In this section, we will discuss and compare the similarities and differences between the three theoretical perspectives on the exploration and/or manipulation of objects and materials in order to integrate them into comprehensive answers to the questions posed in the introduction: Q1. What are the defining labels and features of the exploration and/or manipulation of objects and materials by children in early childhood?; Q2. What is the developmental trajectory of the exploration and/or manipulation of objects and materials by children in early childhood?; Q3. What is the developmental value of the exploration and/or manipulation of objects and materials by children in early childhood?
To answer these questions, we will look for recurring ideas and themes, as well as whether these ideas are backed up by other (more recent) empirical research or literature reviews. By discussing the three perspectives side by side, it will also become apparent where the perspectives complement each other. In each subsection, we will start with the discussion and comparison of the three perspectives and then we will conclude with our integration of these perspectives into an answer to our research questions. Ultimately, the answers to our questions will lead to a theoretical framework, which can support childhood educators and can also be used as a foundation to inform future research on the exploration and/or manipulation of objects and materials in early childhood education.
The Three Perspectives on the Defining Labels and Features of the Exploration and/or Manipulation of Objects and Materials by Children in Early Childhood
The first aspect that becomes apparent when comparing the different perspectives is that despite the many different labels (e.g., practice play, manipulative play, tool use, or object play), all three perspectives emphasize learning as an important feature of a child’s exploration and/or manipulation of objects and materials. Where the genetic epistemology perspective specifically emphasizes the habituation of existing behaviors through the repetition that is typical during practice play, the evolutionary psychology perspective specifically emphasizes the importance of learning to use cultural tools or objects to ensure our human cumulative cultural evolution (Piaget 1967/1951; Tomasello 1999). Moreover, the cultural historical psychology perspective highlights learning, defined as optimizing current actions or learning new actions, as the intrinsic function of any activity, including a child’s exploration or manipulation of objects (Van Oers 2010).
When integrating the three perspectives with respect to the defining features of the exploration and/or manipulation of objects and materials, it becomes apparent that our theoretical framework needs to underscore that learning is inherently related to this behavior. To highlight the importance of learning in relation to (object-oriented) play, Van Oers’ ideas on play from a cultural historical psychology perspective might be helpful. Van Oers (2010) has inherently linked play to learning, by defining it as a play format: a mode of engaging in any cultural activity, that is characterized by high involvement, following implicit or explicit rules, and degrees of freedom. In this context, learning is understood to be either a qualitative change in behavior or habituating existing behaviors. This habituation, in turn, creates new possibilities for new or more complex behavior to develop, through association or the emergence of new needs (Van Oers 2010). In other words, play is defined as a mode of engaging in an activity instead of a separate activity with its own separate label. If the three aforementioned characteristics are absent, the activity would likely be regarded as chaotic (i.e., to many degrees of freedom), forced (i.e., to many rules that has to be followed), or uninteresting to the child (i.e., no high involvement or involuntary participation). However, if these characteristics are present, the child’s engagement in the exploration and/or manipulation of objects and materials provides the opportunity for learning to take place, which makes the behavior functional in a child’s development.
To adequately represent our discussion of the three perspectives, one parameter needs to be further explicated to encompass all learning that can potentially take place. Van Oers’ parameter of following rules is applicable to the exploration and/or manipulation of objects and materials if it not only encompasses following but also discovering rules. The discovery of rules is an important feature of children’s interactions with objects within the evolutionary psychology perspective (Hutt 1966; Pellegrini 2013; Tomasello 1999).
The rules or regularities that children discover or learn about during their exploration and/or manipulation of objects and materials can be twofold. Firstly, they can learn about the sensorimotor affordances: the rules of the object or material (e.g., a sponge is soft and squishy and holds its form). Secondly, they can learn about the rules of how we, as a culture, use the object or material: the intentional affordances (e.g., a sponge is used to wipe or clean things), as described by Tomasello (1999). The discovery of rules, whether sensorimotor, intentional, or even conceptual, through exploration and manipulation has been well established by the theoretical work of Lockman (2000) on perception-action routines and has been confirmed in several empirical studies (Berger et al. 2005; Cook et al. 2011).
