For eight years, the husband-and-wife team of sociologists Patti and Peter Adler studied the world of children in grades three through six: their friendship patterns, cliques, gender differences, romantic forays, the changing nature of their after-school play and what makes certain children popular.
The Adlers studied 200 middle-class boys and girls while serving as parents, friends, counselors, coaches and carpoolers. Their own two children and their friends were included in the study, as were in-depth interviews with other children, parents and teachers. Patti Adler is a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Peter Adler is a professor at the University of Denver.
The results of their study are contained in a new book, "Peer Power: Preadolescent Culture and Identity," published this month by Rutgers University Press. Among their findings:
Clique leaders maintain their elite positions by randomly building up and then diminishing the status of their followers, keeping them dependent and submissive.
Boys are just as adept as girls in achieving the emotional manipulation of their classmates.
Adult-organized after-school activities foster different skills and attitudes than those when children play on their own.
A boy's popularity is determined by what he does: athletic ability is most important, followed by his "coolness" and toughness, especially with authority figures. Girls' popularity is gained passively, from family background and socio-economic status, followed by physical appearance and the permissiveness of their parents.
Many aspects of "the fishbowl of peer culture" have significant and lasting impacts, according to the Adlers. Take cliques, for example.
"Clique dynamics of inclusion and exclusion teach young people the fundamental values of conflict and prejudice," they write. "As such, they may form the basis for the social reproduction of racism, anti-Semitism, sexism and other forms of bigotry and discrimination."
And the increasing role of adults in children's play over the last generation has changed the nature of children's play. These activities often are enriching and many children thrive in them, they note, but one drawback is that adults "rob children of a certain amount of spontaneity and creativity in the organization of their own play."
Children playing on their own must master a number of organizational skills including planning what to do, deciding on a location, setting up parameters of how to play and establishing rules and roles for participants to ensure equitable and enjoyable play. A fundamental characteristic of unstructured play is that it involves children of different ages, with older and more skilled players given handicaps (batting with the wrong hand) and less skilled players getting advantages (more swings of the bat).
Unstructured play teaches negotiation skills because children routinely must resolve competing desires, settle disputes and make adjustments when things are not going well, they said. And they must solve their own problems when feelings get hurt, arguments break out or someone becomes injured or angry.
In contrast, adult-organized play is structured and orderly, tends to group children by similar ages and emphasizes skill development, specialization and, to varying degrees, results. As children grow older and more skilled, they may progress into increasingly competitive and elite levels of play as part of an "extra-curricular career."
The stratification and inequality of adult-organized play clearly communicate to children qualities that are valued in the corporate-style world of work, the Adlers said. "Play becomes transformed into games, and games into work."