Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Faculty of Education


This research was to understand some of the important factors influencing the development of symbolic play in young children aged from 18 to 30 months. Most researchers and practitioners recognise play as developmentally beneficial in early childhood. Fisher (1992) in a meta-analysis of over 40 studies of children and play identified 'child-orientated' play - which includes symbolic or pretend play - as influential in enhancing young children's cognitive and social development. The current project, undertaken in long-day child-care centres investigated the influences of older peers on the development of symbolic play in young children. It was hypothesised that toddlers who engaged in free play with older peers would exhibit symbolic-play activity more frequently and at enhanced levels than when engaged in free play with their sameage peers.

Data collection comprised observations of children at play in: same-age outdoor free play, mixed-age outdoor free play, and dyad free play. The older peers' ages ranged from three and a half to approximately five years of age. Three, ten-minute observations of the participant in each condition were video-taped. In the dyad condition, the participant was paired with a familiar and 'self-chosen' older peer who was requested to help the younger child play with three different sets of equipment, each of which was likely to elicit symbolic play. Video-taped segments were rated every 30 seconds for the frequency and level of symbolic play in each of the four dimensions ('decontextualisation', 'thematic content', 'organisation of themes', and self-other relationships') identified by Westby (1991). The data gathered assisted the assessment of the level of the toddlers' symbolic play.

The parents of the toddler participants completed questionnaires providing information regarding: children's activities and interests; parental expectations of their child's developmental outcomes, and the socio-economic status of the family. Questionnaires completed by LDCCC staff members indicated the value they placed upon play and other components of the program; and the level of training and qualifications achieved in Early-Childhood Education by the respondent.

Results showed that toddlers engaged in free play in the dyad condition (Condition Three) displayed symbolic play more frequently and at higher, more complex levels than when engaged in same-age play or mixed-age play. A sibling effect was also found: toddlers who were 'first-borns' engaged in symbolic play more frequently and at higher, more complex levels in mixed-age play (Condition Two ) than in either of the other two conditions.

It is suggested that older peers when engaged with younger toddler-aged children assume the role of the 'more-skilled other' (Vygotsky, 1987) providing 'guided participation' (Rogoff, 1990) for the toddler operating in their zone of proximal development. Additionally, dyad play is likely to support the mechanisms of 'joint attention' (Tomasello, 1995) or 'joint involvement' (Schaffer, 1996) considered as instrumental in human social cognition.