Pretending Not Just Child's Play: Parents Can Have Important Role, Too

October 03, 1997

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Years of research on early childhood have been dominated by thinking that children's pretending needs little help from adults. "We assumed it was pretty much a creation that came from within the child," says Wendy Haight, a professor of social work at the University of Illinois.

But from early in her studies of parent-child interaction, Haight observed that many parents play an intentional role in encouraging their kids to pretend, and obviously see that role as important. "I was struck by the extent to which caregivers were pretending with their very young children, even before the children were displaying independent pretend play," she said.

In one study with a group of middle-class, white Americans, "the very consistent finding was that parents viewed pretending as important to their children's development, viewed it as an enjoyable activity, and thought that their role was significant in helping their children learn how to pretend."

Through subsequent research, Haight concluded that these parents might be on to something. "We've found that, in fact, when children pretended with their caregivers, it was more complex, more elaborated, and also more extended than when they pretended by themselves," she said. "And they used the ideas that the parents initiated in their subsequent pretending."

A child playing by himself, for instance, might sit behind a toy steering wheel and simply turn the wheel and make engine noises. A parent joining in can take the child on a pretend trip, teaching along the way.

Among the things that parents begin to communicate very early through pretending, whether consciously or unconsciously, is their culture, Haight noted -- her observations based on a study involving both Chinese (in Taiwan) and white, middle-class Americans. For the Americans, she found, pretend play was often child-centered and revolved around a toy or object. The Chinese parents more often than not initiated the play and used it to teach social customs or routines, like how to greet a guest or teacher.

"It's fascinating to see how deeply ingrained cultural beliefs get incorporated into pretend play it's one of many everyday practices through which children get socialized into their culture," Haight said. The long-dominant thinking, that most pretending starts with the child, "would predict that pretend play would look pretty much the same wherever, regardless of the context -- but we're saying that doesn't appear to be the case."

How individual parents pretend with their kids also depends a lot on how they see their parental role, Haight said. For most fathers, their participation in pretend play seems "very related to how much they enjoy it," she said. For most mothers, it seems related to "how important they feel it is to children's development."

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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