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As a popular form of childhood play, pretend play has long been regarded as a window on children’s emotional development. Typically performed in an ‘as if’ way, pretend play is defined as spontaneous activities that include at least one of the three forms of pretence1:
 
  • object substitution (using a banana as a phone)
  • pretend attribution of properties (pretending to be at a nice warm beach on a cold day)
  • imaginary objects (an imaginary car or food)
During pretend play, children not only create diverse roles from pirates to monsters, but also emotional encounters faced by these imaginary characters. Characters can feel happy, sad, angry, or worried, just like in the real world. Why do children engage in these pretend emotions? What empirical evidence has been found regarding the links between pretend play and children’s emotional competence?
 
The role of pretend play in children’s emotional development has been proposed from different perspectives. Vygotsky2, for example, pointed out that pretend play has dual emotional effects - a child “weeps in play as a patient, but revels as a player”. When taking an imaginary role, a child needs to act against immediate impulse, and therefore demonstrate “greatest self-control” in play3.
 
By shifting between emotions of varying intensity, children maintain their pretend play at a manageable emotional level, which serves as a vehicle to express and regulate their emotions4.
Bretherton5 also argued that pretend play provides children a unique opportunity to exercise their emotional mastery.
 
Recent studies have lent support to the links between pretend play and children’s emotional competence. For example:
 
  • Children who showed higher levels of imagination during play were rated as having better emotion regulation by their parents6.
  • Pre-school children who engaged in more role-taking and acting scored higher on emotional understanding interviews7.
  • Children whose play was high in fantasy scored higher in an affective empathy task8
  • Dramatic pretend play games improved emotional control among four year-old children with low socio-economic status9

 


Play research in action

To facilitate pretend play at home and at school, teachers, parents and carers can give children interesting and versatile objects that will stimulate the imagination – empty boxes, costumes, a wooden spoon. Alternatively, try creating an ‘as if’ scenario that encourages a child to enter into an imaginary world by asking questions like “imagine you are on the moon- what would that feel like and what would you see?”

Bretherton, I. (1989) Pretense: The form and function of make-believe play (Journal Article)

Abstract:

This paper proposes that make-believe play expresses the young child's emerging capacity to engage in counterfactual or would-be thinking. Three important developments enable preschoolers to create joint make-believe worlds with others: the ability to (1) manage multiple roles as playwrights and actors, (2) invent novel plots, and (3) deliberately blur the boundary between reality and pretense. Given that joint make-believe play turns out to be such a complex representational activity, the question about its function raises itself more insistently than ever. Of the many social and cognitive functions that have been proposed, emotional mastery is the only one that could not equally be exercised in nonpretend contexts. There is evidence, however, that in nonclinical settings the well-adjusted, secure children are most able to benefit from the opportunity for emotional mastery offered by sociodramatic play, whereas less-well-adjusted, insecure children are not. This has important implications for the design of play interventions.

Author/s:
Date:
January 1989
Publisher or Journal:
Volume:
9
Page/s:
383-401
Synonyms:
  • Developmental outcomes
  • Literature review
  • Pretend play
Relevant age group/s:
Research discipline:

Brown, M. et al. (2017) Supporting the development of empathy: The role of theory of mind and fantasy orientation (Journal Article)

Abstract:

Theory of mind (ToM) and empathy are separate, but related components of social understanding. However, research has not clearly defined the distinctions between them. Similarly, related constructs, such as fantasy orientation (FO), are associated with better ToM understanding; however, little is known about how FO may provide a context in which both ToM and affective empathy develop. Children between the ages of 3 and 5 (N = 82) completed a battery of ToM, empathy, and FO measures. Results demonstrated a developmental progression from ToM to affective empathy: 3-year-olds were likely to have neither, 4-year-olds were likely to have ToM only, and 5-year-olds were likely to have both. Additionally, results indicated that FO predicted affective empathy above and beyond ToM ability, suggesting that children whose play is high in fantasy are more practiced than their peers in sharing emotions. These findings are discussed in terms of how children's propensity toward fantasy play may contribute to their social development.

Date:
January 2017
Publisher or Journal:
Volume:
26
Page/s:
951-964
Synonyms:
  • Cross-sectional
  • Developmental outcomes
  • Pretend play
  • Social cognition
  • Social-emotional
Relevant age group/s:
Research discipline:

Fein, G. (1989) Mind, meaning, and affect: Proposals for a theory of pretense (Journal Article)

Abstract:

The present paper develops a theoretical framework for the study of pretense as a symbolic system designed to serve affective functions. The first part of the paper presents a review of three theories which acknowledge the affective function of pretense and constitute the background for the theory proposed in this paper. The second part of the paper presents an affective theory to analyze children's spontaneously generated pretend protocols. A study is then summarized as an illustration of the affective theory and directions for future research are noted.

Author/s:
Date:
January 1989
Publisher or Journal:
Volume:
9
Page/s:
345-363
Synonyms:
  • Affective behaviour
  • Developmental outcomes
  • Literature review
  • Pretend play
  • Semiotic play
  • Social-emotional
Relevant age group/s:
Research discipline:

Goldstein, T. et al. (2017) Dramatic pretend play games uniquely improve emotional control in young children (Journal Article)

Abstract:

Pretense is a naturally occurring, apparently universal activity for typically developing children. Yet its function and effects remain unclear. One theorized possibility is that pretense activities, such as dramatic pretend play games, are a possible causal path to improve children's emotional development. Social and emotional skills, particularly emotional control, are critically important for social development, as well as academic performance and later life success. However, the study of such approaches has been criticized for potential bias and lack of rigor, precluding the ability to make strong causal claims. We conducted a randomized, component control (dismantling) trial of dramatic pretend play games with a low-SES group of 4-year-old children (N = 97) to test whether such practice yields generalized improvements in multiple social and emotional outcomes. We found specific effects of dramatic play games only on emotional self-control. Results suggest that dramatic pretend play games involving physicalizing emotional states and traits, pretending to be animals and human characters, and engaging in pretend scenarios in a small group may improve children's emotional control. These findings have implications for the function of pretense and design of interventions to improve emotional control in typical and atypical populations. Further, they provide support for the unique role of dramatic pretend play games for young children, particularly those from low-income backgrounds. A video abstract of this article can be viewed at: https://youtu.be/2GVNcWKRHPk

Date:
January 2017
Publisher or Journal:
Volume:
Page/s:
e12603
Synonyms:
  • Affective behaviour
  • Developmental outcomes
  • Experimental
  • Pretend play
  • Self-regulation
  • Social-emotional
  • Socio-economic background
Relevant age group/s:

Hoffmann, J. et al. (2012) Pretend play, creativity, and emotion regulation in children. (Journal Article)

Abstract:

The aim of this study was to examine relationships among pretend play, creativity, emotion regulation, and executive functioning in children. Pretend play processes were assessed using the Affect in Play Scale (APS), which measures children's cognitive and affective processes, such as organization of a plot or use of emotions. Sixty-one female participants, in kindergarten through fourth grade, were assessed using the APS to measure pretend play ability, a divergent thinking task (the Alternate Uses Test), a storytelling task to assess creativity, a measure of executive functioning (the Wisconsin Card Sorting Task, Short Form; WCST-64), and parent report on the Emotion Regulation Checklist (ERC). Using correlational analyses, pretend play significantly related to creativity as measured by divergent thinking and storytelling, and related to emotion regulation. Affect expression in play was significantly related to affect expression in storytelling suggesting cross-situational stability. Divergent thinking ability was significantly related to creativity in storytelling. In general the magnitudes of the correlations were of medium effect size. No significant relationships were found with executive functioning. The results of this study support theories that suggest play, creativity, and emotion regulation are linked.

Author/s:
Date:
January 2012
Volume:
6
Page/s:
175-184
Synonyms:
  • Affective behaviour
  • Correlational
  • Creativity
  • Developmental outcomes
  • Pretend play
  • Self-regulation
  • Social-emotional
  • Executive function
Relevant age group/s:
Research discipline:

Leslie, A. (1987) Pretense and representation: The origins of "theory of mind." (Journal Article)

Abstract:

Presents a theoretical analysis of the representational mechanism underlying a child's ability to pretend. This mechanism extends the power of the infant's existing capacity for (primary) representation, creating a capacity for 'metarepresentation.' It is this, developing toward the end of infancy, that underlies the child's new abilities to pretend and to understand pretense in others. There is a striking isomorphism between the 3 fundamental forms of pretend play and 3 crucial logical properties of mental state expressions in language. This isomorphism points to a common underlying form of internal representation that is here called metarepresentation. A performance model, the 'decoupler,' is outlined embodying ideas about how an infant might compute the complex function postulated to underlie pretend play. This model also reveals pretense as an early manifestation of the ability to understand mental states. Aspects of later preschool development, both normal and abnormal, are discussed in the light of the new model.

Author/s:
Date:
January 1987
Publisher or Journal:
Volume:
94
Page/s:
412-426
Synonyms:
  • Atypical development
  • Developmental outcomes
  • Functional play
  • Literature review
  • Pretend play
  • Social cognition
  • Social-emotional
Relevant age group/s:
Research discipline:

Lindsey, E. et al. (2013) Pretend and Physical Play: Links to Preschoolers' Affective Social Competence (Journal Article)

Abstract:

This study investigated different forms of pretend and physical play as predictors of preschool children's affective social competence (ASC). Data were collected from 122 preschool children (57 boys, 65 girls; 86 European American, 9 African American, 17 Hispanic, and 10 other ethnicity) over a 2-year period. Children participated in emotion knowledge interviews, mothers rated children's emotion regulation skill, and observations were conducted of children's emotional expressiveness with peers in both Years 1 and 2. Naturalistic observations of children's peer play behavior were conducted to assess the proportion of time children spend in pretend and physical play in Year 1. Analyses revealed that sociodramatic play predicted children's emotional expressiveness, emotion knowledge, and emotion regulation 1 year later, after controlling for Year 1 ASC skills. Rough-and-tumble play predicted children's emotional expressiveness and emotion regulation 1 year later, whereas exercise play predicted only emotion regulation. Some associations between sociodramatic play and rough-and-tumble play and children's ASC were moderated by gender.

Date:
January 2013
Publisher or Journal:
Volume:
59
Page/s:
330-360
Synonyms:
  • Affective behaviour
  • Developmental outcomes
  • Longitudinal
  • Physical play
  • Pretend play
  • Social play
  • Social-emotional
Relevant age group/s:
Research discipline:

Vygotsky, L. (1980) Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes (Book)

Abstract:

The great Russian psychologist L. S. Vygotsky has long been recognized as a pioneer in developmental psychology. But his theory of development has never been well understood in the West. Mind in Society corrects much of this misunderstanding. Carefully edited by a group of outstanding Vygotsky scholars, the book presents a unique selection of Vygotsky's important essays.

Author/s:
Date:
January 1980
Publisher or Journal:
Volume:
Page/s:
Synonyms:
  • Developmental outcomes
  • Learning
  • Pretend play
Relevant age group/s:
Research discipline:

Vygotsky, L. et al. (1976) Play and its Role in the Mental Development of the Child (Book Section)

Abstract:
Date:
January 1976
Publisher or Journal:
Volume:
Page/s:
537-554
Keyword/s:
Synonyms:
Relevant age group/s:
Research discipline:
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