Interestingly, the parameters of Van Oers’ (2010) play theory are very similar to Rubin et al. (1983) description of the dispositions of play: (1) being highly involved, (2) intrinsically motivated for the sake of play(ing), (3) deriving pleasure from it, and (4) having the freedom to modify the rules within the play. Although both the dispositions of “intrinsic motivation” and that of “pleasure” are not explicitly stated in Van Oers’ parameters, these dispositions are inherently linked to the parameters of a high level of involvement in combination with degrees of freedom; if children have some degrees of freedom to act as they want and have a high level of involvement, their actions can become intrinsically motivated. This might result in children deriving some sort of satisfaction from it.
Van Oers’ play theory has only been extensively theorized and studied in the context of more “mature” forms of play, such as pretend play. However, by comparing the three parameters to the dispositions identified by the extensive review of play by Rubin et al. (1983), we argue that Van Oers’ explicated parameters can be considered to encompass all the behaviors of interest and provide us with the means to define the different behaviors mentioned within the three perspectives with one label: play. This label does not refer to an actual behavior, it refers to the mode of engagement: with a high level of involvement and degrees of freedom, while following or discovering rules. It should be noted that there is much theoretical discussion on what play is. For this current theoretical framework, the unifying label play as a mode of engagement is employed to link the aforementioned behaviors to learning, not to contribute to the discussion on the conceptualization of play.
Another aspect that becomes apparent when comparing the different perspectives is that the defining features of the exploration and/or manipulation of objects and materials can be divided into concrete behaviors (e.g., banging an object, relating two object to each other, or substituting an object) and characteristics of this behavior (e.g., repetition, imitation, and association). The concrete behaviors can be categorized as follows: sensorimotor exploration, physical manipulation, and mental manipulation. Although the three theoretical perspectives use different labels to refer to these behaviors, the general function of these behaviors is similar. First, the sensorimotor exploration behaviors, in the genetic epistemology perspective, are described as primary and secondary circular reactions, or what Casby (2003) termed exploratory sensorimotor play. In cultural historical psychology, it refers to behaviors that serve a child’s exploratory orientation. These behaviors are simply referred to as exploration in the evolutionary psychology perspective. In all three perspectives, the general developmental function of sensorimotor exploration behaviors is discovering the sensorimotor affordances or rules of objects and materials.
The second category of behaviors, mentioned in all three perspectives, would qualify as physical manipulation. These behaviors are referred to as practice play, constructive play, nonconventional relational play, manipulative play, object play, tool use, etc., across the three perspectives. Even though all these labels refer to different behaviors, they would all qualify as physical manipulations of objects and materials with the goal of discovering what one can do with an object or material, manipulating the object according to their rules or intentional affordances (i.e., their social function), and practicing for the habituation of behaviors and social schemes. Finally, all three perspectives refer to behaviors that constitute as object substitution or some form of mental manipulation of objects and materials, for the sake of discovering the possibilities of the object(s) or material(s) when combined with symbolic thought (e.g., endowing intentional affordances of one object onto another object) and practicing these different forms of symbolic thought.
The recurrent and defining characteristics of these behaviors that are mentioned within the three perspectives, such as repetition, imitation, and association, are all mechanisms that create opportunities for learning to take place. These mechanisms occur during a child’s dyadic and triadic interaction with their environment. They can therefore be summarized as different dyadic and triadic learning mechanisms that support the developmental trajectory of the exploration and/or manipulation of objects and materials and will be discussed in the section concerning the developmental trajectory.
Q1: What Are the Defining Labels and Features of the Exploration and/or Manipulation of Objects and Materials by Children in Early Childhood?
