The development of children plays an important role in building a strong and fair society in the United Kingdom. There are many ways in which childhood may be represented within the UK context, and one of them is selecting play for social, emotional, and educational development in different periods. Play allows making various attitudes, understanding the worth of cooperation and communication, and developing perceptions. This paper introduces the play concept and its impact on child development through years, depending on such factors as gender, race, ethnicity, family, class, and abilities. Children themselves are responsible for constructing their knowledge by building and learning from their experiences. Play allows integrating personal skills, awareness, needs, and expectations regarding different historical perspective and the UK content. Despite the existing gender, racial, and social variety, play helps children strengthen their physical, cognitive, and emotional skills, proving their recognition as co-constructors of knowledge.
Childhood Historical Perspective
There are many reasons for exploring the historical perspective of child development in the UK context. One of the distinctive features is the role of cultural background and people in the growth and formulation of an individual. For example, Buttaro et al. (2021) underline that early childhood is a critical period in human development, and children’s activities may depend on the area they live in, social housing, local services, and minority distinctions. In the previous decade, the British Social Attitudes report the UK was not as successful in promoting children’s well-being as the representatives of other developing nations (Clery, 2012). Only seven out of ten respondents believed Britain is a good place for growth (Clery, 2012). Besides, research proves that most Britain (69%) thought that in 2010, it was less safe for children to play outside than it was ten years ago (Clery, 2012). Although some communities have increased educational opportunities due to the Children Act 1898 and Children’s Social Care services, the general population is still at risk of biased assessments (Jay and Grath-Lone, 2019). The country has a solid background for providing children with good education and care.
In the UK, the work of the government affects early child development and educational decision-making processes. Since 1999, political devolution has reshaped responsibilities between the governments from national to local levels to make sure communities can get answers quickly and up to a point (Black et al., 2020). Local authorities must investigate their available resources and conditions to ensure that children have the best start in their life in terms of public health, education, and welfare (Black et al., 2020). Early childhood programs vary in quality and stakeholders, which promotes creativity and intellectual skills in different subjects (Black et al., 2017). Legislation of child protection is a serious question in the UK society, and people are interested in what the government can do for the young population’s safe future. From the first child abuse inquiry in 1945 to today’s latest guidance for safeguarding in Wales and Scotland, the UK Department of Education has set out clear policies to empower children and their families (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, 2021). These achievements represent childhood as a crucial period of social development among UK citizens.
Play as a Method of Teaching and Cooperation
Many academic activities and educational approaches were offered to British children in the past and are developed today to promote their growth and development at different levels. One of the most recognised and increasingly appreciated forms of education is play. Either today or several decades ago, children remain exposed to many forms of play, including creative play, social play, imaginary activities, and outdoor activities (Dodd et al., 2021). In addition, since childhood should never be seen in isolation, it is correct to admit that children, as co-constructors of knowledge, should use play for different purposes that have slightly changed with time (Gallacher and Kehily, 2013). Waller (2005) quoted Frones and defined childhood as “the life period during which a human being is regarded as a child, and the cultural, social and economic characteristics of that period” (p. 55). Childhood plays are rooted in contemporary social, political, and political changes, explaining the differences in approaches and techniques.
A variety of plays for children is impressive because it is important to cover as many developmental issues as possible. Athey (2018) admits that play is a broad concept in which children demonstrate different behaviours, including imitation of adult activities, the development of practical skills, and expeditions of the environment. Games may be spontaneous or well-planned, active or passive, private or in groups (Athey, 2018). In most cases, young children need additional help and supervision to ensure their plays are safe and effective for their emotional and physical development. Several decades ago, it was believed that play should not be a serious activity but one characterised by triviality, diverting fantasy, and fun (Jenks, 2005). Today, more plays are treated as thoughtful, rigorous, and factual contributions to child development, while others should be considered unrealistic ideas and context. In any case, play is a pleasant activity to help the child achieve the best results, meet personal needs and demands, and show progress.
Despite the ambiguity of play in childhood, some concerns challenge parents and educators. Play is a significant element of a child’s work as an equal member of the community (Jenks, 2005). Cognitive, social, and emotional well-being may be regulated through play. If children are properly involved in play, they can develop confidence, high self-esteem, independence, and collaborative skills (Martin, 2016; Spencer et al., 2019). However, their progress or mistakes depend not only on personal qualities and knowledge but also on many external factors because games and other play-related interactions are associated with the discursive articulation dilemma (Drotner, 2005). With time, gender diversity, racial and ethnic inequality, class and family issues, quality of games and toys, and even physical abilities of children continue defining the process of playing. The ways in which childhood is represented through play and preferences in different times include the evaluation of all these factors and impacts.
