Helene Guldberg: important insights into what drives children's development

Dr Helene Guldberg is author of Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear. She is co-founder and director of spiked, the first custom-built online current affairs publication in the UK. After working as a primary school teacher, Guldberg obtained a PhD in developmental psychology from the university of Manchester. She currently teaches undergraduate and post-graduate courses in developmental psychology with the Open University and the US study abroad centres, CAPA and IES.

Science is important for a whole host of reasons. For me - although some do dispute the claim that psychology and social science generally is ‘science’- research in developmental psychology has given us great insights into how children think and develop.

For instance, the Swiss polymath Jean Piaget, one of the most influential developmental psychologists of the twentieth century, spent hours observing children at play. He concluded that play lifts children’s thinking to a higher level and helps them make sense of social experiences.

The role of play in helping children make sense of relationships was also explored by the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. In the essay Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming, first presented as a lecture in 1907, he drew comparisons between children’s make-believe play and creative writing: ‘The child’s best-loved and most intense occupation is with his play or games. Might we not say that every child at play behaves like a creative writer, in that he creates a world of his own, or rather, re-arranges the things of his world in a new way which pleases him?’ (Freud 1908: 143).

Like the creative writer, children create a world of fantasy - a world that they take very seriously. They invest their fantasy world with large amounts of emotion while separating it from reality. And because it is separate from reality the exploration of even distressing emotions can be pleasurable. So fantasy play gives children the opportunity to explore different emotions, social roles and relationships, and try to make sense of their world. The adult world can be rather perplexing, even frightening, to a young child. Through imaginary play, they can act out different emotional responses to situations they are not quite sure how to handle.

Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky also recognized the role of play in developing children’s thinking. In the ground-breaking book Mind and Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, written in the 1930s but first translated into English in 1978, Vygotsky wrote that: ‘In play the child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behaviour; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself’ (Vygotsky 1978: 102). In a certain sense, play is the leading source of development in preschool years, Vygostky argued. Like Piaget, Vygotsky showed that imagination and make-believe play a significant role of in children’s development: ‘Imagination is a new formation that is not present in the consciousness of the very young child, is totally absent in animals, and represents a specifically human form of conscious activity’ (Vygotsky 1978: 93).

Key theoreticians and thinkers within developmental psychology have show that children’s thinking is qualitatively different from that of adults. They have also given us important insights into what drives children’s development at different stages of their lives.

This is just one reason why I believe science is important.

One Comment

  1. bob bobson
    Posted March 27, 2011 at 12:21 PM | Permalink | Reply

    absoloutly rubbish

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