Quinn, Sara Jane
Theory in developmental psychology has long recognised commonalities between symbolic play and language, yet approaches differ in the importance they assign to the role of symbolic play in language acquisition (e.g., constructivist theory, Piaget, 1962; socio-cultural theory, Vygotsky, 1978). This thesis examines the nature of the relationship between the two domains in early childhood, with a focus on whether the context of symbolic play provides a fertile context for language development...[Show more] (Bruner, 1983; Vygotsky, 1962, 1978). Study 1 presents a quantitative review of the accumulated empirical evidence in the field. A meta-analysis of correlational symbolic play-language studies was conducted, with thirty-one studies meeting the criteria for inclusion (N = 6,561). The results revealed a direct relationship between the two domains: growth in symbolic play ability was associated with growth in language, a relationship that was evident concurrently and longitudinally. The results established beyond doubt that there is a significant association between symbolic play and language in development, addressing recent queries to the contrary that have been made on the basis of qualitative reviews (Lillard et al., 2013). A longitudinal study of 54 parent-infant dyads is then reported. Parents and their infants were observed engaging in different types of play contexts (functional, symbolic). Using these data Studies 2 and 3 investigated the influence of play contexts on verbal and socio-cognitive communicative acts used in parent-infant interaction when infants were 18 months old. Study 2 found play context influenced child-directed speech: in functional play parents were more likely to comment on (declaratives) and direct their infant's behaviour (imperatives), whereas in symbolic play parents presented infants with more opportunities to participate in conversation through the use of wh- and yes/no-questions. This lead to a greater number of conversational turns in the symbolic play condition. Study 3 revealed differences in socio-cognitive communicative acts across play contexts: the frequency and duration of joint attention was greater and encouraged gesture use in symbolic play compared to functional play. Overall Studies 2 and 3 suggest symbolic play is an environment that encourages the use of specific verbal and socio-cognitive communicative acts, which provides infants with opportunities to participate and engage in interactions. Study 4 examined whether the verbal and socio-cognitive communicative acts characteristic of functional and symbolic play, as identified in Studies 2 and 3, predicted infant language growth over the following 6 months. Conversational turns and imperatives were consistently correlated with infant language knowledge at 18, 21 and 24 months. When controlling for infant age and language proficiency at 18 months, conversational turns positively predicted vocabulary production at 18 and 24 months, whereas imperatives negatively predicted infant language growth and syntactic complexity at 24 months. Therefore, two features which distinguish functional and symbolic play, the use of imperatives and conversational turns, had differential longitudinal effects on infant language development, with the greater interactional complexity characteristic of symbolic play positively predicting development. It is concluded that the socio-cognitive ecology of symbolic play has a positive effect on language development via its tendency to engage interlocutors in the shared exchange and negotiation of meaning.
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