Childhood is a period of multiple experiences that depend on different things, including parental involvement, social norms, and stereotypes. Gender role socialisation has been frequently supported in play activities through social media, news, and films after human rights and freedoms were approved and promoted (The Children’s Society, 2020). Wells (2009) mentioned two gender theories: socialisation in the past (caregivers teach a child to be a member of society according to gender) and performativity in the present (a child behaves without gender determination). Researchers pay attention to gender identity from early years because it means the necessity to set cognitions that may be promoted through play (Perry, Pauletti and Cooper, 2019). Despite the intention to create an equal and fair society, many children and young people continue living in gendered environments determined by the presence of specific toys, thematic playgrounds, and even colour choices.
Children learn and understand the world differently, but, in most cases, they have access to the same social norms and sources of information, meaning toys. Lipowska and Łada-Maśko (2021) discuss the characteristics of gender-typed toys and conclude that modern stereotypical beliefs make females more cooperative and supportive while males remain independent and agent-oriented. In the past, gender affected the size of groups on playgrounds and children’s behaviours (Asik-Ozturk, Ahmetoglu and Acar, 2019). Male and female children were divided for play to learn their specific obligations in society: girls and boys, pink and blue, princesses and knights. Modern children depend on their parents’ choice and play with the offered toys and animated content to identify themselves (England, Descartes and Collier-Meek, 2011). Thus, many modern parents consider the possibility of gender-neutral toys and activities to avoid gender stereotypes and promote experimental thinking (Kollmayer et al., 2018). In other words, the analysis of the historical perspective shows that gender roles were highly promoted several decades ago, while modern families prefer gender-neutral play and options.
The impact of play on children’s social and language development remains significant. Social skills, communication, assessment, and decision-making are developed within playground environments and at home. Today, children use social play for their growth and penetration into a world full of diversity, inequality, and biases (Bluiett, 2018). In the past, childhood was a period when children were involved in activities with their parents as per gender: boys cooperated with fathers, and girls learned how to cook or clean with their mothers. The way of how they construct their knowledge in the past was predetermined by gender roles, while today’s construction of knowledge aims to improve living standards, encourage affluence, and explain the importance or inevitability of standards.
Race and Ethnicity Factors
Race and ethnicity concerns introduce one of the most burning topics in many countries, including the UK, during the last several centuries. Although not many families found it necessary to talk about racial disparities in childhood in the past, researchers and psychologists underline the need to discuss these themes in the form of play and unobtrusive communication today (Belli, 2020; Weir, 2021). Regardless of the period, children are born innocent, pure, and even colourblind (quoted in Farago, Davidson and Byrd, 2019). In the past, parents did not support communication between races and tried not to create extra opportunities for interracial cooperation. Today, parents are not as strict to such relations as they were, but some children prefer to play with mates who have similar skin colours (Belli, 2020; Wells, 2009). Thus, personal judgements about people of colour were not removed, just reconsidered. Marquet et al. (2019) correctly define the race-ethnicity factor as an unconscious bias on playgrounds and parks. Parents do not believe they need to explain colour differences to their children, who, in their turn, cannot learn how to accept race and ethnicity properly.
There are many examples of how children make racially biased conclusions about their games, cartoons, and stories. In childhood, individuals become the major constructors of knowledge by relying on their experiences and reflections on what they see and observe (Gallacher and Kehily, 2013). According to Lingras (2021), young people notice race from an early age and try to understand these differences independently because adult caregivers prefer to keep silent and allow stereotypes and racism to grow. During play, children are expected to divide roles as per their interests. However, Lingras (2021) notices that children, either white or black, agree that Cinderella cannot be Mexican or black. It was the decisions from the past to create a white character, and modern people should live in a world where race and ethnicity create additional challenges for play. Besides, today, the pandemic provokes negative attitudes toward Chinese children, white parents avoid buying black dolls, and white peers bully black students at schools (Lingras, 2021; Okolosie, 2019; Richards, Putnick and Bornstein, 2020). These observations are made in modern England, where many ethnic minorities continue facing racism regularly.
Family and Class Factors
In addition to the impact of racial and gender differences, the process of children’s socialisation, including all the necessary physical, emotional, and intellectual changes, is influenced by family and community. In the past, when children played with their peers, it was hard to control their emotions and met social norms. Today, the engagement of parents is characterised by solid learning outcomes and emotional stability in childhood (Ayoub, 2021; Nandy, Nixon and Quigley, 2020). Despite various playgrounds and services, family life remains one of the best learning environments for children because parents follow their children’s curiosity and offer the things and ideas that contribute to their well-being (Lin and Li, 2018; Stephens, 2007). When family support is offered, young children feel safe and comfortable in any activity.
