Dr. Carollee Howes, University of California at Los Angeles
The Importance of Peer Interaction and Social Pretend Play Front Porch Series Broadcast Call
GAIL JOSEPH: Good morning, or good afternoon, depending on where you're listening from. Well, it's the fourth Monday of the month, and this means it is time to welcome you to the Front Porch Series. I'm Gail Joseph, co-director of the National Center on Quality Teaching and Learning. The National Center on Quality Teaching and Learning is funded by the Office of Head Start. We're very grateful for that. Our Front Porch Series is a collection of broadcast conference calls that take place on the fourth Monday of every month, and we gather here to listen to a national expert on a topic related to quality teaching and learning in young children. And on behalf of my colleagues and I at NCQTL, I'd like to welcome all of you to our broadcast call today.
And today we focus on the topic of play and peer interactions. And I am so thrilled to introduce one of my personal academic idols -- so I'm going to start a new show called "Academic Idol" -- and that is Dr. Carollee Howes. So let me just say a little bit about her. Dr. Carollee Howes is a professor of psychological studies in education at the University of California at Los Angeles, otherwise known as UCLA. She is also director of the Center for Improving Child Care Quality at UCLA. And her research interests are in the area of very young children's development of interpersonal relationships.
Dr. Howes studies peer interactions, and particularly friendships and social pretend play in toddler and preschool-aged children. So hoping we have lots of Early Head Start listeners as well as Head Start today. Much of her current work includes describing development within classrooms and families against the background of race, ethnicity, and home language. Dr. Howes has published in numerous journals. I'm sure you've seen her name often in "Child Development," "Developmental Psychology," "Zero to Three," "Social Development," and "ECRQ," or "Early Childhood Research Quarterly. "
So, before I turn it over to Dr. Howes, just one quick logistical reminder that throughout the call this morning, you may type in questions in the question bar. And towards the end of our time together, Dr. Howes will address these. So now, without further ado, I'm turning the mike and the screen over to Dr. Carollee Howes.
DR. CAROLLEE HOWES: Well, good morning, Gail. Thank you very much. And good afternoon to those of you on the other coast. It's a beautiful sunny day in Los Angeles. I don't mean to gloat. I'm very excited to talk about play with peers in Head Start and Early Head Start. I was teaching in a program very similar to Head Start in the very early 1970s, and I was teaching, of course, preschoolers, because that's all that was there at that point. And I began to hear stories of very early peer interaction in infant and toddler child care centers. And so I went and visited some. I got very excited about the kinds of peer interaction that was happening with very, very little kids. I went back to graduate school, and the rest is history.
About 30 years of studying very early peer interaction and peer play.
So I have up on the screen a diagram. That's the kind of thing that us researchers like to make. And it will be what we're going to talk about today. Now, the first thing I want you to notice about that diagram is that "teacher" is in great big bold letters. And I want to really focus on how important the role of the teacher is, but as you will see as we've talked this morning, it isn't that I want you to do very much. I want you to do a lot of observing, a lot of thinking, and a lot of watching the children rather than actually trying to teach them how to engage with each other. Because the exciting thing about peer play is that young children make it up by themselves. And I think our role as adults is to provide a setting for them -- that's the social and emotional climate of the program -- to provide a safety net, a safe and trusting kind of a relationship that allows children to move to peer play. That's the child-teacher relationship quality. And then in order to fully understand peer play amongst very young children and those wonderful preschoolers as well, we have to think about what does the child bring into the play and what does the peer group bring to the play.
This is a diagram that explains peer play, or explains how we can promote peer play. So we have, as I said, "teacher" in very large letters, because the teacher is very important. And what the teacher does, as you'll see, there are a lot of little arrows going from the teacher to the other boxes. What the teacher does is to foster positive relationships with the children. What the teacher does is to help to make a very positive social and emotional climate inside the program. And the teacher gets to, as we'll talk about, observe and monitor peer play. Now, the child brings her own material to the play and to the teacher- child relationship quality. And of course the peer group who's in that room contributes to the peer play. So that's a quick overview of the diagram and of what we're going to talk about.
