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Parent-Toddler Play Interaction and its Relation to the Home Environment

Erika Welch, Bronwyn Fees*, and Ann D. Murray*

Kansas State University

Erika is a senior at Kansas State University with a dual major in family studies and human services and social work. Her professional interests lie in working with parents and their infants. She will complete her program of study in the summer of 2004.

This research has been approved by the Kansas State University Institutional Review Board on Human Subjects.


The purpose of this study was to identify patterns in play interaction between parents and toddlers, and to examine the relationship of these patterns to aspects of their home environments. The subjects were enrolled in full day child care, including an Early Head Start program. Home environments were assessed using the HOME Inventory (Caldwell & Bradley, 2001), and parents and their children (n = 10) were observed in structured play sessions when the children reached 20 or 30 months of age. Results indicated a significant correlation between the responsivity subscale of the HOME and both elaborativeness and sensitivity during play interaction, providing evidence to support that the HOME scale is a valid indicator of parent-child interaction.

Parent-Infant Play Interaction and its Relation to the Home Environment

Parent-child interaction is a topic that has been widely researched in a variety of settings, revealing observations that encompass many aspects of parenting and parent-child relationships. Many of these findings indicate a need for further research in the area of parent-child interaction, which is fundamental to the growth and development of children, who learn through contextual influences (Berk & Winsler, 1995). Research examining play interaction in relation to home environments contributes to a greater understanding of which social contexts allow children to grow in their “zone of proximal development” (what a child can do with help and what can be done without guidance) and promote optimum cognitive development in preparation for future challenges (Berk & Winsler).

Interaction Style and Child Outcomes

Parents’ styles of play interaction are believed to affect the overall quality of interaction and therefore the quality of parent-child relationships. Although many factors influence interaction, one topic that has been widely studied is the role of the internal state of the parent. Negative internal symptoms could be the result of factors such as lack of resources or family stress, which contribute to the social context of child development. Even if these factors are not present, parental mental health issues affect the quality of interaction with children.

Parental directiveness is one aspect of parent-child interaction that could be significantly influenced by a parent’s internal state. Examining parental directiveness is essential in studying parent-child interaction, because the extent to which a parent guides a child’s actions is a defining trait in examining their overall style. A longitudinal study by Marchand, Hock, & Widaman (2002) examined the relations between maternal “depressive symptoms” and hostile-controlling behavior during play interaction. Researchers found maternal behavior was not related to control. However, mothers’ depressive symptoms did affect children’s behavior in certain contexts. Depressive symptoms were related to children’s internalizing behaviors (feelings of inferiority, depression, or worthlessness) at age 4, and maternal depressive symptoms at this age predicted externalizing behaviors (temper tantrums, threats, impulsive acts, etc.) at age 6, implying the impact of early maternal patterns on later child development and specifically indicating that a parent’s style of play interaction has an effect on child outcomes (Marchand et al.).

In a similar study, Martin, Clements, & Crnic (2002) examined maternal emotions during interaction in specific contexts. In this case, the subjects were observed during free play as well as a more challenging “waiting task” that was designed to create a stressful situation for both the children and their mothers. The results showed no correlation between mothers’ reported and expressed emotions during the play period, indicating that mothers may hide negative emotions to promote children’s cooperation during play. However, researchers also found correlations between children’s expressed emotions and mothers’ self-reported emotions during play interaction. Therefore, it appears that the emotional experiences of mothers during play interaction are “shaped in part by the effectiveness with which the dyad is able to negotiate the emotional demands of such interactions” (Martin et al.). However, the correlations do not indicate directionality of emotional influences, so it is unclear whether the children internalized the emotions of their mothers or whether the mothers’ styles of interaction were influenced by the emotions of their children. It is likely that the influences were bi-directional (Martin et al.). From a socio-cultural perspective, it seems that the development of the ability to handle emotionally demanding situations comes with social interaction, in which children, as active agents in their development, gradually internalize these behaviors.

