2011. Vol. 2, No. 1, 41-46
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/ce.2011.21006
Teachers’ Perceptions about the Use of Play to Facilitate
Development and Teach Prosocial Skills
Michelle Haney, Victor Bissonnette
Berry College, Mount Berry, USA.
Received January 5th, 2011; revised February 21st, 2011; accepted February 24th, 2011.
The purpose of this study was to investigate teachers’ perceptions about the use of play to promote social, emo-
tional, and cognitive skills to support planning for a school program aimed at increasing inclusive pl a y for young
children. This research was inspired by Vivian Gussin Paley’s book, You Can’t Say You Can’t Play (1992). Par-
ticipants included undergraduate students and graduate education students in the Teacher Education Program at
a small liberal arts college, as well as practicing elementary school teachers. The results indicated that graduate
students and practicing teachers had a more accurate understanding about the developmental benefits of incor-
porating play into the classroom and a greater willingness to embrace the “you can’t say you can’t play” rule to
promote inclusive play and acceptance. Implications for designing a preventative program for inclusive play in
young children are discussed.
Keywords: Children, Play, Inclusion
Play is an important experience for children. Young children
recognize social play as essential for connecting to their peers.
Social play opportunities promote social competence in a vari-
ety of ways including strengthening skills such as sharing, per-
spective taking, and negotiating. Social play opportunities also
enhance conflict resolution skills and enrich self concept (Frost,
Wortham, & Reifel, 2001). In addition, emotional development
is supported as children develop self-esteem through play by
becoming more skilled with regulation of affect and learning to
identify emotional states of others (Grolnick & Slowiaczek,
1994; Lindsey & Colwell, 2003; Normandeau & Guay, 1998).
Through conflicts and resolutions embedded in social play,
children learn to handle internal and external conflicts in an
appropriate manner. Furthermore, play has the potential to
strengthen empathy and sensitivity towards others through per-
spective taking. As children gain experience imagining what
others are thinking and feeling, they become more skilled in
expressing empathy and compassion towards others (Frost,
Wortham, & Reifel, 2001).
Developmental theorists Piaget and Vygotsky provide frame-
works for considering the cognitive implications of play for
development. While Piaget describes play as practice for
strengthening of skills and existing schema (i.e., assimilation),
Vygotsky ascribes a more central role of play as a mechanism
for building cognitive structures, such as symbolic representa-
tion. Building upon these theories, there are many ways in
which engaging in play facilitates the development of cognitive
skills. For instance, through fantasy play children begin using
symbols. Symbolic representation is the fundamental cognitive
skill underlying literacy, writing, mathematics, and other com-
plex skills essential for functioning in modern cultures.
Through social play, particularly fantasy play, children develop
theory of mind, the understanding that others experience unique
thoughts (Astington & Jenkins, 1995; Watson, Linkie-Nixon,
Wilson, & Capage, 1999). Contemporary researchers have ex-
tended these theoretical considerations to address the role of
play in literacy development (Owocki, 1999; Roskos & Neu-
man, 1998), attachment to caregivers Kerns & Barth , 1995;
Schiffman, 2003), social competence in a variety of settings
(Connolly & Doyle, 1984), and assessment of functioning
(Casby, 2003). Furthermore, when children demonstrate proso-
cial inclusive behaviors, classrooms become environments
conducive to overall learning (Wentzel, 1991).
Although teachers seem to acknowledge the role of play in
developing skills, they seem unsure of how to utilize play in an
instructional manner (Saracho & Spodek, 1998). Despite a
plethora of research suggesting positive outcomes associated
with opportunities to engage in social play and negative out-
comes associated with peer rejection, there is often a hands-off
policy during recess and free-play time in school. Teachers tend
to underestimate the prevalence of bullying and do not appear
to recognize their potential role as preventing violence and
promoting prosocial skill development (Rodkin & Hodges,
2003). When teachers do attempt to implement strategies sup-
porting friendships among children in their classrooms, often
indirect strategies such as providing free time for play, allowing
children to choose with whom they would like to play, and
making informal comment on the play between friends are used
(Buysee, Goldman, & Skinner, 2003). Overall, there appears
lacking a curriculum or integrated strategy to weave teaching of
prosocial interactions into the entire school day.
