Exploring the Unknown

Exploring the Unknown
Representing the 99%!

Saturday, July 2, 2016

A Brief Analysis of Social Class and Play By Lynzey Custeau-Sullivan

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Though we may not realize it, children are deeply affected by our social class in every aspect, including the way that they are able to play. The following will be looking at how social and economic status has an effect on a child’s physical play as well as other forms of play. It will also explore the importance of play in a child’s life and development and how they can either be impacted negatively or positively by their parents’ social and economic status.

Play Is More Than Fun - Stuart Brown

At A Glance - Social Class

Family Incomes
Statistics Canada (2010)
In order to understand how children are affected by social class, it is first important to understand what social class is and how it is defined. As defined by Kinsey, Pomeroy and Martin (Cited in Feldman & Thielbar, 1972, p. 1) “(e)ducational and occupational differences are typically referred to as indicators of something called “social class.” Generally, income also plays a role in the placement of a person in a specific social class. Over time, the definition of what forms a specific social class has changed, and in today’s society, the lines between the social classes are becoming blurred. The average family (with children) earns approximately 80,000$ a year. In today’s standard, this would be considered middle class as of 2010.

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However, there is a huge gap between what is considered to be middle class and low class. According to Delacourt (2013), the average income in Canada to be considered low class is less than 27,000 a year. Play is also an important part of a child creating their independence. However, a child's social class too can affect this aspect. "Parents are notoriously slow in granting their children autonomy and independence, probably more so among economically advantaged families than among financially ill-equipped ones." (Evans & McCandless, 1973, p. 318) Whether or not this is because families who are financially stable are more likely to be home with their children than low-income families is to be debated. However, the less autonomous that a child is, the less likely they are to play individually. As a result they will arguably rely more on others to determine the games than they will on their own imagination.

Childhood & Consumerism

In western culture, the line between 'wants'  and 'needs'  is often blurred. From designer strollers to designer clothing there is no limit on what western families are willing to spend on their children. This social phenomenon is currently known as consumerism and is present in every social class, though to different extents. Consumerism is best defined as follows:

"Homo sapiens have long distinguished themselves by their use of and desire for material objects, and human social environments have long worked to support these tendencies to consume. It seems safe to say however, that never before in humankind’s history has our drive toward materialism and consumption been afforded such opportunity for expression and satisfaction.” (Couchman, Kasser, Richard & Sheldon, 2003, p. 11)

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It is not uncommon to walk through any major shopping center and see a child screaming and crying because they want a certain toy that is popular with all of their friends. Of course the social and economic class of the parent will have a role in this. Though it may seem like all the pressure is on the parents, consumerism “and the materialistic messages [are] frequently found in popular culture such as the media.” (Couchman, Kasser, Richard & Sheldon, 2003, p. 11)  It is important to note that children at young ages are like sponges, in that they absorb their environment and all within it potentially having a negative impact on them.

Child's Play

Play has different meanings for different people. Children learn through doing and mimicking the people that surround them, and one of the best ways for a child to do so is through play.  However, play can also be defined in today’s society as using materialistic objects, such as toys, to play. As David Elkind puts it; “[p]lay is our need to adapt the world to ourselves and create a fresh learning experience.” (Elkind, 2007, p. 3) Often times, the best way for a child to do this is to simply use their imagination and create the story and the props in an imaginary world. Though they may not realize it while they are having fun, this stimulates many parts of the brain and develops different skills that will be useful to them at a later age. However, a child who is given many toys and other gadgets such as video games may be less likely to use this form of play, depriving them of an important aspect of play. Children are not aware of it, but there are different types of play that can be beneficial to their development in different ways:

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“Young children create learning experiences through four major types of play - mastery play, innovative play, kinship play and therapeutic play. Mastery play makes it possible for children to construct concepts and skills. Innovative play occurs when the child has mastered concepts and skills, and introduces variations. Kinship play initiates the child into the world of peer relations. Therapeutic play gives children strategies for dealing with stressful life events.” (Elkind, 2007, p. 103) These forms of play may include the use of toys and other objects that also promote other aspects of social interaction such as sharing a toy that another child has. It is important for children to experience these different types of play, and though it may not always be possible, they need to have social interaction with other children to fully experience play.

