ERIC Identifier: ED458045
Publication Date: 2001-11-00
Author: Bergen, Doris
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Elementary and Early Childhood Education Champaign IL.
Pretend Play and Young Children's Development. ERIC Digest.
Although pretend play has long been part of the early childhood curriculum,
recent emphasis on accountability in education seems to have led to a decline in
the general understanding of the contribution that high-quality play can make to
children's cognitive development in the early years. This Digest defines the
cluster of concepts related to pretend play and cognition, briefly synthesizes
the latest research on the role of pretend play in children's social and
linguistic competence, and discusses challenges and policy directions suggested
by these research findings.
CONCEPTS RELATED TO PRETEND PLAY AND COGNITION
begin to engage in pretend play, develop receptive and expressive language, and
use mental representation at approximately the same time in their development.
Thus researchers have hypothesized strong relationships among these processes.
Pretend play requires the ability to transform objects and actions symbolically;
it is carried out through interactive social dialogue and negotiation; and it
involves role taking, script knowledge, and improvisation. Lillard (1998) has
pointed out that pretend play involves negotiation between players with
differing views, simultaneous representation of objects in two ways (real and
pretend), role play requiring acting out others' thoughts and actions, and
portrayal of emotions appropriate to varied situations and actors-all actions
that suggest that the pretenders have mental representation abilities. However,
substantial research on how children understand the thinking of others indicates
that even though children can pretend through actions earlier, they do not gain
the ability to understand that others may not know what they know until they are
age 4 or 5.
Many cognitive strategies are demonstrated when children pretend, including
joint planning, negotiation, problem solving, and goal seeking. Researchers have
questioned whether the co-occurrence of these developing abilities is evidence
of a reciprocal or of a cause-effect relationship. Although the answer to this
question is still under study, it is clear that pretend play has a vital role in
young children's lives, and that its importance extends through the primary
school years as well (Bergen, 1998).
RESEARCH ON PLAY AND SOCIAL AND LINGUISTIC
Because pretending involves language use and takes place in
social contexts, the findings of many recent studies of pretend play shed light
on the social and linguistic competence vital for school success. In an
extensive observational study of pretend play, Sawyer (1997) found that, rather
than following a script, much of preschool children's pretend play involved
improvisational exchanges. He also found that these strategies were more
successful when they were implicitly included in the play scenario rather than
when children stopped the play to make explicit suggestions. He provides rich
examples of the skill children exhibit in using improvisation in pretend play.
Nonsocial Play Behaviors. The movement from simple to complex social pretend
play does not occur smoothly for some children. For example, Rubin and Coplan
(1998) report on a series of studies that followed children who exhibited
nonsocial or "withdrawn" play behaviors during preschool. They found that early
social withdrawal is a strong predictor of peer rejection, social anxiety,
loneliness, depression, and negative self-esteem in later childhood and
adolescence. Nonsocial play behaviors also seem to have negative implications
for academic success. The researchers state that the consequences of social
withdrawal may vary by culture: there may be more negative consequences for boys
in U.S. culture, compared to boys in other cultures where passive, controlled,
and reticent behavior is valued (e.g., China). Gender differences in play may
also affect kindergarten adjustment, with boys who have solitary-passive play
behaviors and girls who have solitary-active play behaviors being rated as more
poorly adjusted by teachers (Coplan et al., 2001).
Socioeconomic Factors. The process of pretend play development may also be
affected by socioeconomic factors. Observations at two time periods of the play
of children participating in Title I preschool programs in 22 classrooms did not
show the same increase in social pretend play in similar time periods that is
typically found in most preschool studies (Farran & Son-Yarbrough, 2001).
This finding is disturbing because in this study, associative play, in which
children interact briefly, had the most positive relationship to quantity of
verbal behaviors, but over the two time periods, associative play decreased
while parallel play, in which children play along side others but do not
interact, showed an increase.
This trend was most evident in Title I preschool classrooms enrolling the
largest proportion of children from low socioeconomic backgrounds. There was
also no increase in the total amount of verbal interaction over the two time
periods, which is incongruent with most research. Because an increase in social
pretend play and language use were not observed, the researchers express concern
that such preschools may "facilitate the behavioral introduction to the
expectations of the public school environment but may not provide the
foundational understandings and experiences to keep those early successes from
disappearing once the curriculum becomes more demanding" (Farran &
Son-Yarbrough, 2001, p. 259).
Children with Disabilities. Researchers studying children who have
disabilities have pointed out the importance of social pretend play for these
children's development and the difficulties they often have in engaging in
social pretend play. Odom, McConnell, and Chandler (1993) found that teachers
reported that about 75% of children with disabilities need assistance with
social skills. However, in a review of research on the pretend play skills of
children with language disabilities, Casby (1997) concluded that the actual
differences in pretend play abilities of these children compared with the
general population of students appears to be quite small; they have "a symbolic
performance deficit more so than a symbolic competence deficit" (p. 477).
