This study explores the everyday contexts and functions of parent-child play as it occurs naturalistically in the course of day-to-day family life. Developmental theorists (e.g., Bruner, 1975; Erikson, 1950; Piaget, 1951; Winnicott, 1971) have long championed the merits of play as integral to children's healthy, successful development and, accordingly, recommend that parents incorporate play activities into children's daily lives. Research by Haight and colleagues (e.g., 1993, 1997, 1999) further suggests that U.S. middle-class parents view imaginative play as facilitating children's development and actively involve their children in imaginative play activities. However, little research to date has examined the interpersonal, communicative processes that transpire during shared episodes of parent-child play. The current study addresses this research gap, providing a detailed focus on communicative aspects of parent-child play. Closely tracking family members' everyday activities, I examine how U.S. parents employ imaginative play as a developmentally and socioculturally meaningful site of relational engagement with their children. Further, I explore how spontaneously occurring parent-child play interludes engender and transmit moral lessons about preferred values, sentiments, and socialization goals.
Employing ethnographic participant-observation field methodology, the research draws upon ethnographically informed videotaped data of naturally occurring family interaction in the lives of 32 middle-class dual earner families residing in a major metropolitan region in the Western U.S., with participating families drawn from a variety of cultural backgrounds (e.g. African-American, Asian-American, Euro-American, Latino). Two ethnographer-videographers simultaneously documented family members as they went about their daily activities during mornings, afternoons, and evenings on three separate days (two weekdays plus Sunday) and during morning hours only on a fourth day (Saturday), yielding approximately 50-60 hours of interactional video data per family. All data were catalogued, labeled, and then digitized for purposes of transcription, coding, and analysis with vPrism computer software, which allows digitized images and audio-tracks to be temporally synchronized with corresponding written transcripts. Data were transcribed according to conversation analytic conventions (cf. Sacks, Schegloff, & Jefferson, 1974), then coded and analyzed along relevant dimensions using discourse and narrative analysis to identify and trace salient actions, stances, and communicative strategies involved in mentoring children's competencies, identities, and worldviews (cf. Ochs & Capps, 2001) in the midst of parent-child play.
Close moment-by-moment analysis of spontaneously occurring interludes of parent-child play reveals that these everyday contexts of pretending serve to cultivate socioculturally organized aspects of self and relationality, as cooperative, pro-social behaviors are modeled and elicited alongside individualized self-expression as co-existing values in middle-class U.S. family life. As such, parental bonds of intimacy and reciprocity foster children's independence via shared play activities that cultivate and reinforce imaginative self-expression. Parent-child play constitutes a richly embellished context of relational engagement and emotional learning in which salient values and socialization goals are transmitted and reinforced through figurative components of the playfully enacted story frame and literal aspects of the unfolding interaction. By considering parent-child play as it naturalistically occurs amidst everyday family life, the study contributes to a more nuanced theoretical perspective regarding developmental and mental health benefits of imaginative play.