Numerical Conceptions Reflected during Multiage Child-Initiated Pretend Play

By Emfinger, Kay | Journal of Instructional Psychology, December 2009 | Go to article overview
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Numerical Conceptions Reflected during Multiage Child-Initiated Pretend Play

Emfinger, Kay, Journal of Instructional Psychology

Much research has pointed to the importance of pretend play as a facilitator of literacy development. However, few studies have investigated the corresponding role of sociodramatic play in mathematical development. This exploratory naturalistic study examined the numerate behaviors that occurred during spontaneous pretend play in a preschool through fifth-grade multiage summer enrichment program. A twelve-hour video segment of children's play in the drama center was transcribed and analyzed to identify numerical conceptions. The findings indicate that children's play included the following authentic mathematical behaviors: one-to-one correspondence, counting, adding, subtracting, and representing number via written and spoken signs and symbols. The results suggest pretend play provides a context that facilitates children's numerate behaviors and thus validates play as a curricular component.


Play, a long established hallmark in early childhood classrooms, is rapidly becoming extinct. Currently, early childhood teachers are under enormous pressure to emphasize achievement of academic skills. Many sacrifice playtime in favor of more structured activities because they cannot explain specific literate or numerical behaviors supported by play. Given this trend toward a 'back to basics" approach, Bergen (2002) cited the need for empirical evidence connecting play with children's specific academic behaviors and subsequent academic achievement.

A plethora of research (Bergen, 2002; Christie, 1980; Piaget, 1962; Roskos & Christie, 2000; Smilansky & Shefatya, 1990) supports the value of symbolic or pretend play as a facilitator of cognitive growth in general. These studies conclude that pretend play is related to divergent thinking, problem-solving skills, impulse control, and representational competence.

Researchers established the relationship between sociodramatic play in a literacy rich play setting and literacy skill development (Fields & Hillstead, 1990; Morrow, 1990; Neuman & Roskos, 1988; Pelligrini, 1980,1985; Roskos, 1990; Roskos & Christie, 2000; Stone & Christie, 1996). Literate behaviors identified in play provide evidence that pretend play functions as a valuable curricular tool for teaching and learning reading and writing during early childhood (Roskos & Christie, 2000).

Conversely, there has been little investigation of pretend play as a facilitator of children's mathematic behavior. Yawkey (1990) concluded through pre and posttest measures, that adult directed sociodramatic play without props facilitates mathematic behavior in five-year olds. Similarly, the investigation of Zamarelli and Bolton (1977), showed that guided individual play of ten to twelve year-olds with a specifically designated toy facilitates mathematics learning. Cook's (2000) naturalistic case study focused on pre-school children's mathematical discourse in a mathematically enriched dramatic play setting. She found that talk increased and included topics related to mathematical concepts. However, the complexity of children's discourse did not change.

Although Cook (2000) found that mathematical concepts as represented by language are evident in children's play, her sociocultural focus on linguistic interactions arising from the play does not document the individual child's developing conceptions of numeracy as communicated through other forms of representation. In order to verify the presence of numerical behaviors and identify the differing types of numerical behaviors, it becomes important to investigate children's developing numerical conceptions in a child initiated play environment. Thus, the present study set out to determine how numeracy functions in pretend play and the types of numerical behaviors children incorporate into their play.

Theoretical Framework

Piaget's (1964) scientific theory, constructivism, was the guiding theoretical force of this study.

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