From our discussion, we can extract the following answer to the first research question. When children (1) show a high level of involvement, (2) have some degrees of freedom to explore and manipulate as they please, and (3) are also following and discovering rules, we can argue that they are engaged in play, which inherently means it provides an opportunity for learning. When play is focused on exploring and/or (physically/mentally) manipulating objects and materials, we will further refer to this behavioral phenomenon as object-oriented play. In the next part of this paper, we will use the term object-oriented play (abbreviated as OOP) as a new and overarching label that integrates the labels used in the three different perspectives.
In other words, OOP is all play that is focused on objects or materials and their sensorimotor or intentional affordances. This can involve the sensorimotor exploration, physical manipulation, or mental manipulation of objects and/or materials. These labels are broad behavioral categories that can include several different and more specific behaviors (see Table 2). Sensorimotor exploration refers to all behaviors involved in discovering the sensorimotor affordances and rules of objects and materials. Physical manipulation refers to manipulating and handling the objects or materials in order to discover what one can do with the object(s) or material(s), as well as manipulating them following certain rules such as their intentional affordances. Mental manipulation refers to the substitution or representation of objects and supports the child development of symbolic thought.
Having a unified label for this behavioral phenomenon, knowing when and how it can provide the most optimal opportunity for learning or development to take place, and knowing what specific behaviors it entails, can support childhood educators to identify, understand, and enrich children’s OOP. Figure 1 illustrates our conceptualization of this behavioral phenomenon that results from our theoretical synthesis of OOP.
The Three Perspectives on the Developmental Trajectory of the Exploration and/or Manipulation of Objects and Materials by Children in Early Childhood
All three perspectives differ substantially regarding their overall view on the developmental trajectory of OOP. Both the genetic epistemology and cultural historical psychology perspective have their own theory regarding the mechanisms and “phases” of development. According to the genetic epistemology perspective, a child’s own cognitive developmental accomplishments through imitation and repetition ensure a child’s transition through several set stages. For cultural historical psychology, it is the mediation of the surroundings and a child’s new leading motives that supports a child’s transition from one leading activity to the next. The evolutionary psychology perspective is less clear on the developmental sequence and relation between the different behaviors. They only state that exploration precedes all other interactions with objects and that children start to understand others as intentional beings during the 9-month revolution. This perspective is, however, very clear about the mechanisms involved in the developmental trajectory of OOP: stimulus enhancement, emulation, and imitation, as explained the section concerning the evolutionary psychological interpretation on the developmental trajectory.
All three perspectives do agree on the fact that OOP will eventually lead to some form of symbolic play, once a child has the cognitive ability for symbolic thought (Piaget 1967/1951; El’konin 1989; Tomasello 1999). This developmental trajectory starts with the mental manipulation of objects: symbolically changing the function, meaning, or attribute of the object, while remaining focused on that specific object. The ability to mentally manipulate objects will eventually allow for more mature forms of play to develop, such as pretend play.
Specifically, between the genetic epistemology and the cultural historical psychology perspective, there are also several significant similarities regarding their views on the developmental trajectory of OOP. In order to grasp these similarities, we need to take a closer look at the sequence of the developmental trajectory. Both the genetic epistemological interpretation of practice play accompanying the sensorimotor stage and the cultural historical psychology interpretation of manipulative play as a leading activity view OOP as an important (first) step within the cognitive development of children (El’konin 1971; Piaget 1970; Vygotsky 1933/1967). Within both perspectives, it occurs around the same age (somewhere between 4 and 12 months) and is focused on sensorimotor skill development and exploring the physical surroundings. According to the genetic epistemology perspective, this is a result of a child’s interaction with the (material) surroundings, for the cultural historical psychology perspective, it is a result of a child’s social interaction with their surroundings (e.g., caregivers).