A promising approach to promoting prosocial skill develop-
ment involves directly addressing skills promoting mutual ac-
ceptance and respect within a natural context. An example of
this approach is the “You can’t say you can’t play” rule origi-
nated by veteran kindergarten teacher, Vivian Gussin Paley
(1992). The “You can’t say you can’t play” strategy embraces a
philosophy different from traditional intervention techniques
which are often based on a medical model of fixing the deficit
(Zakriski, Jacobs, & Coie, 1997). In the case of a lonely and
withdrawn child, a deficit based intervention might identify and
remediate difficulties with the child’s social skills. Thus, the
responsibility for inclusion and acceptance is put on the re-
jected child rather than on the social community in which the
child functions. In contrast to the medical model, Paley ’s “You
can’t say you can’t play” strategy reframes the problem using a
social-ecological approach targeting the entire classroom com-
munity. No longer does the problem belong solely to the re-
jected child. Instead, the entire classroom, children and teacher,
must work together to directly address the complex issues sur-
rounding inclusion and tolerance.
Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological systems theory captures
the central goals of the “You can’t say” strategy. In a review of
the literature on bullying and victimization, Espelage and
Swearer (2003) advocate for interventions utilizing Brofen-
brenner’s theoretical framework in which individual factors are
considered within multiple contexts of environmental factors
that influence and are influenced by one another. However,
there exist few empirically validated studies on class-wide so-
cial intervention programs (Brown, Odom, & Conroy, 2001).
A handful of studies exist in which Paley’s rule is imple-
mented and evaluated. Sapon-Shevin (1998) explored imple-
mentation of the “You can’t say you can’t play” rule in four
different classrooms, including kindergarten, first, second, and
fourth grade classes. Anecdotal teacher reports of the effec-
tiveness and ease of implementation in their respective class-
rooms were quite positive. Adopting a more quantitative ap-
proach, Harrist and Bradley (2003) identified six kindergarten
classes to implement the strategy over the course of the year.
Pre and posttest data were collected via sociometric interviews,
teacher report, and children self-report within six target and
four control classrooms representing three different schools.
Students in the target classrooms reported enjoying playing
with each other significantly more than before the intervention
(based on sociometric status), with a moderate effect size. The
authors suggested that more time may be needed to implement
the rule in order to detect behavioral effects on student interac-
tions. Another possible limitation to this study was that the
rule was implemented, not by the classroom teacher, but by a
research assistant who visited the class on a weekly basis. In
fact, Harrist and Bradley (2003) recommended that future re-
search assess teacher’s commitment to implementing the rule
(treatment fidelity). They noted that only limited anecdotal
information was obtained regarding teacher attitude about the
rule and their commitment to implementation. Such informa-
tion would be useful to teacher training and evaluation of valid
outcomes. Although not routinely incorporated into interven-
tion programs, failure of teachers to commit to comprehensive
implementation of intervention strategies can negatively impact
treatment effectiveness (Detrich, 1999; Gable, Henrickson, &
Van Acker, 2001).
Paley’s (1992) and Sapon-Shevin’s (1998) qualitative find-
ings and results of the more quantitative study by Harrist and
Bradley (2003) describe positive outcomes associated with
implementation of the rule. However, in these cases participat-
ing teachers and administrators were selected because of their
interest in exploring ways of promoting inclusive play and
prosocial behavior in their classrooms. Optimally, implementa-
tion of the “You can’t say you can’t play” rule would occur on
a school or system-wide basis rather than within a patchwork of
classes. There are several noteworthy benefits of a systemic
approach to prevention-intervention programs. School-wide
implementation of prevention and intervention strategies allow
for the creation of caring communities (Battistich, Solomon,
Watson, & Schaps, 1997) in which skills can be generalized
and supported across settings. Reframing schools as caring
communities results in numerous positive outcomes for stu-
dents and teachers (Battistich et al., 1997; McNeeley, None-
maker, & Blum, 2002).
