Academic journal article Merrill-Palmer Quarterly

Pretend and Physical Play: Links to Preschoolers' Affective Social Competence

Academic journal article Merrill-Palmer Quarterly

Pretend and Physical Play: Links to Preschoolers' Affective Social Competence

Article excerpt

This study investigated different forms of pretend and physical play as predictors of preschool children's affective social competence (ASC). Data were collected from 122 preschool children (57 boys, 65 girls; 86 European American, 9 African American, 17 Hispanic, and 10 other ethnicity) over a 2-year period. Children participated in emotion knowledge interviews, mothers rated children's emotion regulation skill, and observations were conducted of children's emotional expressiveness with peers in both Years 1 and 2. Naturalistic observations of children's peer play behavior were conducted to assess the proportion of time children spend in pretend and physical play in Year 1. Analyses revealed that sociodramatic play predicted children's emotional expressiveness, emotion knowledge, and emotion regulation 1 year later, after controlling for Year 1 ASC skills. Rough-and-tumble play predicted children's emotional expressiveness and emotion regulation 1 year later, whereas exercise play predicted only emotion regulation. Some associations between sociodramatic play and rough-and-tumble play and children's ASC were moderated by gender.

Affective social competence (ASC) has been identified as a useful construct for understanding the emotional processes that contribute to children's social adjustment (Arsenio, Cooperman, & Lover, 2000; Denham et al., 2003; Dunsmore, Noguchi, Garner, Casey, & Bhullar, 2008). Halberstadt, Denham, and Dunsmore (2001) outline a model detailing three components of ASC: (a) sending affective messages, (b) receiving affective messages, and (c) experiencing affect. According to the model, the ability to integrate and control the interaction of these three skill areas is a key element of ASC. Thus, the model is transactional in nature and emphasizes the processes connecting affect and social interaction. However, the relations among ASC skills outlined in the model remain to be verified empirically. Moreover, most research has focused on the consequences of children's ASC skills, with less attention paid to the experiences that may account for individual differences in children's ASC. The fine-grained nature of Halberstadt et al.'s model offers a framework for empirical investigations that can disentangle and examine more conclusively the separate components of ASC in specific contexts. For that reason, their model is used to guide the present study.

Pretend Play: Fantasy and Sociodramatic Play

Theoretical arguments suggest that children's participation in particular play forms may have important implications for the acquisition of ASC. One form of play that has received considerable theoretical attention is pretend play (or pretense play), defined as "a symbolic behavior in which one thing is playfully treated as if it were something else" (Fein, 1989, p. 282). From a very early age, children use pretend play to initiate and sustain social relationships with peers (Eckerman, 1996; Gottman, 1983). As children age, the nature and function of pretense change, advancing from rudimentary imitation of particular pretense acts by a peer partner to a more sophisticated sharing of nonliteral meanings in the context of joint activity (Howes & Matheson, 1992). By the preschool age (i.e., 31-36 months), children have been observed to engage in two related, but distinct, types of pretend play: fantasy play and sociodramatic play. Fantasy play is characterized by "an 'as if' orientation to the world and involves actions, use of objects, and verbalizations" (Pellegrini & Smith, 1998a, p. 52). For example, a child who sits in a large box and makes rowing movements, as well as verbalizations, indicating that she or he is mentally envisioning being in a boat, is engaged in fantasy play. Longitudinal evidence indicates that fantasy play emerges during the second year of life, peaks during the late preschool years, accounting for 10%-17% of preschoolers' play behaviors, and then declines (Fein, 1989). …

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