Both perspectives propose a hierarchical trajectory of OOP, although they differ in the steps they distinguish within this trajectory. The cultural historical psychology perspective distinguishes two types of manipulative thought: (1) explorations (and manipulations) during the first year of life, to learn about the characteristics of the object, which serves the child’s exploratory orientation within reality (Gal’perin 1980) and (2) the manipulation of objects during the second and third year of life, to attain a practical goal and the manipulation of objects according to their social meanings, which serves as the child’s orientation on a cultural activity (Gal’perin 1980). Within the genetic epistemology perspective, Piaget (1967/1951)) subdivided the sensorimotor stage into the different circular reactions and based upon this, Casby (2003) created a hierarchical sequence of exploratory sensorimotor play, relational-nonfunctional play, and functional-conventional play, stretching from around 4 months till 18 months. This hierarchical sequence is also in line with the view of the evolutionary psychology perspective, in which the interactions with objects start with (sensorimotor) exploration, around 8–10 months.
It is also interesting to note that both cultural historical psychology and evolutionary psychology mention that when a child is around 1 year old, their attention turns from dyadic to triadic interactions, indicating that children develop the capacity to direct their attention to multiple things (e.g., caregivers and objects) at the same time, as well as that they learn to direct others’ attention. This development follows the 9-month revolution as explained by Tomasello (1999).
The proposed hierarchical sequence of the phases of OOP, as well as the more specific and concrete behaviors these phases entail, has also been confirmed by empirical research such as the studies by Belsky and Most (1981) and Tamis-LeMonda and Bornstein (1994). Belsky and Most (1981) hypothesized a developmental sequence of exploration to play based on a cross-sectional study of free play. This developmental sequence starts around 7.5 months with undifferentiated exploration, develops into increasingly complex forms of manipulations, and eventually leads to decontextualized (symbolic) play. A similar sequence, from simple to gradually more complex manipulations leading to a transition into symbolic play, is used in a study by Tamis-LeMonda and Bornstein (1994) to indicate the level of symbolic play in relation to different aspects of children’s language. Both these studies suggest that several steps exist within the manipulatory phase of play and that there is a transitional phase towards more symbolic play. These studies provide an example of the empirical work that has already been done to support the hierarchical phases and sequence of behaviors, as hypothesized by the discussed perspectives.
On an abstract level, there is a second similarity between the genetic epistemology and cultural historical psychology perspective. Their founders Piaget and Vygotsky viewed development as advancing in one direction towards a specific goal, which to Piaget was scientific logic and for Vygotsky becoming a member of one’s own culture (Matusov and Hayes 2000). Because Piaget (1967/1951) saw development as a one directional progression, always from simple to more complex, through a set sequence of stages, he failed to recognize the possibilities of a child going back and forth between sensorimotor and “higher” cognitive processes for example. Smilansky (1968) nuanced Piaget’s (1967/1951) view on stages by admitting that stages at some point can exist parallel to one another, as a child gradually moves from one stage to the next within the set sequence. Similarly to Smilansky, the theorists succeeding Vygotsky also argued that each age period is characterized by a leading activity (indicating the way children relate to their surroundings), which at that point in a child’s development is the most prominent activity. This does not mean that another activity is excluded; it is just more prominent at that time (Van Oers 2011). Ultimately, both perspectives adopted a more flexible view on the progression of development.
More recent studies used the overlapping waves theory, developed by Siegler in 1996, to corroborate the idea that multiple behaviors, indicative of a stage or leading activity, can be present at the same time (Forestier and Oudeyer 2016a, 2016b). In their study on the role of tool use in the development of human cognition, Forestier and Oudeyer (2016b) showed that overlapping waves of qualitatively different types of behaviors can be useful for children to discover sensorimotor knowledge and solve sensorimotor problems. This indicates that multiple behaviors or strategies can be present at the same time, and that children do not always use the most optimal, complex, or newly acquired behavior. Using less optimal behaviors or strategies can help children scaffold their own understanding of the increasingly complex affordances within their environment (Forestier and Oudeyer 2016a). This view allows for more flexibility in the sequence and occurrence of behaviors across time and is more in line with the often associative nature of OOP.
A final abstract similarity between the two perspectives is that one could argue that both the genetic epistemology and cultural historical psychology perspective do not sufficiently highlight the importance of the interaction between a child’s own cognitive development and the social context (Matusov and Hayes 2000). Where the genetic epistemology perspective mainly focuses on the child’s own cognitive development, the cultural historical psychology perspective mainly focuses on the social context.