A system or school wide approach to implementing the “You
can’t say you can’t play rule” involves recruiting all teachers
regardless of their previous beliefs about play, teaching experi-
ences, or attitudes about intervening in a dimension of student
school experience traditionally considered outside the curricu-
lum. In an effort to inform the creation of a comprehension
training program that supports treatment fidelity, the current
study was designed to investigate questions regarding percep-
tions of teachers that may impact their effectiveness in imple-
menting the “You can’t say you can’t play” rule. Specifically,
the following questions were addressed:
1) To what extent do teachers believe that strategies promot-
ing inclusive social play are useful in facilitating social, emo-
tional, and cognitive development?
2) Is teaching experience associated with an increased aware-
ness of the significance of inclusive social play opportunities in
3) Are teachers willi n g t o i mplement the play strategy?
4) What factors are associated with a teachers’ willingness to
implement the play strategy?
5) Are there trends in perceptions about play and about im-
plementation the play strategy that might be beneficial for fu-
ture training purposes?
One hundred seventeen (87 female and 8 male) participants
were recruited from graduate and undergraduate education
classes at a private liberal arts college in northwest Georgia.
Thirty seven undergraduate participants were either education
majors or minors in their sophomore or junior year. Thirty nine
graduate students were all enrolled in the graduate education
program. In addition, 16 participants were recruited from
teaching faculty employed by two separate elementary schools
within the same vicinity (one private and one public). Forty of
the participants had at least one year of teaching experience,
whereas, 55 had no teaching experience. Volunteers were
treated in accordance with the “Ethical Principles of Psycholo-
gists and Code of Conduct” (American Psychological Associa-
Participants completed questionnaires in typical college
classrooms. The first part of this questionnaire asked them for
demographic information, including: gender, age, education
level, teaching experience, and area of teaching specialization.
Next, the questionnaire explained, “Pretend that there is a new
M. HANEY 43
rule in your classroom stating that no child can be rejected from
play by their peers. This rule would be called ‘You can’t say
you can’t play.’ We are interested in your perceptions of such a
rule.” The participants were instructed to respond to 7 items
(the items are presented in Table 1). The first three items assess
the perceived importance of play to the cognitive, social and
emotional development of children. The remaining four items
assess the perceived feasibility and desirability of the “You
can’t say…” rule, and the individual’s willingness to implement
the rule in her or his classroom. Each item was followed by a
5-point Likert response scale (e.g., 1 = definitely not important
to 5 = very important). Two additional open-ended items were
used to solicit additional comments about the rule.
Psychomet ric Proper ties of the Survey
Descriptive statistics for each survey item, along with the
correlations between each pair of survey items have been pre-
sented in Table 1. Most of the inter-item correlations were
positive and significant. Overall, the 7 survey items demon-
strated a good level of internal consistency (Alpha = .80).
When the survey item responses were submitted to a Principle
Components factor analysis with oblique rotation, the results
revealed two factors. The first factor (Eigenvalue = 3.20) in-
cluded the last four items of the survey and might be termed,
“Rule Feasibility.” The second factor (Eigenvalue = 1.58) in-
cluded the first three items and might be termed, “Rule Impor-
tance.” These two factors were only modestly correlated (r
= .21). Thus, one’s overall perception of how feasible it would
be to implement the “You can’t say you can’t play” rule is rela-
tively independent of how important they feel that play is for a
child’s cognitive, emotional, and social development.
Survey Results Relative to Teaching Experience
We correlated the seven individual survey item responses
with the number of years that the participant has taught their
own classes. The results revealed that the number of years
taught was significantly and positively correlated with one’s
perception of how important play is for cognitive development
(r = .24, p < .05), and with one’s perception of how well the
rule for play would work (r = .22, p < .01). Thus, there appears
to be a modest relationship between one’s level of teaching
experience and one’s perception of play being important for the
cognitive development of the child and one’s perception of how
feasible it would be to encourage more play with this rule.
