CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Years of research on early childhood have been dominatedby thinking that children's pretending needs little help from adults. "Weassumed 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 observedthat many parents play an intentional role in encouraging their kids topretend, and obviously see that role as important. "I was struck bythe 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, "thevery consistent finding was that parents viewed pretending as importantto their children's development, viewed it as an enjoyable activity, andthought that their role was significant in helping their children learnhow to pretend."
Through subsequent research, Haight concluded that these parents mightbe on to something. "We've found that, in fact, when children pretendedwith their caregivers, it was more complex, more elaborated, and also moreextended than when they pretended by themselves," she said. "Andthey used the ideas that the parents initiated in their subsequent pretending."
A child playing by himself, for instance, might sit behind a toy steeringwheel and simply turn the wheel and make engine noises. A parent joiningin can take the child on a pretend trip, teaching along the way.
Among the things that parents begin to communicate very early throughpretending, whether consciously or unconsciously, is their culture, Haightnoted -- her observations based on a study involving both Chinese (in Taiwan)and white, middle-class Americans. For the Americans, she found, pretendplay was often child-centered and revolved around a toy or object. TheChinese parents more often than not initiated the play and used it to teachsocial customs or routines, like how to greet a guest or teacher.
"It's fascinating to see how deeply ingrained cultural beliefs getincorporated into pretend play it's one of many everyday practices throughwhich children get socialized into their culture," Haight said. Thelong-dominant thinking, that most pretending starts with the child, "wouldpredict that pretend play would look pretty much the same wherever, regardlessof 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 onhow they see their parental role, Haight said. For most fathers, theirparticipation in pretend play seems "very related to how much theyenjoy it," she said. For most mothers, it seems related to "howimportant they feel it is to children's development."
Materials provided by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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