So I want to talk about what does peer play look like, particularly with the very youngest children, the babies and the toddlers. And we find that as early as six, eight, nine months of age, the babies that can raise their heads up and look around, we begin to see a kind of play or interaction beginning which we call parallel aware. And it's quick. You have to kind of watch very carefully to see it, but you'll see that one child will smile at another child as they play. They'll be watching another child play. And then they'll notice that the child is often playing with something. And this is where we find that beyond chance, that children tend to play with the same toys. And you as teachers probably know all about that because it's a really good idea, particularly for the very youngest children, to have duplicate toys. Because when one child starts playing with the toy, another child will think, "Well, that's a good idea," and start playing with the same toy, one of their own.
When we move from parallel aware play to simple social play, where you see very young children, well before they're a year old, smile and do something, which we call socially directed action, to another child. So one kid will look up, maybe make a smile, maybe just watch, and make a noise. And then the other child will look up, look at the first child, make a noise back. Now, this is essentially turn taking, or what we adults do in conversation at cocktail parties. We may not have the same topic of conversation. This is mostly a soc-- they're getting the social interaction pattern. I do something, look at you. You do something, you look back at me. And it's a very important building block of all sorts of social interactions.
When the children get a little bit more skillful -- and this play pattern comes in somewhere around 12 to 14 months -- we see something that we call complementary and reciprocal play. It simply means that instead of merely making a socially directed activity, as they did in simple social, the children start beginning with very, very rudimentary themes, which indicates that they're sharing the topic. So the very simplest game that you probably have all seen lots and lots with the little toddlers, the barely walkers, or in some cases, the crawlers, is you see a run-chase game. So one child looks at the other, maybe giggles, maybe smiles, but catches her attention, and then starts running. And the second child looks up, sees the running, chases. And then the second child turns around and runs back, and the first child follows. That's about the simplest game you can see. And one of the things I delight in doing is if I'm sitting in some public place like a park or a playground or an airport and I watch two children who I decide don't even know each other, maybe don't even speak the same language, but they get involved in one of these run-chase games.
Now, the games can get pretty complicated, and they get shared. And one shared game that's a complementary and reciprocal game that you probably have seen in your own programs, and you may not love it, but the one toddler will figure out that they can bounce their cup on the table at snack time -- plop! -- and then look at another one, and they'll pick up their cup and then plop it down, too. And so they'll be bouncing cups and maybe bouncing liquid, and lots of giggles, and it turns out to be an action reversal game, a complementary and reciprocal peer play game.
Long about the time that children are approaching their 18-month birthday, when they're beginning to engage in symbols, they may have a little bit of language, you see the very beginnings of social pretend play. And that's things like one baby picking up a little cup and offering it to the other baby, and the other baby drinks from it. Well, there's no water in the cup, but it's definitely a sharing the idea that we're having a tea party, we're playing together. Now, something about these very early peer play structures, they do start early. Children move back and forth all the way through the preschool period. They move back and forth between parallel aware, simple social, complementary and reciprocal, a little bit of pretend, then they go back to simple social. These things happen very, very quickly. And you have to be watching pretty closely to see it.
And you are not seeing what we will find out when we get into real Head Start children, the real preschoolers, we see the complex social pretend play. In complex social pretend play, as you all know, children take on roles, I'll be the firefighter, you be the person inside the burning building. They negotiate scripts: "I'll come get you really fast and get you out of that building." Or another common script: "You be the dog. I'll be the mommy. This is the daddy. This is the baby. Oh, and you can be the dog in the story." So, and what does the dog do? So, sometimes children when they get to preschool age spend as long negotiating the script, negotiating the roles, as they do actually playing. But by the time you get to children in Head Start, you see some of these play sequences lengthening. So you see 10 or 15 minutes even of a social pretend play bout. The partners may change a little, the roles may change a little. There may be a time-out while we negotiate what the children are all thinking the script is, because they may not agree.
So that's what peer play looks like. And I want to emphasize that it's a fundamental social behavior that's very important for the rest of life. It is a way that we have of engaging with others as we meet in our workplaces, in our grocery stores, and our neighbors. And it is a way of creating a complex, interesting life, as far as I'm concerned. So that's what peer play looks like.