Survey Results Relative to Teacher Education Level
The first three items of the survey –those involving the per-
ceived importance of play to the cognitive, social, and emo-
tional development of the child—were submitted to a
mixed-model Analysis of Variance, where the three items rep-
resented a within-subjects factor, and student level (under-
graduates vs. graduate students and certified teachers) repre-
sented a between-subjects factor. The cell means for this analy-
sis are depicted in Figure 1. The results revealed a highly sig-
nificant main effect for item topic, F (2, 174) = 20.19, p < .01.
Participants perceived play to be more important for the social
development of the child (M = 4.89) than for the cognitive and
emotional development of the child (M = 4.60 and 4.63, re-
spectively). The results also revealed a significant interaction
between the participant’s student level and the area of devel-
opment being considered, F (2, 174) = 6.89, p < .05). Graduate
students and certified teachers perceived play to be significantly
more important for a child’s cognitive development than did
undergraduate students, t (87) = 2.66, p < .05. There was no
significant main effect for student level.
One of the primary goals of this study was to investigate the
extent to which teachers and future teachers believe that strate-
gies promoting inclusive social play are useful in facilitating
social, emotional, and cognitive development. Our participants
believed that play is relatively important for all three domains
of development (i.e., their responses were typically above the
midpoint of the response scale). This orientation would cer-
tainly seem to facilitate the introduction of the “You can’t say
you can’t play” rule. However, our participants rated play ex-
periences as significantly more important for social, than for
cognitive or emotional development, suggesting some note-
worthy gaps in their knowledge of the literature linking play
experiences and multiple facets of development. Further, these
findings suggest that teachers might be less likely to take ad-
vantage of naturally occurring situations or to construct learn-
ing opportunities where play can facilitate cognitive or emo-
Descriptive Statistics and Correlations
Survey Item Mean (SD) 2 3 4 5 6 7
1. How important do you feel play is to
the developm ent of cognitive skills in children? 4.60 (.52) .27* .51* .24* .15 .22* .14
2. How important do you feel play is to the
development of social skills in children? 4.89 (.32) .41* –.01 .08 –.05 .14
3. How important do you feel play is to the
development of emotional skills in children? 4.63 (.55) .32* .28* .21* .19
4. Do you think this rule “You Can’t
Say You Can’t Play” would work? 3.17 (.77) .70* .57* .62*
5. Would you be willing to implement
this rule in your classroom? 3.60 (.94) .56* .75*
6. How well do you think children
will follow th is rule? 3.17 (.86) .61*
7. Do you personally like this rule? 3.51 (1.1)
Note: * p < .05.
Area of Development
Undergraduate StudentsGraduate Students and Certified Teachers
Mean importance ratin g as a function of area of development.
Our second question focused on the association between
teaching experience and an increased awareness of the signifi-
cance of inclusive social play in promoting development. Our
results revealed that greater levels of teacher education and
teaching experience were associated with an increased aware-
ness of the significance of play for the development of cogni-
tive skills. These results suggest that greater teacher education
and classroom experience may provide a valuable increase in
the teachers’ knowledge about how children develop and how
play experiences can affect that development.
These findings raise a question critical to teacher training
and intervention planning. Why are those with more teaching
experience or advanced course work better informed about the
contributions of play to cognitive development? Conventional
wisdom suggests that experiences with play build social skills,
and all of our participants strongly endorsed this belief.
However, research also asserts the many benefits of play to
cognitive development. One reason may be that undergraduate
students are less likely than graduate students to learn about the
relationship between play and development in their course work.
For instance, several different faculty members teach the un-
dergraduate course on child development in our college, and
likely not all child development courses address the relationship
between play and development to the same degree. The differ-
ence in responses we observed between undergraduates and
more experienced students and teachers may also be explained
by different opportunities for constructivist learning.
Constructivist learning allows for individuals to build their own
knowledge, often resulting in enhanced memory and deeper
learning (Sternberg & Williams, 2002). Thus, it may not be
enough to read about the relationship between play and devel-
opment in an undergraduate education or psychology text book.
Context rich experiences such as independent projects associ-
ated with advanced coursework or continuing education, and
real-life teaching experiences allow teachers to construct
knowledge for themselves. With experience, the relationship
between play and development may become salient and more
likely to be represented in the teacher’s beliefs and practices.