Maternal Sensitivity

A second area that has been widely studied is the specific role of maternal sensitivity during play. Crawley and Spiker (1983) define sensitivity as “The degree to which the mother’s behavior is in tune with that of the child; the degree to which the mother’s behavior reflects awareness of her child’s cues or signals.” Parental sensitivity during play interaction is a logical indicator of healthy parent-child relationships; if parents are receptive to their children’s cues during play, it follows that they would demonstrate this awareness across other contexts. Parental sensitivity became a focus of study as a result of Ainsworth & Wittig’s (1969) research on attachment through observations of the behaviors of one-year-olds in a “strange situation.” Ainsworth (1971) developed a scale to assess maternal sensitivity based on these observations. This scale has been widely used as a basis for research in this area. In one study by Meins, Fernyhough, Fradley, & Tuckey (2001), Ainsworth’s maternal sensitivity scale was used as an additional measure of dimensions of sensitivity. Specifically, this study analyzed the relations between traditional measures of sensitivity and the modern concept of “mind-mindedness,” defined as the parental ability to view a child as an individual with a mind rather than a simple creature with demands to be met (Meins et al.). Maternal sensitivity as measured using Ainsworth’s scale strongly predicted future security of attachment, but “mind-mindedness” as a whole did not, providing strong evidence for a distinction between “sensitive” and “mind-minded” maternal behaviors. However, the category of “appropriate mind-related comments” as a subset of mind-mindedness was a stronger predictor of attachment than maternal sensitivity (Meins et al.). These findings indicate the possible need for future studies in parent-child interaction to include an analysis of maternal “mind-mindedness” as a separate measure from maternal sensitivity.

Timmer, Borrego, & Urquiza (2002) compared patterns of maternal responsiveness in physically abusive and non-abusive mother-child dyads. Findings of interest showed that, although both groups of mothers asked about the same amount of questions, when the children did not respond, abusive mothers were three times more likely to follow with a command. Abusive mothers were also more likely to respond negatively to their children’s acknowledgements (Timmer et al.). Shannon, Tamis-LeMonda, London, & Cabrera (2002) observed the relationship between father-child interactions and cognitive development in low-income children and found that high levels of responsiveness, especially in combination with high language quality, were associated with quality play and higher-level communication in children (Shannon et al.). Together, these studies indicate the importance of parental awareness of children’s needs and appropriate responsiveness to cues in quality interaction and healthy parent-child relationships.

Overall, research indicates that parental styles of interaction, specifically parental directiveness and sensitivity, play an important role in the quality of interaction. Furthermore, the ability of a parent to be aware of a child’s needs and act on them appropriately while handling their emotional states is a crucial factor in quality interaction. Such active engagement in problem solving allows children to internalize the mental processes necessary for healthy cognitive development (Berk & Winsler, 1995).

Environmental Influences

Another widely studied topic in relation to parent-child interaction is the contribution of environmental factors to interaction behaviors. The home is the primary context of influence, especially during infancy and toddlerhood, and it is in this context that the “scaffolding” (gradual attainment of skills) of early learning ideally takes place. Also, it is possible that particular home environments promote quality parent-child interaction, and the home environment could be predictive of child outcomes. Berk and Winsler (1995) stress the impact of physical environment in shaping the opportunities available for play.

Research examining environmental influences (Weinfield, Ogawa, & Egeland, 2002) has assessed the predictability of mother-child interactive behaviors over time. This study revealed that outside risk factors such as low maternal literacy, child behavior problems, and child’s general health, are related to higher predictability of mother-child interaction patterns (Weinfield et al.). In other words, when these risk factors are present, certain interaction patterns are more likely to remain from the time the child is preschool-aged until middle childhood. Such research emphasizes the importance of the link between interaction and background factors, including the home environment. It is essential to increase understanding of the relationship between background circumstances and interaction quality; each is influenced by the other, and the two combine to form a large amount of the social context for active learning in developing children.