According to the genetic epistemological perspective, the role of an adult is to facilitate the physical environment and to observe the child (Beckett et al. 2017; Matusov and Hayes 2000). This marginal role of the adult does not take into consideration the possible influence of adult(s) as social beings in the child’s environment as well as the possible interactions with these adult(s) that could impact the child’s play or development (Beckett et al. 2017). Both Piaget (1962) and Smilansky (1968) did, however, mention imitation as a possible influence from the environment. The evolutionary psychology and the cultural historical psychology perspective (Pellegrini 2009; Vygotsky 1933/1967) are more explicit on the role of imitation: Both perspectives consider it to be a crucial mechanism for (play) development.
In the cultural historical psychology perspective, the role of mediation by the social context and environment in a child’s development has a prominent place. According to El’Konin (1971) and Leont’ev (1972/1981), mediation of the environment ensures the transition into a new leading activity that accompanies each age period. One could argue that this perspective, in turn, gives too little attention to the influence of the child’s own actions and maturation in this transition to new leading activities. Many scholars have criticized Vygotsky for placing too much focus on the influence of the cultural context. However, as Van Oers (2011) points out, Vygotsky himself actually did emphasize that children’s own activity is the basis for their development.
By synthesizing the ideas of genetic epistemology and cultural historical psychology into a unified framework, it becomes possible to highlight the importance of both a child’s own cognitive development as well as their social context in play activities. This also permits the consideration of the interaction between a child’s own cognitive development and their social context, which is necessary for a comprehensive view on the developmental trajectory of OOP. In other words, a child’s development never occurs in isolation from the social context. This view is also in line with a more recent sociocultural perspective on development, where the cognitive development of children is regarded as inherently embedded within the social context (Matusov and Hayes 2000). This is especially important to consider within an (early) childhood education context.
Many similarities, as well as complementing factors, can also be found across all three perspectives when considering the different mechanisms (the defining features as described earlier) important to the developmental trajectory of OOP. Even though these mechanisms may differ substantially between the different perspectives on a behavioral level, on a functional level, there are some interesting similarities to consider. They are all learning mechanisms that support the development of children’s OOP and occur during a child’s dyadic (child and objects) or triadic (child, objects, and other persons) interaction with their environment. The recurrence of some of these learning mechanisms across the different perspectives could be an indication of their importance to the developmental trajectory of OOP.
During a child’s dyadic interactions with their environment (child and objects), two learning mechanisms important to the development of children’s OOP occur: repetition and association. Repetition, a concept mentioned in the genetic epistemology, is of importance for the habituation of actions and behaviors. Association, a concept mentioned in the cultural historical perspective, can support the development of qualitatively new behaviors. The learning (i.e., the habituation of actions and behaviors and the development of qualitatively new behaviors) that takes place, in turn, supports the developmental progression of children’s OOP.
During a child’s triadic interactions with their environment, three learning mechanisms can be distinguished: (1) stimulus enhancement, (2) emulation learning, and (3) imitation. These three mechanisms can all be seen as a type of mediation during child-caregiver joint attention, a key concept within cultural historical psychology. Both the cultural historical psychology perspective and the evolutionary psychology perspective agree that the interaction of adults with objects can stimulate the interest of a child to explore or manipulate a certain object. The evolutionary psychology perspective specifically coined the term stimulus enhancement to refer to this mechanism. Emulation learning is considered an important mechanism before the age of one, in the evolutionary psychology and cultural historical psychology perspective and occurs when someone in a child’s surroundings is using or handling a certain object. Imitation is a mechanism that is recurrent within all three theoretical perspectives and develops after the age of one (Tomasello 1999). The prominent presence of imitation across all three perspectives not only demonstrates the importance of this mechanism but also underpins the importance of the child’s surroundings, as children need their surroundings (i.e., caregivers, teachers, or more knowledgeable others) to imitate when exploring or manipulating objects. These three learning mechanisms underscore the importance of a child’s triadic interactions with their environment to the development of OOP.