Our third research question considered the willingness of
teachers to implement the preventative play strategy. Although
participants indicated that play was important for optimal
childhood development, ratings were luke-warm (ranged from
possibly would to would) with respect to their willingness to
implement a strategy designed to increase play opportunities. A
moderately high correlation between willingness to implement
the rule and expectations of children following the rule suggests
that concerns about behavior management and compliance are
important issues to address throughout training and implemen-
tation of this strategy.
It is likely that the current emphasis on high stakes testing
and student performance outcomes may also impact teacher
willingness to implement classroom experiences that promote
inclusive play and teach prosocial behaviors. High stakes test-
ing, stimulated by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legisla-
tion, rewards a didactic approach to teaching academic curricu-
lum (Booher-Jennings, 2006). A focus on academic content at
the expense of authentic learning opportunities that promote
creativity and critical thinking is especially problematic when
implemented in ea rly education classrooms (Bagnato & YenHo,
2006). Young children vary in developmental attainment of
emerging academic skills, and benefit from opportunities to
explore, create, and investigate through play (Hirsh-Pasek et al.,
n.d.). However, teachers, administrators, and entire school sys-
tems are increasingly penalized when children fail to obtain
cut-off scores on standardized norm referenced tests of aca-
An informal analysis of the open-ended question “If you
could change one aspect of the rule, what would it be?” and
“Please note any comments that you may have.” revealed some
themes that address reasons for personally liking or disliking
M. HANEY 45
the rule. Three main themes emerged. Firstly, participants ex-
pressed concern that the rule took away a student’s right to
chose their own friends. Further, it was sometimes noted that
by taking away a fundamental freedom of choice schools would
be inadvertently encouraging conformity. Those who expressed
this concern did so in a manner suggesting that conformity was
an undesirable trait when associated with social functioning.
Another common theme involved the normality of rejection
throughout the course of one’s life. These participants sug-
gested that early school experiences in being rejected from
one’s peers somehow sensitized children to the routine experi-
ences of rejection they were destined to endure throughout their
lives. It is noteworthy that current developmental and social
psychological research demonstrates an almost universal ten-
dency for social rejection to diminish one’s self-esteem. Con-
trasting these societal norms with scientific research results
would likely lead to thought provoking and important discus-
sion. Thirdly, many participants suggested that as teachers they
simply do not have the time or energy to spend teaching chil-
dren prosocial skills related to inclusive play. Paley (1992)
noted concerns similar to those expressed by our participants in
her description of teacher reactions to the rule.
Ultimately, the lowest ratings occurred in response to the
question “How well do you think children will follow the
rule?” Thus, although teachers and those in teacher training
programs may feel play is important to development and may
even be willing to implement the rule, there are concerns about
students complying with the rule. This finding indicates that a
significant part of training and program planning must involve
ongoing discussions and strategies to address issues related to
student compliance. For instance, useful strategies may include
journals, role playing, and class meetings infused into class-
The factor analysis revealed that training teachers to imple-
ment the “you can’t say you can’t play” rule must address two
distinctly different issues. In preparing teachers to implement
this program, it is critical that the significant role that inclusive
play has in enhancing social, emotional and cognitive devel-
opment be clearly communicated (the “Rule Importance” fac-
tor). In addition, the program must involve training and
on-going support to increase acceptance and perceive feasibility
of the “you can’t say you can’t play” rule (the “Rule Feasibil-
ity” factor). Specifically, teachers are likely to benefit from
training opportunities (e.g. via case studies, video vignettes,
modeling, observations) related to introducing the rule to stu-
dents, supporting students in understanding and practicing the
rule, dealing with problems that emerge as students struggle
with inclusive play, and assessing the progress of the program.
Overall, it is hoped that this research will stimulate optimism
about the effectiveness of strategies that teach prosocial skills
and empower teachers to feel competent integrating these skills
into the curriculum. A preventative approach that integrates
pro-social learning opportunities into daily school experiences
affords children the potential to maximize their learning ex-
perience at school and generalize these pro-social skills to
strengthen their social communities throughout their lives.
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