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Play in parenting: Measuring caregiver-child play

We're investigating how to measure parents' playfulness, with a special focus on their pretend play.

Krishna’s PhD work on parental playfulness

There is no doubt about the importance of parents in children’s lives, and the significance of play in the early years. This naturally begets the question: what about parents’ play? Through two studies in my PhD research, I have explored parent-child playfulness through different lenses.

For my first study, I have concentrated on India. Parent interviews helped to contribute to an understanding the play and playfulness of parents in India – something that is critically understudied. This study helped to shift the needle towards non-Eurocentric and culturally relevant research. The COVID-19 pandemic limited the scope of the study, but allowed for an examination of how families in urban India were experiencing the lockdown, and how play endured through it all.

The second study used a subset of data from the Healthy Start, Happy Start project. Specifically, I used data from families where both parents had participated, to consider parental playfulness at the first home visit (when children were 1-2 years old) and the third home visit (when children were 3-4 years old). Parent-child play interactions from both timepoints were analysed using measures of parental playfulness. The use of two different measures helped to explore issues of measuring playfulness. Investigations were run into differences between mothers’ and fathers’ playfulness, and play over time, as well as possible associations with children’s behaviour.

Zhen’s ESRC post-doctoral fellowship work on pretend play

Parental anxiety and depression have been associated with changes to parent–child interactions. Although play constitutes an important part of parent–child interactions and affords critical developmental opportunities, little is known regarding how parental anxiety and depression are related to parent–child play. In this study, we are interested in examining whether and how maternal anxiety and depression are associated with mothers’ and their children’s pretend play during play interaction. We are also interested in investigating whether and how mothers’ engagement in pretend play predicts their children’s behaviour problems longitudinally.

To do this, we analysed data collected from 60 mother-child dyads from the control group of the “Healthy Start, Happy Start” study. We developed a coding scheme to examine pretend play during mother-child play interaction recorded during home visits. Mothers were also asked to complete self-report questionnaires on their own anxiety and depression levels, as well as their children’s behaviour at baseline and two years later.

We found that mothers with higher anxiety and depression levels were less likely to engage in pretend play with their children. We also found that more mother pretend play at baseline predicted fewer child behaviour problems two years later, when baseline child behaviour problems and maternal anxiety were controlled for. This suggests that mother’s pretend play might help reduce child behavioural problems risks.

Pretend play and parental wellbeing

Read a paper written by Zhen, Beth, Christine, and Paul that explores the link between pretend play and parent’s mental health.