Professor Falk Roopnarine leads an international discussion on the benefits of childhood play

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Born into poverty in Guyana, a country roughly the size of Idaho in the northeast corner of South America, Jaipaul Roopnarine faced hunger, neighborhood violence and other negative early childhood experiences.

To escape from this environment, Roopnarine and her friends used their imaginations to transport themselves to more promising places.

“We played in backyards, open fields, trees, near streams – any green space we could find,” he says. “These were joyful experiences that fostered a sense of resilience within us and freed ourselves from the challenges of the immediate present.”

Jaipaul Roopnarine, Pearl S. Falk Professor of Human Development and Family Sciences at Falk College

Roopnarine, Professor Pearl S. Falk of Human Development and Family Sciences at Falk College, says he never fully appreciated the impact play had on his emotional survival as a child until he took a graduate course in play and development at the University of Wisconsin with the teacher James Johnsonwhich is now at Pennsylvania State University.

“During Professor Johnson’s lectures, I started to reflect on those childhood experiences in Guyana and I started thinking about ways to get involved in gambling research,” says Roopnarine, who specializes in gambling. now in father-child relationships. “I wanted to explore first-hand how children benefit from play emotionally and cognitively.”

This class for Roopnarine began a lifelong friendship and working relationship with Johnson. Over the years they have designed classroom programs for children; conducted studies on the value of play for child development; published books on play and early education; presented at national and international conferences; and developed an annual gambling symposium that began over a decade ago and is a joint venture between Syracuse University, Pennsylvania State University, and Bloomsburg University.

In 2020, the universities have expanded the conference to include participants from several Caribbean universities and share knowledge systems with colleagues from low- and middle-income countries in the South. And in November 2021, the universities partnered with the University of Guyana and the Guyana Ministry of Education for a symposium focusing on play and early education and held to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the National Education Program of Guyana’s early childhood.

To learn more about the symposium and the importance of play for child development, we asked Roopnarine some questions which he answers here:

Q: The theme for November’s conference was “SPICES of Play”, with SPICES an acronym for the social, physical, intellectual, creative, emotional and spiritual development of children. Why this theme and why was it particularly important to focus on Guyana and other Caribbean countries?

A: Research shows that early childhood education in Caribbean countries is academically lacerated. Parents and early childhood teachers have early developmental expectations of children that are unrealistic and developmentally inappropriate. In other words, they tend to push children to learn academic skills (alphabet, spelling words, early math skills) early through rote memory. This can increase anxiety in children.

Focusing on a more comprehensive approach, the SPICES approach to childhood development through play gives children more emotional and cognitive space to learn prosocial skills (empathy, sharing, helping), practice and refine their skills cognition and developing friendships. The SPICES approach encourages a disposition for learning and an enthusiastic spirit around the transportability of cultural information.

(The opening session of the symposium is available on the Guyana Ministry of Education website.)

Q: Can you describe the benefits of child-to-child play for children’s cognitive and social development?

A: Child-to-child play allows children to take on other people’s points of view – to put themselves in other people’s shoes, if you will – and to learn to cooperate and form friendships. By engaging in deeper play activities, children sharpen emergent skills such as planning, deductions, using memory, and using divergent thinking. Through the facilitative role of parents and teachers, children learn to consolidate their cognitive skills.

Game Symposium (J. Roopnarine)

Jaipaul Roopnarine (fifth from left) and his colleagues take a group photo during their annual gambling symposium in November, hosted by the University of Guyana and the Guyana Ministry of Education.

Q: At the symposium, you discussed what you call an “ignored issue” – the link between mother-child/father-child play and children’s early literacy and social skills. Can you explain this link and why it is ignored?

A: In low- and middle-income countries, gambling is considered frivolous. So, mothers and fathers believe that children play naturally, so why play with them? Their ethno-theories of early development and learning are rooted in the principle that acquiring academic skills in early childhood would give children the advantage to demonstrate academic prowess later.

Data from Barbados, Belize, Dominican Republic, Guyana, Jamaica and Suriname (11,473 families with preschool children) and 25 African countries (90,397 families with preschool children) preschool) indicate associations between various early parent-child activities (storytelling, reading, and playing with) and children’s early literacy (identifying letters, recognizing symbols) and social skills (getting along with others, following instructions). I wanted to convey the importance of early mother-child and father-child cognitive and social engagement for the acquisition of early cognitive and social skills.

Q: Your research focused on Guyana and other Caribbean countries. Are these problems as prevalent in the United States and other countries?

A: Yes, play is a universal childhood activity. Its ubiquity is reflected in the activities of children and child-caregivers in all cultural communities. Play has long been considered central to early childhood education in high-income countries.

Q: What recommendations would you give to parents or future parents regarding their child’s play?

A: Play with your children in a developmentally appropriate way; get down to the child’s level by providing materials and opportunities for long-term projects and authentic activities (eg, making signs for a grocery store). The game offers many opportunities to sharpen cognitive and social skills.

About Professor Roopnarine

Jaipaul Roopnarine is the Pearl S. Falk Professor of Human Development and Family Sciences at Falk College; Extraordinary Professor of Developmental Psychology at the Anton de Kom University of Suriname; and editor of Caribbean Journal of Psychology. Over the past two years, he and his colleagues have served as co-guest editors of two special issues of the International Journal of Play on the theme “Play: Resilience and Vulnerability in Difficult Circumstances.”

“While much of the focus is on the COVID-19 pandemic and children’s play, the volumes include poverty and play, children’s play in refugee camps, and play and children’s rights, among other topics,” says Roopnarine.

Roopnarine is a visiting scholar in Lisbon, Portugal, and will give keynote speeches for play and early education programs developed by a consortium that includes the University of Cordoba in Spain, the Polytechnic Institute of Lisbon in Portugal and the University of Marmara in Turkey.

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