There is a common belief that learning and cooperation are better arranged in special pre-school settings and playgrounds, diminishing the role of native homes and families. As well as several decades ago, in rich families, parents could allow paying for additional care and supervision. In contrast, low-income families needed to earn a living, combine household activities, and improve their children social and cognitive skills (Qian, 2020). Thus, class differences in play also represent childhood as a significant period in human life when social constructions became the responsibility of a child. Some children spend much time at home, developing interactions with siblings, playing, and supporting each other (The United Nations Children’s Fund, 2018b). Modern parents specify their roles in their children’s lives, but the impact of toys and media is inevitable even with increased parental involvement (Shah, Gustafson and Atkins, 2019). Therefore, the family factor and class differences may define childhood due to missed and obtained financial opportunities, choices, and a variety of entertainment for children.
Children’s Abilities and Games
Play helps children develop certain cognitive skills, control emotions, communicate, and understand friendship and the quality of human relationships. Children with disabilities may need play and friendship more than other children because it allows them to feel better and have fun (Play and friendship for children with disability, 2019). Today, in Europe, there are many specialised programmes and policies to support families who have children with disabilities, not to promote the growth of vulnerability to discrimination and segregation (The United Nations Children’s Fund, 2018a). In the past, disability was a serious problem, and not many families were ready to cope with it and offer children enough care and entertainment activities. However, despite the era, children with disabilities demonstrate different attitudes toward play: some prefer to stay isolated, while others do not want to be distinguished on the playground. In any case, play is a critical component in children’s relationships and a significant component in school readiness (Barton, Choi and Mauldin, 2019; Movahedazarhouligh, 2018). Parents and caregivers find it necessary to involve children in games and other activities to avoid the existing differences in childhood.
However, if people do not want to notice disabilities, they never stop existing. Living with disabilities was and is not easy, and families should be ready to face challenges and obligations. Brodin (2018) recommends focusing on the child’s needs and training worth at the same time. There is no need to remind about disabilities all the time, but this peculiarity should not be forgotten. Children with disabilities may or may not want to play, still, they always expect family reliance in most of their activities (McGarty, Westrop and Melville, 2021). Play’s social and cognitive benefits for children with disabilities are vital because they reduce stress levels, motivate, and encourage for development.
Quality of Toys and Emotional Development
Technological progress and the development of new digital toys and games have a tremendous impact on childhood representation. If several years ago, children were obsessed with spending much time outdoors, playing with their peers and classmates, today, they are ready to spend days in front of their computers or other available gadgets. Many researchers admit the effect of gadgets on children’s development, underlying positive and negative changes (Adhikari, 2021; Impact of technology on kids today, 2019). In a short period, children of any age get access to media sources, making the government and policymakers analyse and assess the impact of the media on young users (Kline, 2005). It is not enough to impose restrictions but to measure activities and take the best from technology.
Children continue making choices to support their technological advancement and do not want to find more time for their families and friends. Instead of admiring handmade toys, they prefer to buy a new gadget and build a civilisation online. Handicraft and physical toys like Lego promoted imaginative play and the development of word usage, narrations, and emotions (Yazgin, 2021). Today’s world of toys is based on technologies like PlayStations or iPads and increased intentions to educate and create more learning opportunities in childhood (Heljakka and Ihamäki, 2018). Mobile communication, trackers, and other gadgets help parents control their children distantly, avoiding face-to-face communication (Healey et al., 2019). Besides, some parents believe that technology could liberate their children’s spontaneity and enhance their imaginations from multiple perspectives (Buckingham, 2009). In the past, childhood contained wooden toys, marbles, dolls for girls, and soldiers for boys. Today, the line between male and female technologies becomes insignificant because children can choose games on their gadgets and avoid dependence on parental or community choice.
Regarding rich history of play in the UK, its importance in childhood cannot be neglected, regardless of the factors that affect people’s choices. Children of all genders, races, and ethnicities admired play in the past and make use of it in the present. Play is not just an opportunity for entertainment and cooperation but a chance to learn the world and use creativity for social construction. Toys’ transformations have recently occurred in the UK because of digitalisation and globalisation, but the main idea is that play is necessary for childhood to support a child as a social constructor of knowledge. The chosen historical perspective proves that childhood is socially constructed, meaning that it is not a single natural process but social change that happens through play (i.e., individual activities with or without gadgets, common games with peers, discoveries, and toys). Children may spend some time playing with parents or other caregivers not exposed to racial or gender diversity. Play represents childhood as one of the most critical periods in human life when cognitive, physical, social, and emotional changes occur.
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