilities such as knowledge, perceptions, and beliefs (Duckworth & Britain, 2009). This increases the likelihood of early academic and social success, which has been shown to resonate into adulthood (Ladd, 1999). Humans make sense of the world by making reference to the behaviour and internal psychological states, e. g. emotions, thought and desires of themselves and others (Moore, 2010).
This ability is commonly known as theory of mind (ToM). ToM was defined as understanding that mental states can cause behaviour and therefore be used to explain and predict the behaviour of others (Premack & Woodruff, 1978). Over the years ToM has come to encompass three additional and interlinked phenomena; a cognitive structure leading to certain abilities; a research area investigating the development of certain abilities; and theoretical explanations of development itself (Astington & Baird, 2005). Theoretically ToM is split into two main categories, theory theory (TT) and simulation theory (ST) (Marraffa, 2011).
ST theorists postulate that individuals are able to predict and explain others behaviour by imagining themself in somebody else’s position. These mental simulations of emotions and expected behaviour are projected onto the target individual through the activation of mirror neurons (Goldman, 2006) (Ginsburg, 2007) (Oberman & Ramachandran, 2007). ST theorists generally consider this ability to be innate, as evidenced in a child’s ability to engage in pretend play on the onset of language acquisition, at around the age of 18 months (Leslie, 1987) (Lillard, 1993) Lillard, 2001). TT, whose roots lie in the work of Piaget, is the most frequently referred to ToM theory within developmental psychology (Flavell & Miller, 1998). TT theorists perceive the ability to predict the behaviour of others to be based upon a body of knowledge about the target’s situation. Although subdivisions of TT exist, collectively they put forward that ToM is a matter of growth in an innate model which develops according to neurological maturation. This maturation allows for theorising to be learnt.
During this process children are described as behaving like little scientists, learning through teaching and enculturation (Bjorklund, 2011) (Carruthers & Smith, 1996) (Carruthers & Smith, 1996; Leslie, 1987). The key difference between the ST and TT approaches is that ST perceives ToM as a first-person process (I think as if I were you), whereas TT considers ToM as a third-person process applying a mental state to a person’s action (John walked into the bedroom because he was looking for something) (Cohen, 2005).
There is research to support both perspectives, and some now believe that ToM is most likely comprised of both first and third-person processes which are utilized to best suit the situation (Carruthers & Smith, 1996). The classic test for ToM is the false belief task, the most widely adopted being the Sally-Anne task, though others such as Perner & Wellman’s (1983) Smarties tube test are also popular (Bloom & German, 2000). In the Sally-Anne task, Sally leaves a desirable object, such as a chocolate, in her basket before leaving the scene. Whilst away, another character, Anne, hides the chocolate in a box.
Children are asked to predict where Sally will look for the chocolate when she returns. Generally at 3 years old children believe that Sally will look in the box, making the false assumption that Sally knows that the chocolate has been moved. According to Gopnik (1993) this is because an important cognitive developmental shift towards a representational model of the mind occurs around the age of 4. Children are then able to understand that what people believe and how they behave is dependent on the way they perceive the world (Bloom & German, 2000) (Flavell & Miller, 1998).
The use of a false belief task to test for ToM, however has received criticism for being too complicated for children to follow, requiring the child have a good grasp of language and the ability to store both locations of the chocolate in their memory (Bloom & German, 2000). When simplified, children as young as 3 have shown ToM (Leslie, 1987). More recently, testing ToM has come to include appearance/reality distinctions and pretence as well as the false belief task (Wellman & Cross, 2001).
Notwithstanding these criticisms, failing the false belief task is considered an indicator of atypical development such as autism and lower level deficits in social functioning Hughes & Leekman, 2004). However it is constructed, it is widely agreed that ToM underpins children’s development of a range of abilities including, social intelligence/understanding/intuition/perception, mind reading ability, belief, desire, reasoning, and understanding false belief (Astington & Baird, 2005). Successful development of these abilities enables appropriate response to others leading to good, healthy relationships (Flavell & Miller, 1998).
Children with a more developed ToM are able to better communicate and resolve conflict with peers, are rated more socially competent by their teachers and are deemed happier and more popular amongst their classmates as well as being predictive of academic success, the effects of which can be seen into adulthood (Dunn, 1996) (Astington & Baird, 2005). Play is an important part in the cognitive and social development of children. It allows children to spontaneously explore the social interactions, rules, meanings and intentions necessary in adult life (Rubin, Fein, & Vandenberg, 1983) (Vygotsky, 1967).