Q2. What Is the Developmental Trajectory of the Exploration and/or Manipulation of Objects and Materials by Children in Early Childhood?
Based on our discussion of the ideas brought forth within the three discussed perspectives, we can conclude that OOP develops in certain developmental phases, often from simple behaviors and interactions to more complex. In general, OOP starts with sensorimotor exploration, as a child first needs to know the objects’ sensorimotor affordances before they can intentionally manipulate the object. After this first developmental phase, a child moves to more complex physical manipulation of objects and materials. Finally, once a child develops the cognitive ability for symbolic thought, physical manipulation can develop into mental manipulation of objects and material. Mental manipulation can be viewed as an initiation of more mature forms of play such as pretend play, where the objects become props within the narrative of children’s play (Thompson and Goldstein 2019). These broader labels (sensorimotor exploration, physical manipulation, and mental manipulation) for the developmental phases within OOP exist out of many different more specific and concrete behaviors, which are described in more detail in Table 2.
It is important to note that the developmental trajectory of OOP consist out of hierarchical behavioral phases that are cumulative, not mutually exclusive. Multiple behaviors, both simple and complex, can be present and utilized at the same time, as the cognition of a child grows and changes during the course of their development. For example, children can switch back and forth between exploring and manipulating an object as they discover new affordances during the activity. This can best be seen as overlapping waves of developmental phases as represented in Fig. 1. There is a hierarchical sequence in the occurrence of the behavioral phases. Even though each phase has their peak at a different time (between the ages of approximately 18 months until 3.5 years), all encompassed behaviors can be present in the behavioral repertoire of a child at the same time.
The progression through the developmental trajectory of OOP is both influenced by the child’s own physical and cognitive development as well as the social context, as these two constantly interact with each other. Altogether, a child’s physical and cognitive development—and other dyadic learning mechanisms, such as repetition and association—in combination with mediation by their surroundings—through triadic learning mechanisms, such as stimulus enhancement, emulation, and imitation—lead to overlapping waves of behavior: starting with sensorimotor exploration, then physical manipulation and lastly mental manipulation. These insights can support childhood educators to navigate the progression of children’s OOP as well as understand the mechanisms that promote this progression. Figure 1 portrays the developmental trajectory within our comprehensive view of OOP.
The Three Perspectives on the Developmental Value of the Exploration and/or Manipulation of Objects and Materials by Children in Early Childhood
Across all three perspectives, OOP is linked to children’s learning and development in several domains such as the development of cognitive schemes, language learning, symbolic thought, social cognition, sensorimotor knowledge and skills, and even human adaptation. The developmental value of OOP has also been assessed and confirmed by many empirical studies (e.g., Forestier and Oudeyer 2016b; Wyman et al. 2009; Pellegrini and Gustafson 2005).
In all three perspectives, OOP is consistently linked to children’s cognitive development, specifically the development of children’s schemes, language, and symbolic thought. Schemes, a concept used in genetic epistemology, refer to a cognitive structure that helps a child to interpret and organize information. This relates to the procedure of a psychological tool as used in cultural historical psychology. Both perspectives view schemes and psychological tools as cognitive structures that support a child’s cognitive development. These cognitive structures are still considered of great importance to children’s development, as they can support children to construct their understanding of the world around them (Atherton and Nutbrown 2013; Arnold 2013; Athey 2013).
Both the cultural historical psychology and evolutionary psychology perspectives link the start of language development to OOP. OOP has the potential to influence the language development of a child, because they often learn the name and defining characteristics of the object they are interacting with (Vygotsky 1933/1967). This focus on objects also provides opportunities for children to develop their functional vocabulary (Van Oers 2010). Within the evolutionary psychology perspective, Tomasello (2003) argued that the joint attention during OOP is crucial for language development. OOP provides a pragmatically simple situation in which the communicative intention of the caregiver or teacher is especially clear to a child. It therefore helps the child in their acquisition of concrete nouns and perceptible referents (Tomasello 2003).