Similarly, Guralnik and Hammond (1999) found that children with mild
disabilities exhibit play transition patterns (i.e., from solitary to parallel
to social) that are congruent with those of typical peers. On the other hand,
the social and pretend play patterns of children with autistic disorders are
likely to differ from those of other children. These children may lack the
mental representation and language competencies needed for pretend play, or lack
skill in generating ideas for pretend play spontaneously (Jarrold, Boucher,
& Smith, 1996).
Hestenes and Carroll (2000) observed an inclusive classroom with
approximately equal numbers of typically developing children and children with
disabilities. They found that those without disabilities engaged in more
cooperative and less solitary play than did those with disabilities. Although
both groups of children chose similar activities, typically developing children
interacted less often with children with disabilities than expected. They
suggest that, while effects of inclusive settings on play patterns of children
with disabilities are not yet clear, such settings do not appear to disrupt the
play of typically developing children. Special educators often use play
intervention methods such as script rehearsal to promote young children's
pretend play abilities, because of the relationships suggested by research
between enhanced play skills and enhanced cognitive, social, and language
development (Neeley et al., 2001).
CHALLENGES AND POLICY DIRECTIONS SUGGESTED BY
Research on the relationships between play and cognitive
development gives some support to play-based curricula in programs for children
under age 5. Implications for the primary years are not clear. State and
national emphasis on test performance has resulted in the elimination of
kindergarten "choice" time and recess breaks in some schools. The press for
"academic readiness" through concentrated and direct teaching of alphabet,
number, color, and other skills now affects the amount of time allocated for
play in preschools. This trend could have a negative effect on the development
of social pretend play, which requires extended uninterrupted time periods to
Policy makers need help in understanding the relationship between play and
the development of cognitive skills. The research evidence is very clear that
play has a role in young children's general development. Proponents of play must
be ready to demonstrate how the development of the cognitive skills exercised in
pretend play are also essential for later school success and good test
Most of the present research evidence has come from small- scale
cross-sectional studies; another challenge to researchers is to mount more
extensive and practice-oriented studies (preferably longitudinal) to investigate
play/cognition relationships in diverse early childhood settings. The limited
research evidence that does exist suggests that educators should resist policies
that reduce time for social pretend play experiences in preschool and work to
increase funding for research on relationships between play and cognitive
development in the early childhood years.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Bergen, D. (1998). Stages of play
development. In D. Bergen (Ed.), READINGS FROM ... PLAY AS A MEDIUM FOR LEARNING
AND DEVELOPMENT (pp. 71-93). Olney, MD: Association for Childhood Education
International. ED 421 252.
Casby, M. W. (1997). Symbolic play of children with language impairment: A
critical review. JOURNAL OF SPEECH, LANGUAGE, AND HEARING RESEARCH, 40(3),
468-479. EJ 558 185.
Coplan, R., Gavinski-Molina, M., Lagace-Seguin, D. G., & Wichmann, C.
(2001). When girls versus boys play alone: Nonsocial play and adjustment in
kindergarten. DEVELOPMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY, 37(4), 464-474.
Farran, D. C., & Son-Yarbrough, W. (2001). Title I funded preschools as a
developmental context for children's play and verbal behaviors. EARLY CHILDHOOD
RESEARCH QUARTERLY, 16(2), 245-262.
Guralnik, M. J., & Hammond, M. A. (1999). Sequential analysis of the
social play of young children with mild developmental delays. JOURNAL OF EARLY
INTERVENTION, 22(3), 243-256.
Hestenes, L. L., & Carroll, D. E. (2000). The play interactions of young
children with and without disabilities: Individual and environmental influences.
EARLY CHILDHOOD RESEARCH QUARTERLY, 15(2), 229-246.
Jarrold, C., Boucher, J., Smith, P. K. (1996). Generativity deficits in
pretend play in autism. BRITISH JOURNAL OF DEVELOPMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY, 14,
Lillard, A. S. (1998). Playing with a theory of mind. In O. N. Saracho &
B. Spodek (Eds.), MULTIPLE PERSPECTIVES ON PLAY IN EARLY CHILDHOOD (pp. 11-33).
Albany: State University of New York Press. ED 426 776.
Neeley, P. M., Neeley, R. A., Justen, J. E., & Tipton-Sumner, C. (2001).
Scripted play as a language intervention strategy for preschoolers with
developmental disabilities. EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION JOURNAL, 28(4), 243-246.
Odom, S. L., McConnell, S. R., & Chandler, L. K. (1993). Acceptability
and feasibility of classroom-based social interaction interventions for young
children with disabilities. EXCEPTIONAL CHILDREN, 60(3), 226-236. EJ 474 393.
Rubin, K. H., & Coplan, R. J. (1998). Social and nonsocial play in
childhood: An individual differences perspective. In O. N. Saracho & B.
Spodek (Eds.), MULTIPLE PERSPECTIVES ON PLAY IN EARLY CHILDHOOD (pp. 144-170).
Albany: State University of New York Press. ED 426 776.
Sawyer, R. K. (1997). PRETEND PLAY AS IMPROVISATION: CONVERSATION IN THE
PRESCHOOL CLASSROOM. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.