February 8, 2016

A Framework for Understanding Pretend Play

Within the literature there are lots of terms that have been used to describe these attributes of Pretend Play. Pretend play has a developmental sequence in typical development.

As a framework to understand the development of pretend play and to observe pretend play in children, I developed the Symbolic and Imaginative Play Developmental Checklist (SIP-DC). This is available in the book called: Learn to Play. A practical program to develop imaginative play skills.

The framework breaks down the skills within pretend play into six areas. There are:

Play scripts (these are the stories children develop in their play). Play scripts begin with domestic scripts (eg, feeding, tea parties, going in the car) and by five years of age a child can make up any story in play whether fictional, real, seen, heard, or experienced.

Sequences of play actions. To play in an organised, coherent way children need to be able to sequence their play actions logically. This occurs by 2 years of age and begin with very short sequences of 2-3 actions. A logical sequence of play actions would be to stir the cup, give a drink to the teddy by lifting the cup to the teddy’s mouth. This logical sequence has 2 actions in a logical sequence. By four years of age, children can carry out numerous action sequences to the extent that a play idea can be developed over 2-3 days and by five years of age, the ideas in the play can be carried out over 2-3 weeks.

Object substitution. This is when a child uses an object as something else. This begins when a child uses a very physically looking object and pretends it is something else. A common example in Australia is using the TV remote as the mobile phone, or a block as a mobile phone. At four years, children can use any object in substitution such that it doesn’t have to look physically anything like what it represents.

Social Interaction. Pretend play is closely linked to social interaction as children who play well can play alone (solitary play) as well as with other children. Children begin by watching and imitating others, they become very social at 3 years of age when there is lots of talking and discussion and interest in what others do but they tend to have their own equipment to four and five years of age when they negotiate and co-operate in play into roles.

Role play. Role play by four and five years of age is clearly seen when children pretend they are a mother, shopkeeper, policeperson, astronaut etc. It also begins earlier when children imitate actions they have previously seen. To be able to play a role in the play, children need to be able to understand that the character will say, how they will behave, what their motivation and beliefs are, and how they are likely act in the future. For example, a shopkeeper’s motivation is to sell products to the customer, and they are likely to say “hello, what would like to buy today” or “hello, can I help you. Today we have ……”

Doll or Teddy play. This is play with an object that is separate to the child. This ability is termed decentration. The child de-centres the play to something/someone else in the play. In Australia, boys often tend not to play with dolls but they will have an object that is alive to them such as a car, truck, doll-object (eg, TV doll character), soft toy, teddy. In typical development, the doll/ special object becomes ‘alive’ around 2 years of age. To the child, this object is a breathing, living being and they treat it as such. In such play, children are learning to take another persons perspective and learning to negotiate with a ‘being’ that has different thoughts to them. For example, the child may be feeding the doll/special object but it is not hungry and won’t eat.

(Illustrations by Teresa Treffry)