A large body of empirical research confirmed the relation between OOP and children’s language. Several studies show that OOP contributes to children’s word learning or show that OOP functions as a context for mothers to provide didactic language to their children (Tamis-LeMonda et al. 2013; Yu and Smith 2012). More specifically, some recent studies looked into the relations between object exploration while sitting or walking and the development of spatial language (Oudgenoeg-Paz et al. 2015; Oudgenoeg-Paz et al. 2016). These studies found that children’s independent sitting and walking enables more object exploration, which in turn supports children to learn about spatial concepts and contributes to the acquisition of spatial language (see also Halliday 2006).
The development of symbolic thought is also thought to be stimulated by OOP. In all three perspectives, the mental manipulation of objects, such as substitution, is considered as a transition phase to other (more mature) forms of play such as pretend play. The exhaustive review on pretend play by Thompson and Goldstein (2019a, b) confirmed that object substitution is indeed viewed as the first component of the developmental progression of pretend play.
Next to children’s cognitive development, OOP might also support the development of children’s social cognition. Both the cultural historical psychology and the evolutionary psychology perspective link OOP to the start of the development of children’s social cognition. Van Oers (2010), for example, argued that the development of social-emotional stability is rooted in children’s manipulative play. Within the evolutionary psychology perspective, interactions with objects (e.g., tool use) are considered as paramount to our adaptation and the survival of our species as social humans, with cumulative cultural evolution as an important mechanism (Tomasello 1999). More recent studies also found that OOP facilitates social communication before children have developed their verbal language skills (Kultti and Pramling 2015).
Even though all three perspectives agree that children’s gross and fine motor skills are a prerequisite for OOP, the only perspective that describes the contribution of OOP to the development of children’s motor skills is genetic epistemology. Within the sensorimotor stage, Piaget (1967/1951) distinguished the different motor developments (e.g., circular reactions) of children that allow for new possibilities of exploration and/or manipulation. Many recent studies confirmed that the development of motor skills provides new possibilities in a child’s development (Karasik et al. 2011; Libertus et al. 2015; Soska and Adolph 2014). A child that can grasp, can start exploring, a child that has more refined motor skills, can start to manipulate objects in more detail, and a child that can walk, has many more objects and materials at their disposal. Smilansky (1968) also pointed out that repetition during functional play contributes to children’s motor development, as it includes the repetition of simple muscular activities. It is, therefore, very important to also take a child’s motor development into account when assessing the developmental value of OOP.
The three perspectives have also linked OOP to more immediate functions. All perspectives view OOP as a context in which children can discover the sensorimotor affordances of objects and materials, and practice for the habituation of behaviors, social schemes, and different forms of symbolic thought. The cultural historical psychology and evolutionary psychology also relate OOP to a child’s discovery of the intentional affordances of objects. Lastly, the cultural historical psychology perspective mentions the opportunity OOP provides to discover and follow different rules (i.e., physical, technical, social, conceptual, and strategic rules).
Q3. What Is the Developmental Value of the Exploration and/or Manipulation of Objects and/or Materials by Children Ages of 1.5 to 5 Years Old?
Overall, the three theoretical perspectives agree that OOP is of great developmental value to children, which might explain the universality and pervasiveness of this behavior across time, cultures, and species (Göncü et al. 2000; Power 2000; Riede et al. 2018). Each perspective provides arguments regarding the developmental value of OOP for many different areas of development: cognitive development (e.g., language learning, schemes, and symbolic thought), social cognition (e.g., influencing our evolutionary adaptation through cultural tool use), and (sensori)motor development. Apart from potentially supporting different developmental domains, OOP can provide a context for children to discover and follow rules and affordances as well as to practice acquired behaviors and schemes.
In order to support the claims made by the three perspectives and to describe the developmental value in more detail, future research should focus on conducting a systematic review or meta-analysis of empirical studies on the developmental value of OOP, for example concerning the relationship between OOP and children’s cognitive development. Gaining more knowledge on the relationship between OOP and cognitive development can help childhood educators to accurately enrich children’s OOP and support their development.