Now, what does the child bring to peer play? You remember there was that box at the top of the diagram. So every child comes into the program at whatever age bringing some -- some things to the peer play. Now, in my work, we've been talking about home cultural communities. And sometimes the easiest way to think about that has a label. This is a child who speaks Spanish at home, their mother migrated from Mexico, they're a documented citizen. But beyond the labels, we can talk about home cultural communities as a group of people who understand how life works. There are practices and activities in the ways you do things. And this is kind of just common sense. And children grow up in these environments, and they learn how to do things. But how you do things within your home cultural community may not be the way you do things at the program. And so the child brings into the program a sense of how it all works, how I do things, how I communicate with others, how I engage with others, and it is either the same way or not the same way as the rest of the people in the program.
The children also bring into the program what I call relationship history. Now, part of a relationship history is what kinds of play they've had at home. Has it been a home where there are bigger brothers and sisters and they spend a lot of time being cared for by the older children in the family and they've been carted around being the baby in the social pretend from the time they've been two months old?
Or are they children who've really never engaged with other children, that they've been the only child in a household with a lot of adults? By relationship history, I also mean the kind of attachment relationship that they've had with the caregivers in their family. Does this kind of relationship history mean that they come into the program sure that social relationships are fabulous? They love other people, they're sure that other people will love them, and they're ready to go starting out to engage with peers? Or has this relationship history left them a little anxious? They're not really sure that they're being taken care of. They have to keep checking in with the caregiver and perhaps whining at the caregiver, because they're just not at all sure that social relationships are the kind of thing they like. Or alternatively, they've had not great experiences with relationships, and they're short, they have to be angry and aggressive, because they'd better get in their first licks, because they know that relationships are hard, difficult, and people are mean to them, that they're not a very nice kid. And so they start out pretty angry and aggressive.
And then, lastly, just by genetics and whatever, children come into the world and into the programs with various dispositions. We have the sunny, smiley child who walks in the door and we all fall absolutely in love with him or her, and she just smiles her way through peer relationships. Or we have the children who are very shy and who think the sometimes raucous and wild world of peer relations is just not where they want to be. Or we see the child who's slow to warm up, that they spend a lot of time watching what's going on before they engage. Likewise, we have children who are really good at language or at making faces that communicates language or vocalized language, that they really get the idea that they need to be chatting with people. Or we have children who really don't have very many abilities to communicate and that they then have a hard time expressing what they need and want from others. So those are the kinds of things that the children bring into the program.
Now, the teacher herself -- and I'm going to say "herself" because she's mostly a her -- also bring in a home cultural community. Again, often identified by race, ethnicity, and language. But this also means they bring into the program some sense of how children are to behave with other children, some sense of what adults are supposed to do to help children behave well with other children. They also bring in some formal education. And I want to say in formal education right now, I think we've switched so far to promoting literacy, math, science, pre-academic skills, that we've kind of neglected the social interaction skills or the peer skills. And so this teacher may have a lot of practice ideas about promoting literacy and language but not very many about promoting peer interaction.
And then, of course, everyone after their first few years has a lot of experiences in Head Start. And they really have some idea of what the children do and how we want them to be in Head Start. And finally, teachers have many, many varying beliefs about peer play and about practices about peer play. We've done an interesting little experiment in our lab that ended up to be a Master's thesis of Michelle Bajaram. And we got -- videotaped the best practice of teachers engaging with peer play. And so every little videotape has a teacher and a bunch of kids. And most of the best practice videotapes have the teacher primarily observing and monitoring. And the teachers we showed it to in our research often saw that the children were in conflict. And so they told us a lot about their worries that children were bullied, that there will be conflict. And so what we saw as really positive peer interaction, these teachers saw as conflict and something they needed to stop right away. So there are a lot of different beliefs, and then of course there are a lot of different practices about what we do about peer play, including how much time we allow during the program for peers to play with each other.
So now I'm down to the box that says the peer group. And by the peer group, I mean all the children in the program. And as we know, sometimes they're mixed ages, sometimes they're all the same age, sometimes they've come from the same home cultural community, they all speak the same language. Sometimes they come from many different home cultural communities. When my grown-up now college professor child was in her infant child care program, there were five different home languages in a classroom of eight children. And when the children began speaking and brought some language home, we weren't really sure where it came from. We were being addressed as "mama," in my case, by some other language that indicated "mother." So there's a lot of different home languages. Children sometimes pick them up and use them as their shared language. But sometimes home language is just to make it difficult if they're different for children to communicate with each other.
