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Automaticity and the development of categorisation in preschool children: Understanding the importance of playOwen, Kay; University of Derby (2017-05)Categorisation is the process by which items, behaviours and events are compartmentalised according to their defining attributes or properties. This may be based on simple perceptual similarities or on more complex conceptual webs. Whatever their selection criteria, categories expedite inferential capabilities, facilitating behavioural predictions and subsequently enabling response. Categorisation waives conscious effort whilst preserving that which is salient and as such, provides a highly efficient means of delineating and organising information within semantic memory. An ability to categorise is therefore fundamental to an individual’s capacity to understand the world and a necessary precursor to academic achievement. This thesis comprises a series of studies that were devised in order to investigate categorisational development in children. Study 1 involved the development of a theoretically and practically valid testing mechanism. A sample of 159 children, aged 30-50 months, participated in a series of investigations aimed at establishing the impact of test format and presentation dimensionality on categorisation performance. As a result of this, a new test battery was devised which enabled more fine grain differentiation than had been possible with the tests used by previous researchers. The battery measured four different aspects of preschool children’s categorisational abilities -categorising according to shape; according to colour; when presented with drawings of items, and when presented with the same items in the form of toys. Results found that children’s ability to categorise differed significantly according to their sex, socio-economic background and the dimensionality of the item. Study 2 utilised the same battery with 190 participants from demographically diverse cohorts. Significant differences were found between high and low socio-economic groups and between boys and girls. A Mixed- Factorial ANOVA, with a post-hoc Bonferroni demonstrated a main effect of sex; a main effect of cohort and an interaction between sex and cohort. A Kruskal-Wallis Test also showed age to be significant, confirming the findings of previous researchers concerning a developmental trajectory. However, it also found that relatively sophisticated conceptual webs emerge earlier than had previously been thought. Whilst the results from Study 2 had demonstrated relative homogeneity amongst socio-economic groups, it was noted that participants from the most disadvantaged neighbourhood performed better than those from the other low socio-economic cohort. As the two Nurseries employed different approaches, with one offering a formal curriculum and the other emphasising child-led play, it was decided that the final study would focus on categorical development in these two cohorts. The final study therefore investigated conceptual development during 96 participants’ first twelve weeks of nursery education. Forty-eight participants were drawn from a Community Nursery with a strong emphasis on child-led play and 48 were drawn from a Nursery attached to a Primary School, where the emphasis was on more formalised learning. Children’s categorisational abilities were measured during their first week in Nursery using the test battery devised for Study 1. They were then re-tested using a matched battery twelve weeks later. Change scores were calculated and analysed using a series of one-way ANOVAs. As anticipated, all participants made gains but the children who had participated in play made significantly greater gains in three out of the four measures. It is thus asserted that play is a key conducer in cognitive development and a causal executant in establishing rudimentary automaticity and, as such, should be the polestar of preschool education. This is particularly important for boys from low socio-economic backgrounds who face contiguous disadvantage. Therefore, this research demonstrates that memory-based research with young children should be conducted with toys and objects, rather than images, and that the link between social and educational stratification has its roots in early childhood and is best addressed through the provision of high-quality play opportunities.