The Connection Between Social Class and Play

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So where does social class begin to interfere with play? Though toys can be very beneficial, especially when a child is very young, and can help a child develop different motor skills and understanding of the world, like everything too much is never a good thing. Families who have an abundance of resources are more likely to buy a multitude of toys for their child to satisfy their child and their consumer wants. In doing so, they are giving the child a reason to focus on materialistic play instead of using their own creativity and imagination. As Elkind (2007, p. 16) states: “Abundance, like familiarity, breeds contempt. My preschool granddaughter doesn’t really value her toys because she has so many of them. Seemingly over-whelmed by the multitude of her playthings, she sometimes goes from toy to toy without spending time on any one of them. She appears to look to toys for amusement and distraction, not imaginative inspiration.” Thus, how do we convince a child, and essentially their parents that in reality, when it comes to toys, less is more?

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In today’s society, for children sometimes being “accepted” means having the best toys, of equal or greater value than their friends. This can lead to many schoolyard problems such as bullying if a child’s family doesn’t have the resources to obtain these specific toys. Inevitably, “children come to see toys as vehicles of social acceptance rather than launching pads to imagination and fantasy. In addition, toys are used as bragging point’s against children whose parents are less forthcoming.  This is not a new phenomenon.” (Elkind, 2007, p. 17) Thus, should society be giving into their children and buying them the latest fad in toys, or should they let them run wild with their imagination? It is every person’s right to decide how much he or she wants to spend on their child. However, it is important for them to realize that there could be potentially harmful consequences to over giving to their child.

Play Deprivation

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So what happens when a child is deprived of play? Unfortunately, it can have a negative impact on their personality later in life. They may be more likely to have negative attitudes towards other children; they may be socially awkward or they may even be less developed in certain cognitive aspects. Play also has an important role in a child's emotional development. As Caplan and Caplan (1974, p. 16) state: “By acting out the happening in his life, frustrations are often brought out into the open, and even unpleasant experiences can be reduced to controllable size. The arrival of a new baby, the death of someone close, a hospital experience-all call for materials for dramatic play to enable a child to give expression to his feelings as a preliminary to his mastering them.” A child who does not experience play may be deprived of the development of their emotions. It is important for parents to understand this fact in order to properly aid their children develop emotionally, socially and in motor skills.

Final Note - Operation Around The World

Though toys can have their disadvantages, when used properly they can be very useful tools in the development of a child. Not all children have access to the same toys and opportunities in western culture. By 1993 Operation Christmas Child grew and was adopted by Samaritan's Purse. To date, Operation Christmas Child has collected and distributed over 100 million shoebox gifts worldwide. In 2012, Canadians donated more than 662,000 Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes for hurting children around the world. Organizations like this give opportunities for children in areas of extreme poverty to receive things such as little toys and hygiene products and as well as books. As a non-profit organization it relies on the generosity of Canadians to donate toys and other supplies.


Brown, F., & Webb, S. (2005). Children Without Play. Journal of Education, 35, 139-158.

Caplan, F., & Caplan, T. (1974). The Power of Play. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books.

Delacourt, S. (2013). Household Stats Give Jolt to Great Canadian Dream. TheStar.com

Elkind, D. (2007). The Power of Play, Cambridge: Da Capo Press.

Evans, E., & McCandless, B. (1973). Children and Youth: Psychosocial Development. Hinsdale, Illinois : The Dryden Press.

Isaak, R. (2005). The Globalization Gap. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Kasser, T., Ryan, R., Couchman, C., & Sheldon, K. (2003). Materialistic Values: Their Causes and Consequences. T. Kasser & A. Kanner (Eds.) In Psychology and Consumer Culture: The Struggle for a Good Life in a Materialistic World. American Psychological Association.

Samaritan's Purse (2012). Operation Christmas Child. Samaritan'sPurse.com.

ABC News. (2012). Children At Play. AbcNews.com 

Thielbar, G., & Feldman, S. (1972). Issues in Social Inequality. Boston: Little, Brown and Company

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