And finally, one of the things I hope you'll remember most from this broadcast is that children need shared experiences in play to create shared meanings. As we've talked about when I was describing peer play, the babies can't say, "Today we're going to play house." They have to have had lots of experiences playing together to be able to understand how we're going to play together or what our shared meanings are. One of the shared meanings that happened in one of the programs that I spent a lot of time in, was that there was a little curtain, and you could actually run under the curtain. And so children just thought this was the most fantastic game. You could run under the curtain, you could turn around or peek through the curtain. Somebody could run through the curtain and find you behind it.
You could pop out from behind the curtain. Well, you have to play in and out of the curtain many, many times until you understand that when a child goes over the curtain and starts moving it and smiling that this is the key to starting the game. So again, lots of shared experiences in play, the children create their own shared meanings, and the shared meanings become particular to the peer group. They're taught to the new children who join the peer group, much in the same way we know playground rounds get taught to children in middle childhood.
Now, we could spend -- new topic. We could spend a whole one of these webinars talking about child- teacher relationship quality, because it's a very big topic and extremely important for all of children's development. But I'm just going to really quickly go over why I'm emphasizing the importance of child- teacher relationship quality for peer play. Children and their teacher create a relationship. And in our work, by the time the child's been with a caregiver or teacher for about two months, they've really established a relationship. And the relationship happens from the most mundane interactions over time. So it isn't like I'm spending 15 minutes creating a good relationship with this child. It's instead, every time I engage or do not engage with the child, a relationship is formed and a child has an internal representation, we say, or a mental image of the kind of relationship that she or he has with the teacher. And they tend to act towards the teacher and towards others in the way that that relationship makes them feel. So in the best of circumstances, a teacher becomes a secure base. The child knows that the teacher loves them, they know that the teacher will take care of them, and they know that the teacher actually has their back. So they can move out into the world of peers knowing that the teacher is there as a trusted figure. And when we talk about the tiniest of little children, the children who are mostly lap children, I often think that the teachers who turn the child around so that they're holding the child but the child is looking out at the peer group are literally demonstrating that they have the child's back. They're giving them a very warm, calm place to be as they watch peers.
When the relationships between the teacher and the child are not working, they interfere with the relationships and the interactions the child can have with peers. If you have a very anxious child; the child is not at all sure that the teacher will take care of them -- sometimes she does, sometimes she doesn't: You get a child who's always checking in. That's what I call whiny little girl child, always needing help, always sure that something bad is going to happen. The teacher has to come right now and help her. And that child is so busy making sure that the teacher is watching that she fails to engage with others. And then we have the child who's sure, absolutely 100 percent positive that that teacher does not take care of them, and so they're all on their own and they'd better stay away from the teacher, because every time they get near the teacher, they seem to end up in a conflict. And so they're out there in the midst of the peer group, and what we see in our research is that children who are avoiding the teachers are children who are most likely to get into aggressive exchanges with the other children.
Moving on to the climate of the program. It's hard to engage in peer interactions, especially peer interactions that sustain when it feels like there's only conflict and unhappy relationships. Also, inside the -- inside the program where teachers are fighting with children, where children are fighting with other children, peer interaction cannot proceed in a smooth way. When we talk about
conflictual relations and harmonious relationships, we mean all the relationships that exist in the program. So if there's one child with whom a teacher has a conflictual relationship, that's the child that has a hard time sitting in circle time and is often sent out of the group, or the teacher stops everything that's going on in order to try and engage that child, the other children are sitting there watching an unpleasant interaction. They're not engaged, and they're maybe a little worried and scared that they will be the next ones involved in the conflict.
Those of you who have been learning the CLASS as a measure that looks at teacher-child relationships know the phrase "a well-oiled classroom." And that's what we mean by harmonious relationships.
They're -- the children and the teachers go about their days in harmony. The routines are well established. Children move through the day. There's not a lot of stops, starts, restarts, and there's just a positive feeling within the room.