Play allows children to exert their creativity, whilst developing their imagination, dexterity, physical, cognitive and social-emotional abilities (Tamis? LeMonda, Shannon, Cabrera, & Lamb, 2004). It is considered so important to a child’s development that the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights has recognised play as a right of every child. Piaget (1969) considered play as one of the most important elements of a child’s cognitive development. He proposed that the types of play engaged in occur in 4 stages; Functional play consisting of simple, repetitive movements, e. . shaking a rattle, Constructive play i. e. the manipulation of objects, Pretend play (fantasy or dramatic), and play involving games with rules Viewing play in terms of stages however has received criticism, largely arguing that children engage in play involving rules at an earlier age than suggested by Piaget. In pretend play for example, children adhere to the social rules surrounding the role they have taken on, as well as devising their own set of rules within the pretend play (Lillard, 2001) ( Lillard, 1993).
It has also been argued that if children are supported during play by an adult, then they are able to engage in play activity beyond their independent ability. The set of activities for which support is required by the child, was termed by Vygotsky (1967) as the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). This Zone is thought to change depending on the child’s ability levels and the activity. With practice, activity that was once within the ZPD can now be achieved independently. An adult’s involvement in play however has been found to alter the nature of play itself.
Play becomes structured and focused on achieving or learning how to do something (Blasi, Hurwitz, & Hurwitz, 2002). It becomes directed by the adult’s rules and concerns, which do not allow the child to move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest or engage with the toys or objects in a way chosen by them (Blasi et al. , 2002). Play is only regarded as play when the child engages in a freely chosen, personally directed activity that allows them to follow their own instincts, ideas and interests, in their own way for their own reasons (Playwork Principles Scrutiny Group, 2005).
By letting the child lead the play, taking on any assigned role or activity, a parent can strengthen their parent-child relationship and aid in the child developing a secure attachment, whilst at the same time enabling their child to develop their own identity (Cohen, 2005) (Cohn, 1990). Early childhood play gives voice to a child’s experience, providing a safe place to express confusing and painful feelings (Hirschland, 2009). The use of creativity and imagination in finding solutions to problems, either real or imagined, helps children to build up their level of resilience.
An adaptive resilient system instils self-confidence and enhances self-esteem, as the child increases their ability to adequately deal with and accept setbacks (Lindon, 2012). Similarly, play fighting has been shown to teach children about self-control and restraint, preparing the child for situations when this is required later in life (Lindon, 2012). Play often offers children the opportunity to take risks in a relatively safe environment, this helps to reduce fear and tackle phobias (Sandseter, 2009).
Over protective parenting, has been associated with anxious, over-cautious behaviours and low confidence which have been linked to social-emotional difficulties later on in life (Lindon, 2012). Types of play have been found to encourage different kinds of cognition and social interaction. More recently play has moved away from Piaget classifications and is now generally grouped as sensorimotor/practice play, pretend/symbolic play, social play and constructive pay (Isenberg & Quisenberry, 2002). Sensorimotor/practice play, e. . arts and crafts, provides children with the opportunity to develop the fine motor skills of hand and finger control required for handwriting for example (Lindon, 2012). Links between symbolic play and cognitive language development have also been found. A study, which compared children in a preschool setting, found that children play differently in different settings and situations, with some settings encouraging more complex symbolic play than others (Marjanovic-Umek and Lesnik-Musek, 2001).
Another study showed that symbolic play was more likely to occur when a child is interacting with peers that are familiar and liked (Lillard, 2001). Active and frequent engagement in symbolic/pretend play is considered a precursor to the development of ToM, a lack of willingness or ability to engage in this type of play is often used as an indicator for atypical social and cognitive development (Leslie, 1987). In conclusion then, through play a child can act out many different roles and explore and develop many aspects of their personality.
Play facilitates the development of ToM and social-emotional understanding, which in turn aids cognitive development. All of these aspects combine and increase the likelihood of the child developing into a well-rounded and adjusted individual. It should also be noted that whilst much social-emotional understanding and cognitive and social development can be gained through play, its intrinsic value is in the enjoyment to be had by a child from simply playing with friends.