Observational Methods in Studying Play

Peter K. Smith

in The Oxford Handbook of the Development of Play

Published in print December 2010 | ISBN: 9780195393002
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Library of Psychology

 Observational Methods in Studying Play

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  • Psychology
  • Developmental Psychology
  • Research Methods in Psychology


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In this chapter I discuss the use of observational methods in the study of play, both in humans and non-human species. In the first part, I give a short history of observational methods, and then consider issues around types of observational methods, such as participant and non-participant observation, and (briefly) alternatives to observation (for human children: indirect methods based on verbal report, such as interviews and questionnaires). Intersecting with the use of observational measures is the context of observation, and in particular whether behavior is heavily constrained within the setting, and whether the environment can be considered ‘natural.’ The ‘discovery’ of rough-and-tumble play in human children provides an interesting case study of the importance of observational methods. In the second part, I consider some theoretical presuppositions regarding observational work, moving into the main technical issues: category schemes, recording techniques, measures, sampling, analysing, and reliability and validity; with some examples from studies of play.

Keywords: play; observation; categories; sampling methods; reliability; validity

Article.  9107 words. 

Subjects: Psychology ; Developmental Psychology ; Research Methods in Psychology

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