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Early peer play: the roles of temperament and socio-emotional understanding in young children’s social competence

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posted on 2023-06-07, 16:15 authored by Kay Helen Mathieson
Peer interactions are recognised as playing a key role in the development of children, but we lack detailed analysis of individual differences in the early peer play of preschoolers. Five data sets are used to explore aspects of children’s developing social competence between the ages of 2 and 5 years. Four of the five research investigations were carried out in day nurseries, and the remaining study was conducted in a reception class (children aged 5 years), all in a London Local Authority. The first paper explores core elements of peer play which can be identified through direct observation. It serves the dual purpose of highlighting children’s real life experience of making social connections through peer interactions and exploring the key dimensions of verbal and nonverbal behaviour that support such connections. Papers 2 and 3 are mainly focused on exploring the different perspectives of parents and practitioners in their views of children’s current social adjustment, with additional reports on child temperament from parents and reports on peer play from practitioners. Finally, Papers 4 and 5 explore in greater depth a range of potential predictors of young children’s social competence, including temperament and socioemotional understanding. Being able to recognise individual differences in patterns of play specifically in terms of levels of interaction and disconnection led to the use of the Penn Interactive Peer Play Scale throughout the remaining studies. The notable differences in levels of successful interactivity underlined the need to measure children’s effectiveness in using a range of abilities to establish and maintain engagement with play partners. The further studies involved a total of 516 practitioner reports and 179 parent reports on children’s behaviour, social competencies and temperament, as well as 123 direct assessments of children’s socio-emotional understanding. Matched parent and practitioner questionnaires were used to examine similarities and differences in adult perceptions and interpretations of children’s peer play. Levels of convergence between parent and practitioner views of children’s socio-behavioural functioning were found to change as children get older, from an early convergence on prosocial behaviours to a later convergence on problem behaviours. The results also highlighted the particular roles of temperament and socioemotional understanding in peer play. Effortful control was found to be a significant predictor of positive, interactive play. Furthermore, socio-emotional understanding – as assessed through the use of simple structured tasks and hypothetical scenarios – was found to predict patterns of interactive play, thereby evidencing the sociocognitive factors involved in effective peer interactions. Gender differences were also evident, suggesting that girls and boys may rely on different attributes and skills to forge social connections. The key findings are discussed with attention to their implications for effective practice in early years provision, developing our understanding of early social competence from different perspectives. Directions for further research are presented.


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