The focus of our research was on the relationships between parent-child interaction and home environments. Specifically, we questioned whether there are correlations between parental directiveness, elaborativeness, and sensitivity during interaction and responsivity, acceptance, organization, learning materials, involvement, and variety in the home environment. Research indicates that parental behavior during play interaction has an effect on child outcomes. Furthermore, the home environment is the primary context for development in infants and toddlers who are not able to consciously leave the physical and emotional surroundings that have been created by their parents. Therefore, it is logical that qualities of the home environment would be highly related to qualities of interaction, because parents are involved in both contexts. Specifically, we hypothesized that elaborativeness and sensitivity would positively correlate with responsivity, acceptance, and involvement; these dimensions are related in that they all address parent-child relations and parental awareness of children’s needs. We also hypothesized that parental directiveness would negatively correlate with acceptance in the home environment because of the differing nature of these two qualities. The directiveness scale assesses the extent to which parents give commands and take the lead in play interaction (Crawley & Spiker, 1983), and the acceptance subscale of the HOME assesses the parents’ ability to avoid unneccessarily restricting the child (Caldwell & Bradley, 2001).



The sample consisted of ten children from a rural midwestern background who were each enrolled in one of two full-day childcare programs. One of these included children in Early Head Start, a program for economically disadvantaged children. The other program enrolled children across the economic levels. Of the ten participants, one child was African American, one was bilingual, and the remaining eight were of European descent. Families were participating in a longitudinal study called KITES (Kansas Infant and Toddler Environmental Study), a pilot study investigating the relations between infant development and parent-child interaction over time, from birth to 36 months.

Children enter the study at any of nine data collection points within this age range and participate until they reach the “exit point” at 36 months. Upon entry, a home visit was conducted, and parents were interviewed using the HOME Inventory (Caldwell & Bradley, 2001) to assess each child’s living environment.

Following the initial interview, children and their parents were observed in a structured play interaction when the child was either 20 or 30 months of age. The gender ratio among the children was equal (n = 5 female). There was some variety, however, among the caregivers participating in the study. A grandparent accompanied one child, three were observed with their mothers, two were observed with their fathers, and the remaining four children had both parents present during the observation.


Home Environment. The HOME Assessment (Caldwell & Bradley, 2001) is a tool that has been widely used in child development research. Since the home is the primary environment for young children, it is the most logical place to begin any assessment of environmental factors (Caldwell & Bradley). After completing a training process using sample videotaped interviews, two researchers completed a home visit for each new participant in the study. One of these researchers asked questions, while the other observed and coded to provide reliability.

The HOME assessment includes 45 items divided into six categories. The first subscale, responsivity, assesses the extent to which the parent appropriately acknowledged the child’s behavior. Acceptance focuses on the parent’s ability to cope with undesirable behaviors while avoiding unnecessary restriction or punishment. Organization refers to the regularity of the family’s schedule, the safety of the physical environment, and the use of community resources. The assessment of learning materials determines whether the child is provided with a stimulating environment that includes developmentally appropriate toys and activities. Involvement refers to whether the parent takes an active role in their child’s cognitive development and is sensitive to their needs as they mature. Finally, variety determines whether the child is provided with opportunities for diverse experiences in their daily life without experiencing disorganization (Caldwell & Bradley, 2001). Each subscale lists specific items to attend to during the visit, and one point is given for each listed item that is observed in the home. (Caldwell & Bradley). The points are totaled for each subscale, and then the subscales are totaled for an overall score out of a possible 45. Caldwell and Bradley have created a scale to use in assessing these totals to determine whether a home falls into the “lowest fourth,” “middle half,” or “upper fourth” of homes assessed, with higher scores indicating safer home environments that promote healthier child development.

