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Links between children’s “aggressive” pretend play and real-life aggression

Why did we do this research?

Children’s pretend play can sometimes look ‘aggressive’: their imaginative characters might fight with or even kill each other. We wanted to find out if children would be more likely to pretend play ‘aggressively’ if they tended to be more easily angered in real-life situations.

Because children often pretend together, we were also curious whether ‘aggressive’ pretend play was more likely when children were playing with a child considered to be quick to lose their temper.

How did we do it?

We invited 7- to 10-year-olds at a school in China to play in pairs with some toys and recorded their play for 20 minutes.

We also asked each child to sort the other children from their class who took part in the study into three categories: good at keeping their temper, easily angered, or somewhere in between.

What did we find?

We found that all children pretended, but only some children pretended ‘aggressively’ during our observation. Compared to children who were playing with a less easily angered partner, children playing with a more easily angered partner were more likely to pretend ‘aggressively’.

This might be because playing with an easily angered child is challenging and pretending ‘aggressively’ is a way that children use to cope with such challenge, or to explore different ways to keep their playing going.


To find out more about this study, browse our resources below.

Research paper

Read our open-access research paper, published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology.

News report

Find out more about this study in this news piece from the University of Cambridge.