Sara Smilansky

Sara Smilansky

Developmental psychologist Dr. Sara Smilansky (1922-2006) was a professor at Tel Aviv University in Israel and a senior researcher for The Henrietta Szold Institute – The National Institute for Research in the Behavioral Sciences for the Ruth Bressler Center for Educational Research in Jerusalem. She is best known for her work on play training and its effects on children. She was a visiting professor in several U.S. universities, including the University of Maryland, College Park, and authored several books on children’s play, the effect of divorce and death on children, and the development of twins.1

Having studied Jean Piaget’s theories on play, Smilansky expanded on Piaget’s categories of play and proposed four types of play, which contribute to a child’s development and learning: functional play, constructive play, games with rules, and dramatic or pretend play. Functional play involves learning about the physical characteristics of objects by very young children as they learn how things feel, taste, smell, and sound, and what they do. As children gain more experience playing with objects, they begin to construct things and engage in constructive play. When children are mature enough to engage in social play, they are able to enjoy games with rules. Pretend or dramatic play emerges in the toddler years initially as imitation and eventually as make-believe.2

Piaget defined a type of play as symbolic play, where a child would use an object other than what it actually was in a symbolic way during pretend play. It was also called dramatic play, which could be enjoyed alone. When children played together in a make-believe situation, the play took on the most highly developed form of symbolic play called sociodramatic play.3

Smilansky’s first book published in 1968, The Effects of Sociodramatic Play on Disadvantaged Preschool Children, was the result of a pilot study while working as a researcher for The Henrietta Szold Institute. The study was an experiment to develop sociodramatic play in preschool children aged three to six years from underprivileged families. It had been observed that children from underprivileged homes did not sustain a line of thought, activity, or feeling, and tended to shift rapidly from thought to thought, activity to activity, and feeling to feeling. The study concluded that from observing the child-rearing practices in the homes of children from different socio-cultural backgrounds, that this behavior was the result of direct environmental influence. Culturally advantaged children were taught at home to collect facts and to weave them together into new concepts, while disadvantaged children did not have this training. It was hypothesized that one way to help preschool children integrate various facts into meaningful whole concepts was through the encouragement of sociodramatic play.4

Three conclusions resulted from the study: lower-class children engage in less and poorer-quality sociodramatic play than middle-class children; children who have deficits in sociodramatic play are the result of parents’ child-rearing attitudes and practices regarding their child’s sociodramatic play; and training in sociodramatic play can improve the deficits described.5 The following six criteria for well-developed sociodramatic play were proposed in her book that resulted from the study:

  1. Imitative role play - The child undertakes a make-believe role and expresses it in an imitative action and/or verbalization. Example: “I am the teacher, and you are my students.”
  2. Make-believe with regard to objects - Actions or verbal descriptions and/or materials or toys that are not replicas of the object itself are substituted for real objects. Example: “I am riding my pony” when the child is sitting on a barrel.
  3. Verbal make-believe with regard to actions and situations - Verbal dialog takes the place of body movements. Example: “Let’s pretend I cooked the dinner, and now I am setting the table” when only the last activity is actually imitated.
  4. Persistence in role play - The pretend play episode lasts for at least 10 minutes.
  5. Interaction - At least two players interact within the context of a play episode.
  6. Verbal communication - There is some verbal interaction with others related to the play episode.6

In 1987 Smilansky studied the effects of children’s understanding of death after the loss of their parents. She developed the Smilansky Death Concept Questionnaire based on the concepts related to children’s understanding of irreversibility, finality, causality, inevitability, and old age. Her questionnaire contained open-ended questions with half of them relating to the death of humans and half to the death of animals. Questioning 948 children ranging in age from 4 to 12 years of age, 476 of them were orphans. Intelligence testing and demographic data were also collected. The results showed insignificant differences between the orphans and the control group for both human losses and deaths of animals. Not finding that orphans had a better understanding of death, she concluded that the experience of a death of a parent in the conceptualization of death only was found in those children who had adults help with the process of understanding it.7

Besides many published researched studies, Smilansky wrote the following works:

  • The Effects of Sociodramatic Play on Disadvantaged Preschool Children (1968)
  • Clay in the Classroom: Helping Children Develop Cognitive and Affective Skills for Learning (1988) (with Judith Hagan)
  • On Death: Helping Children Understand and Cope (1988)
  • Facilitating Play: A Medium for Promoting Cognitive, Socio-Emotional and Academic Development in Young Children (1990) (with Leah Shefatya)
  • Children’s Play and Learning: Perspectives and Policy Implications (1990) (with Edgar Klugman)
  • Twins and Their Development: The Roles of Family and Schools (1992)
  • Children of divorce: The roles of family and school (1992)
  • 1. “Sara Smilansky.” Alchetron. < > 27 June 2016.
  • 2. Dodge, Diane Trister and Toni S. Bickart. “The Four Types of Play.” Barron Area School District. < > 27 June 2016.
  • 3. Frost, Joe L. Play and Playscapes. Albany, NY: Delmar Publishers Inc., 1992. p. 81.
  • 4. Froimson, Marcia and David Max. “Report on Activities, 1964-1966.” < > 27 June 2016.
  • 5. Frost, Joe L., Sue Wortham, and Stuart Reifel. Play and Child Development. Upper Saddle Valley, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2001. p. 189
  • 6. Op. cit., Frost. Play and Playscapes.
  • 7. Schramm, Diana K. Clark. “The Concept of Death Education on Children’s Understanding of Death.” Grand Valley State University ScholarWorks. < > 27 June 2016.