Parent-Child Interaction. The Mother-Child Rating Scales developed by Crawley and Spiker (1983) were used to code videotaped observations of parent-child play interaction. This instrument is divided into two sections: child ratings (play maturity, social initiative, and object initiative) and maternal ratings (directiveness, elaborativeness, and sensitivity). Each characteristic is assessed on a 5-point scale (1 = low, 5 = high). Directiveness is defined as the degree to which the parent attempts to guide the child’s behavior. Elaborativeness refers to the extent to which the parent follows and extends the child’s self-initiated behaviors. Sensitivity is defined as the parent’s awareness of the child’s cues and signals and whether the parent’s behavior is in accordance with that of the child (Crawley & Spiker).


Home assessment. An initial home visit, when each participant entered the study, was conducted by two researchers who had each undergone the training process for the HOME assessment (Caldwell & Bradley, 2001). In each visit, one researcher conducted the interview while the other observed and coded to establish reliability. Each visit consisted of a “warm up,” in which the researchers spent a few minutes acquainting themselves with the parent and key child, then an interview was conducted with the tone of “two friendly people who like to talk about children sitting down together and doing exactly that” (Caldwell & Bradley). Inter-rater reliability was examined using 50% of the cases, and agreement was reached on 98.5% of responses.

Parent-child interaction. Parents and their children were invited to participate in a structured play session in a playroom at a university-based lab school. At the beginning of each ten-minute videotaped play period, a standard set of age-appropriate toys were presented, including a doll with a blanket, a bus with three miniature riders, a pull dog toy, a telephone, a jack-in-the-box, a push car, a plastic container with a screw lid with a foam ball inside, a board book, a tea set, a brush, and a comb. The parent or parents present were instructed to play with their children as they normally would at home. At the end of each session, the parents and children were asked to help each other put the toys away. As an expression of appreciation for their participation, the parents received a small cash award, and each child received an age-appropriate book.

Each videotape was coded by a trained researcher using Crawley and Spiker’s (1983) scales. Each viewing session consisted of three separate viewings of the tape. The first viewing was for overall familiarity, the second viewing was used to code for child measures, and the third viewing was for parental measures. Two researchers, one of whom was blind to the purpose of the study, coded six of the ten tapes to establish reliability. Three of these six tapes were viewed together a second time to discuss variations in scores and to reach consensus for data entry. Among the tapes that were coded by both researchers, 100% interrater reliability was established within one point on the scale for each item.


The purpose of our study was to examine the relationships between parental directiveness, elaborativeness, and sensitivity during play interaction and the qualities of the child’s home environment. According to Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory, social interaction mediates the learning process (Berk & Winsler, 1995), and examining parental characteristics during play interaction increases our understanding of the factors that affect child outcomes. Furthermore, environmental factors contribute to the context in which this interaction takes place. Together, the home environment and the quality of parent-child interaction create a large part of the child’s social climate in which internalization of mental processes takes place.

Pearson product moment correlations analyses were used to examine the degree of variance shared between parental directiveness, elaborativeness, and sensitivity during interaction and the six subscales of the HOME assessment (See Table 1). A significant positive correlation (r = .93, p < .01) was found between parental elaborativeness and parental sensitivity, indicating that, within our sample, the parents who followed their children’s self-initiated behaviors and creatively extended on child-initiated play were also aware of their children’s signals and cues. However, directiveness was not related to either of the other parental measures. The absence of positive correlations between directiveness and either of the other two measures suggests that parents who have more directive interaction styles are not necessarily more sensitive and do not necessarily elaborate on their children’s leads more often than other parents.

Table 1

Correlations Between HOME Subscales and Parenting Characteristics












1. HOME Responsivity


2. HOME Acceptance



3. HOME Organization




4. HOME Learning Materials





5. HOME Involvement






6. HOME Variety







7. HOME Total








8. Parental Directiveness









9. Parental Elaborativeness










10. Parental Sensitivity











* p < .05; **p < .01

Correlation analyses among the six subscales of the HOME assessment revealed a positive correlation between organization and both variety (r = .71, p < .05) and learning materials (r = .65, p < .05). Also, positive correlations were found between total HOME scores and both organization (r = .87, p < .01) and variety (r = .86, p < .01).