Now, teacher-child interaction can facilitate peer play or teacher-child interaction can intrude and interrupt peer play. And the first way that facilitation and interruption can happen is simply how much time is allowed in the program day for children to be able to engage with each other. If the whole day is taken up by teacher-child interaction, then there may not be very much time left over for children having a chance to engage in peer play. I gave you the example of the teacher-child interaction where the teacher turns the child around to look at the peers. There's also teacher-child interaction that helps children notice others. There can be narration: "Oh, look, those children over there are playing a game. "You could explain that to the peer who's watching. Or, "Oh, somebody got hurt." Are we going to help that child feel more like they're part of our group? So the ways that the teacher-child interaction can refocus the child out to the peers and give them some narration, some experiences that they might have if they engage with peers that are positive.
Too often we see teacher-child interaction intruding and interrupting peer play. One common pattern that I've seen all too often is a teacher sits down next to two children who have a fragile little interaction going on, and she starts labeling and encouraging language. And frankly, she's more interesting than the peer at that point. And the interaction falls apart because the teacher has in good faith tried to encourage language. Or in other cases, she's tried to encourage pretend play, and she's such a great pretend player that everybody just stops and watches her. And their interaction with each other stops. We often see intruding where I call the teacher swooping. The teacher is not really aware that the children are engaged with each other. She decides this is the perfect time to change a diaper or to have a little one-on-one time with the child, and she swoops down, picks up the child, and that's the end of the peer play. And then sometimes teachers actually interrupt peer play because they're worried about what will happen next.
Remember I talked about turn taking or simple social interaction? We sometimes call that "toy taking." So, one very common interaction pattern with, say, 18-month to 24-month-old children is one child will be playing with a toy, and she'll hold it out to the other one. And then the second child will take it from her, and the first child will indicate, "Oops, that's not what I meant. I was showing it. I didn't mean for you to take it." And so she'll make some sort of vocalization. And the toy will either be returned back, or maybe there will be a run and chase game that happens, or maybe, in some cases, the second child will go get the other replicate toy and hand it over to the first child. So that becomes actually pretty important social interaction. The children are taking turns: one gives, the other takes; one takes, the other gives. And it can turn into a shared game, so there's actually some sort of action reversals. The toy could go up and down the sliding board and end up in the second child's hands. So, there's a lot of potential there. But it's often seen by teachers as toy taking, and so the peer play is interrupted. So, again, my word for you today is try and watch. I'm going to say this about 14 times. Try and watch what's going on and figure out what's happening before intruding and interrupting.
Now, there are times -- a child is about to fall off the loft -- where you definitely need to move in and interrupt. The child's hair may depart from their head because of a hard pulling, and then the teacher needs to say, "Let's gently touch the hair." And so I'm not saying never intrude, I'm just saying that you need to watch and be careful before you intrude.
So, now I'm going to talk about what teachers can do to encourage peer play. The first thing to do is to spend some time simply reflecting on beliefs about play. What do you think should happen? Do you think that play will best happen if you just stay out of it? Do you think that you need to be in there teaching children how to play? Do you believe that older children teach children how to play? Or do you believe that same-aged children can figure out how to play together?
Think about your practices about play. What are you doing to encourage play that doesn't involve actually engaging in play with children? Are you putting really exciting things in the dramatic play area that might encourage play? Are you slipping a toy to a child that might enhance the peer play? Or are you, as we saw, unfortunately, last week, there was a lovely infant toddler playroom, and the children were having their diapers changed one by one, and then the teacher finished diaper training -- diaper changing -- and she came over with a baby and she sat her body down right between two children who were playing. So, we had now three children, none of whom were playing. The two children had been doing very subtle eye glances and making the same action on an object, and now their actual play was blocked by a teacher in the way. So, thinking about peers, thinking about peer play, thinking about what's going on is a very important thing to do as you reflect on what you're doing about play.
And then monitor and observe in your own classroom. Who's playing with whom? How do they play? What kinds of play do you like seeing? What kinds of play do you not like seeing? Is there somebody who just seems to be watching play? Is there some way you could move that child, particularly if they're a non-crawler, closer to the play so they can see what's going on?
