English Version 英文版
Many children spend lots of time pretending to be various characters, to be at various places, and do various activities. Despite the varied pretend worlds they create, children engaging in pretend play seem to share a common feature. Whether they are pretending to be a chef or a monster, or whether they are pretending to be happy, tired or scared, children often laugh or smile when they are in their imaginary world. This is especially the case if others join them in their pretend worlds, be it parents, siblings, or friends.
Pretend play can be funny
So why is pretend play often accompanied by children’s expression of positive emotions? We think there might be several explanations for this. First, pretend play creates a condition of incongruity. Whether it’s a toddler behaving like an elderly person, or a stick ridden on as a horse, the mismatch between the real person/object and the pretend actions directed toward it provides a context for children to experience humour. Research into this has indicated that early experiences of pretend play can impact upon children’s sense of humour long-term. As children’s language and imaginations develop, they’ll begin to appreciate more complex kinds of humour, like riddles, jokes, and sarcasm.
Pretend worlds can be a ‘safe harbour’
Second, pretend play also offers a unique opportunity for children to explore various emotions and try out responses to scenarios. Different from real life situations, children are in control of what happens in their pretend world. They could choose to pretend to be in danger, to be in a fight with friends, or even to be sick or dead. As the pretend world is not real, the consequences are minimised, and children can use the pretend world as a “safe harbour” to express their feelings. For instance, children might play “teachers” to express their worries towards going to a new school, or play “doctors” to make sense of their fears towards a hospital trip.
Pretend play can help make sense of hard experiences
Third, for children facing adversity, pretend play can help them organise fragmented emotional experience into more meaningful narratives, and transform their experience of fear, anger and loss. For example, chronically ill children have been observed engaging in spontaneous pretend play reframing their experience of illness. The flexibility of pretend play allows children to adjust their response to the same emotional challenge each time when they pretend. By shuttling back and forth between emotions of different intensity, children can keep their pretending at an appropriate emotional level and practice regulating their emotions. The sense of control and autonomy that children feel in pretend play could also help alleviate their negative emotions and promote their positive emotions.
Tips for parents/carers and teachers:
- Younger children may like to use props that are more realistic (e.g. toy chairs, tables, cups, animal and human figures) to pretend, while older children are less constrained by the available objects in their play.
- You can make your own pretend props, such as drawing and cutting out pretend people, pretend money, and pretend food.
- Children can be quite different in terms of what they like to pretend. They might also stick to the same pretend scenario for a considerable time. You could introduce new elements in their pretend play by taking a pretend role, but it’s important that children have the choice and feel a sense of autonomy, so try and follow their lead.
- When children play together, they may spend considerable time discussing, negotiating (or even arguing about) pretend roles and scenarios. This is quite common and can provide children the opportunity to learn to co-operate with others and regulate their emotions.
Chinese Version 中文版
- Supporting the development of empathy: The role of theory of mind and fantasy orientation (Brown et al., 2017)
- Emotion, imagination, and the world’s furniture (Harris, 2017)
- Prospective relations among preschoolers’ play, coping, and adjustment as moderated by stressful events (Marcelo & Yates, 2014)
- The role of pretend play in supporting young children’s emotional development (Rao & Gibson, 2019)
Dr Zhen Rao
University of Cambridge Research Associate