Friday, September 6, 2013

A Mother's Role in Pretend Play

 This is the first post of a mult-post Science Friday series that discusses research about toddler pretend play.

   Throughout the past several months, Q-ball has been extremely active in pretend play.  Given that New Baby should arrive any hour or day, she has especially been focused on diapering, wearing, and strollering all of her stuffed animals the past few weeks.  I know that other toddlers begin this same fascination with pretend play at a similar time, so I wanted to look into the possible causes of and factors that contribute to pretend play. In this Science Friday post, I will look at the mother's role in fostering pretend play.  But, first, a definition of pretend play.  Most research in the topic follows the definition established by Catherine Garvey in her study of children's play, which is "play in which actions, objects, persons, places, and other aspects of the here-and-now are transformed or treated non-literally."
Pretending this is a real bear.
     Child development psychologist Jean Piaget believed that pretend play started spontaneously in each individual child, without any outside influence.  Given Piaget's profound influence on the subject of child development, many followed his belief, and it was not until recently that research has been done on the topic.  In contrast to Piaget's view, a growing body of evidence is now examining how interpersonal relationships contribute to a toddler's pretend play, especially that of the caregiver. 
     The study I examined for this post followed nine middle-class, college-educated families, primarily focusing on the mother and toddler for seven visits from ages 12 months to 48 months. The results, then, are biased towards this demographic, but were very clear in their results for this group. This, also, is the demographic of which I am a part, so the study is relevant to me. Still, the researchers state these findings are consistent with other studies done on the topic.  Here are some of the findings:
  • In all families, the mother was the first to initiate pretend play with her child at 12 months.  In only half of the cases was the child able to reciprocate any pretend play.  I thought this observation was especially fascinating as I would not have guessed that I had initiated pretend play with Q-ball as I strive to follow her lead. However, upon further reflection, I realize that I often employ techniques found within Playful Parenting and other play-focused books to ease the stress of transitions and can imagine that I once had us crawl to naptime like cats or some similar activity.
  • Mothers were also found to prompt pretend play, primarily by asking their child open-ended questions about their pretending.  (i.e.- What is your dog eating? Where is the train going? Why is the doll sad?)
  • By 24 months, the toddler is just as likely to initiate pretend play with the mother as he is with her.  No matter who initiates play, both mother and toddler seem to be equally responsive the other when it comes to reciprocating play. In this study, 24 months is deemed the most pivotal role in mother-toddler pretend play.  This observation is a little sad for me, as I'm already past this milestone for my first child!  And, she's still so young!
  • For a young toddler, a mother's active role in pretend play lengthens the play and encourages more activity.  At the ages of 24 months and 36 months, the length of pretend play when the mother is involved is nearly twice as long as episodes of solo pretend play.  Additionally, children were much more vocal when the mother was involved, in most cases parroting the mother's comments. 
  • However, by 48 months, children tend to be involved in pretend play for twice as long when they play alone than when they play with their mother. 
  • Between 36 and 48 months, children begin to seek out similarly aged playmates with which to pretend, leading to the decline in mother-toddler pretend play.
Does your toddler like pretend play?  Do you find this findings to be true in your household?  

Haight, W. and Miller, P.J. (1992). The development of everyday pretend play: A longitudinal study of mothers' participation. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 38(3). 331-349.

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