Then you do have a role, a very active role, in building the teacher-child relationships with each child in your classroom. And as you know, warm, sensitive and responsive interactions are the key to teacher- child positive interactions. I like to say that, as we talked about, not all children come into the classroom warm, cuddly, sociable, smiley babies. Some children come into the classroom in ways that you really would rather they not come in. They're cranky, you can't soothe them, they may be hitting. They're just really hard children. And the role of the teacher, as hard as it is for the teacher, is to disconfirm these behaviors, is to be warm, sensitive and responsive, routinely, in almost a boring way, so that the child does not entrap the teacher into conflictual interactions. Children are very good at that and very good at pulling you into behaving in ways that you don't feel very comfortable about the way you're behaving. You can kind of even play a game, saying, "I'm not going to react in this way. I'm going to take a deep breath and be warm, sensitive, and responsive, even though the child is being a total monster," that that can really enhance teacher-child relationships. And as we've said, providing a secure base so that the child can explore peer relations. Knowing that, that child knows that they can really trust you and that you're going to help them if they need help.
Now, I'm going to talk a little bit about the teachers and the social-emotional classroom climate. One of the very hardest jobs of a teacher, especially a teacher in Early Head Start, is to dual attend: Do your multitasking, be attending to the whole group and to the individual children. And I think in our professional development, we've made such a big case for attending to the individual child, with being warm, sensitive and responsive to individual children. And that's important. But we have to also remind you to attend to the whole group. So that you need to be finding ways to bring the children together as a community, as a group, as a group that knows they belong together. And so that other children can provide safe and trustworthy climates for each other as well as the teacher being the secure base.
So, I've done some observing in other countries than the United States, and one of the things that I just loved on this point was in an infant center in France, there was a -- something that looked to me like a closet. It was about 4 feet by 6 feet. And circle time was held in that closet, and not a circle, obviously. And they crammed about three caregivers and ten children into that little space. Babies -- you know, they weren't very big, but they were in extremely close proximity to each other. And everyone had their arms around each other, and that's when the story happened. And it only lasted maybe five minutes, and then the children spilled out of the closet. But it really made the children know from their bodies that they were inside one group. And such a contrast to our circle times, when we generally tell the children to sit on their own bottoms and keep their fingers to themselves and not be in any kind of proximity to other children. So that's an example that's from another culture. It may not work in your program. But what I'm asking you to do is to pay attention to the whole group as well as paying attention to the individual children. Try and stretch yourself to do that so that you are providing a safe and trustworthy climate for all children.
Now, beyond reminding yourself and the children that you are all part of one community, that also means that you don't make fun of children in front of the group, you don't say, "Oh, this baby, if it doesn't stop crying!" You could go whisper that to a coworker, out of the sound of children. And you need to keep telling children that they're all worthwhile parts of our group. There's another program that I spend a lot of time in that's decided that there are no more time-outs. And this is a program for severely emotionally disturbed children. So, time-outs were very, very common. And they decided that instead of sending the children out of the community that they would pull them into the community. So, there's a lot of teachers saying to children, "I'm going to keep you on my lap. You're going to have to sit quietly with me, because I am going to keep you safe and I'm going to keep the other children safe from you, but you are part of the group." So again, think about these things. They're a little bit different than sometimes we think of as best practice. But the main point here is to make sure that you're providing a safe and trustworthy climate for all of the children in the group.
And finally, observe and appreciate peer play in your classroom or your program. I find one of my greatest pleasures is just being on the lookout. I'm not in the classroom, but I am on the lookout for peer play. And about two days ago -- I live on a walk-street, actually, in Venice, California, where all our front yards intersect with each other. And there was a two-year-old across the walk who has had a new baby in the family, and it hasn't been the best experience. Another little neighborhood kid came over to play, and this little boy stood up on his porch and announced in such a loud voice that the whole neighborhood could hear that they were going to play house, and he was going to be the baby. And there was a lot of emotional energy in that, and I just chuckled. I thought, "There we go. We're finding -- " The two kids toddled off and played very nicely house, and he was the baby. He needed to be a baby that day. So, as you watch the children in your classroom playing, you may just find little moments to chuckle and to think about, yes, that's who he is. He's playing that way. And isn't it fun to watch? So that is the end. I'm going to now find out if you have questions.Close
In this webinar, see examples of the beginnings of social pretend play in infants and toddlers. Find out how early play transforms into more developed social pretend play as children become preschoolers. Theories of how both home and school cultural communities influence the development of social pretend play are addressed, as well as strategies for how Head Start and Early Head Start programs can encourage social play.