Grant to Study the Development of Play in Early Childhood
The U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences recently awarded three Northeastern professors a four-year $1.6 million grant to perform a rigorous assessment of how young children play. The goal of the study is the comprehensive analysis and improvement of the Developmental Play Assessment (DPA), originally constructed by Karin Lifter, into an assessment that serves as a basis for education practice and policy. The research will result in a tool for educators and practitioners to use when assessing children’s play skills within the context of determining their broader development.
The three professors who received the award are Karin Lifter, Emanuel Mason, and Takuya Minami of the Department of Counseling and Applied Educational Psychology at Bouvé. Their research shows that the way children play can provide critical insight into the development of a child’s unique method of learning.
“Our view is that play provides a window into a child’s thoughts and mental capabilities in sequences that we can observe and code through play behaviors,. These analyses are useful for designing effective instructional strategies. We think that play is a 6th domain that should be used to round out the traditional five assessment domains specified in federal law for serving children with delays and disabilities,” says Lifter.
Lifter explains that delays and limitations in play often correspond with lags in other learning behavior. For example, the ability of a young child to create relationships between toys in a meaningful way, such as reassembling a simple puzzle, directly corresponds to transitions in language, such as the emergence of first words. Children who don’t yet speak tend to display play activities that are limited to activities of taking the puzzle apart. As children develop, more sophisticated play corresponds with a higher level of language and learning skills, she says.
As part of the study, researchers will observe approximately 820 children (with and without identified developmental delays) ranging in age from 8 months to 60 months playing with groups of toys in 30-minute sessions that will be recorded and analyzed. Researchers and practitioners participating in the project will place four groups of toys in front of each child to observe, record, and code the play behaviors. The data will be organized into developmental sequences. Delays, emerging skills, and patterns of play will be identified. A checklist will be generated for each child’s progress that will act as an instructional guide for future play sessions.
“This is not about teaching children how to play with toys, but rather using children’s play with toys to show us what children know and what they are thinking about in their development,” Lifter says. The research will expand and enhance knowledge and instructional interventions for young children who are experiencing delays by providing a cutting edge assessment instrument in a playful but mindful manner.