Whether it being playing "mums and dads" or make-believe, kids at play can demonstrate highly developed skills in managing and manipulating peer interaction, a Queensland University of Technology researcher said.
After a month of "fly on the wall" observations in a prep year classroom, QUT PhD education researcher Charlotte Cobb-Moore discovered that children drew upon a variety of strategies to manage their play with peers.
"Children can be competent interactors and don't always need adults to intervene," Ms Cobb-Moore said.
"They are often capable of sorting out interaction problems on their own and have strategies to manage each other's behaviour."
Ms Cobb-Moore said she undertook her study to provide detailed accounts of what children actually did when they interacted with each other.
She spent a month videoing children aged four-and-a-half to almost six-years-old during free-play time at prep, and spent many more months transcribing and analysing what they said and did.
"It's important for teachers to understand how kids interact with each other, but because they are so busy when they are teaching, they often don't have the time to simply observe children's interactions in fine detail," she said.
"In analysing children's peer interactions in detail, I observed the children draw upon a variety of strategies to organise their play, including: the device of justification, the category of 'mother' and pretence."
Ms Cobb-Moore said pretence involved children pretending objects were something other than what they actually were, which enabled the children to prevent or enable peer participation.
"Drawing upon pretence, a child told his peers the pile of blocks he was playing with was a locked gate, thus locking others out," she said.
"However, another child said a block he had been pretending was a car could fly, enabling him get over the locked gate and gain access to the place beyond it.
"In playing the game 'mums and dads', one girl was seen to draw upon the category of 'mother' to organise play and discipline her peers. The other children took the game very seriously and reacted to her as if she really was their mother, thus co-constructing her authority.
"In another interaction, children used the device of justification to organise ownership rights of a wooden block. When the 'owner' of a block was called away from the area, the other children used justification to debate possession of the block. Upon the 'owner's return, justification was used to provide reasons for possession of the block and finally for the owner to regain possession of it."
Ms Cobb-Moore said it was important to know how children interacted.
"Both national and international policy relate to the importance of the early years and young people's participation in activities, but it is not well informed on how young children actually participate in their everyday lives," she said.
Media contact: Rachael Wilson, QUT media officer, 07 3138 1150 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
**High res image of Charlotte Cobb-Moore available