Correlation between the subscales of the HOME and the parental measures during interaction revealed a significant positive correlation between the responsivity subscale and both parental elaborativeness (r = .79, p < .01) and sensitivity (r = .79, p < .01). This indicates that, within our sample, parents who demonstrated active engagement with their children in the home were also more likely to show sensitivity to their children’s needs and elaborate on child cues during play interaction.

Discussion and Limitations

As predicted, characteristics of the child’s home environment were correlated with parental characteristics observed in play. Parents’ active expansion of their children’s play and sensitive responsiveness during interaction were related to responsiveness in the home. Sociocultural theory stresses the importance of scaffolding, or supporting a child in learning new skills while gradually loosening control, allowing the child to work toward independent competence (Berk & Winsler, 1995). It is logical that parents who show responsiveness in the home environment would have a greater sensitivity to a child’s needs, including their skill level, and the appropriate amount of support to provide during play interaction. Such parents, therefore, would likely score highly on elaborativeness, or extending on a child’s leads during play, as well as sensitivity, or awareness of the child’s needs and cues during interaction.

The correlations between responsiveness in the home and both elaborativeness and sensitivity during interaction demonstrate that, in our study, parents who responded appropriately to children’s needs in the home environment also did so in a structured play setting. This finding suggests that parents who demonstrate sensitivity and awareness are able to practice these habits in environments away from the home. Further research could test this belief by assessing parent-child interaction in alternative environments in comparison with the home or structured play setting.

One important implication of this finding is the possibility that the responsiveness subscale of the HOME assessment could be an indicator of parental elaborativeness and sensitivity during interaction. That is, the responsivity subscale alone could be sufficient to ascertain certain qualities of parent-child play interaction. Further research is needed to support this assumption.

Other hypotheses were not supported in our findings. Scores on the HOME subscales of acceptance and involvement did not significantly correlate with scores for elaborativeness and sensitivity. This could be explained by the differing content of the measures. Acceptance in the HOME deals with how the parent copes when the child’s behavior is less than optimal, and involvement determines the extent to which the parent is engaged in the child’s learning (Caldwell & Bradley, 2001). Although it seems logical that parents who demonstrate such patterns in the home would also show elaborative and sensitive interaction patterns, the context of the home is very different from the observed interaction setting, and the parental measures during interaction deal specifically with a structured play session (Crawley & Spiker, 1983).

Furthermore, there was not a significant negative correlation between directiveness during interaction and acceptance in the home. Directive parents are not necessarily more likely to practice strict discipline such as scolding, criticizing, slapping, or spanking in the home. It is possible that directiveness during play interaction is not related to whether a parent shows acceptance of their child in the home environment. Clearly, further research is needed to examine the specific relationship between directive parenting styles and parental acceptance.

The purpose of a pilot study is to test both methods and relationships between variables in order to affirm the presence of relationships indicating the need for further study. This was a pilot study, and our sample size was small (n = 10). Furthermore, the sample was not representative of the community. However, our findings revealed interesting trends that merit further study in the area of parent-child interaction in relation to the home environment. From a sociocultural perspective, this relationship is essential in understanding the social context in which children are growing and learning. Further understanding of this connection could potentially provide areas in which to focus intervention to promote optimum social contexts for children to internalize the skills and behaviors necessary to gain competence and preparation for later challenges.

Clearly, the relationship between environmental factors and quality of parent-child interaction is a complicated topic requiring much further research. From a Vygotskian perspective, it is an area that cannot be ignored because providing a positive home environment is one way that parents “scaffold,” or support their children’s gradual attainment of independent skills. Parent-child interaction is influenced by a variety of factors, and background circumstances can be key determinants of healthy connections between children and parents. The consistency observed between the home environment and structured play suggests that the play session alone may be a strong indicator of responsiveness in the home environment. Some parental behaviors were consistent across both contexts, and these relationships deserve further examination.


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