The activity, have the ability to act as

The nation scientific council has a well-rounded
definition of children’s socio-emotional development. It is as follows: “Social-emotional
development includes the child’s experience, expression, and management of
emotions and the ability to establish positive and rewarding relationships with
others. It encompasses both intra- and interpersonal processes. The core features of emotional
development include the ability to identify and understand one’s own feelings,
to accurately read and comprehend emotional states in others, to manage strong
emotions and their expression in a constructive manner, to regulate one’s own
behaviour, to develop empathy for others, and to establish and maintain

Peter k. smith (2010)
describes ‘pretend or fantasy play’ as starting to be apparent in infants behaviour
around 2- 6 years old. (However, beginnings of pretend play can be seen at as
little as 12-15 months old.) Smith goes on to explain that as children get past
the ages of 3-4, pretend play usually becomes a group activity that involves
peers and other individuals in an infant’s life. Pretend play is generally
taken to mean  an “as if” situation;
meaning that objects, actions and verbalizations have a non-literal meaning.

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Smith states: “we can view
pretend play as part of a package of symbolic abilities including also
self-awareness, theory of mind and language.” Meaning that beyond the surface
of pretend play, you can see that infants partaking in the activity, have the
ability to act as if they are in situations they wouldn’t normally find
themselves in. Smith goes on to explain, “young infants are simple imitative
actions done in a non-functional context.” An example of this is ‘feeding’ or
cuddling a ‘baby’. “We don’t know the extent that the pretender is ‘aware’ of
intentionally stimulating reality.” A child at 12 months doesn’t have the
ability to explain to you what they wish to do with their pretend play session,
however as an infant’s language ability develops, and they can string together
coherent sentences, it is clearer to see that children are aware of the
‘reality’ that they are stimulating. During a play session, there may be roles
allocated to individuals. “You play the daddy” “You play the doctor” are
examples of this. It is also clear that children have the a ability to
disassociate the pretend play, from real life. During a play session you may
hear from a child “it’s not real, it’s only pretend.”

In 2007, Mitchell
presented his theory of pretend play, stating that: “Pretending is
intentionally allowing an idea, at least part of which and agent knows to be
inaccurate about or unrelated to current reality, to guide and constrain, the
agents behaviours. (including mental state)” However it can be argued that
Mitchell’s  theory, is a definition of
pretense, rather than pretend play. Pretense could be categorised as pretend
play, as many attributes are the same. i.e. it’s fun, play is done for the sake
of the people participating, it doesn’t however require the same level of
conscious awareness as pretend play. Meaning, the child must have the ability
to realise what is pretend, and what is actual reality. “The pretender could
enjoy creating part of something, but not the whole thing, and enjoy that, and
it would be pretend. In some sense that involves ‘awareness’ of the pretend and
actual realities, but not at a very deep level at all- the pretend could simply
recognise incompleteness without concerning itself with ‘realities’ of one sort
to another.”

Mitchell’s theory consists
of two main ‘pipelines’ when concerning pretend play. The first is “schematic
play” described, by Mitchell, as “enactment of schemas based on relatively
canalizes processes for perceptual-motor integration that is not based on
associative learning or imitation of other actions” apply this, for example, to
play fighting. A child hasn’t learnt this behaviour from imitating others. When
children play fight it is apparent that they are aware of the other individuals
feelings, previous clinical studies show that children who have previously
hurt, say a sibling, from play fighting show guilt. As well as this, children
then start to show an knowledge, or understanding of their strengths and other
people’s weaknesses. The second type of category is “Pre-symbolic play or
functional symbolic play.” Suggesting that, this form of play involves
imitation of behaviours of which the child has learnt from others. This type of
play involves ‘visual-kinaesthetic matching.’ For example, a child has the
ability to understand that a baby needs to be fed and held, after watching this
behaviour being performed in reality by someone else. They then understand that
they are able to follow the same actions and movements with their own bodies.
‘Visual’ meaning they are able to see the behaviour taking place, they process
this information, recognise the similarities and create their own kinaesthetic
experience. There have been arguments made that this type of behaviour is
looking for a reward and response. (Usually from the person the infant
witnessed the behaviour from.) However, this argument can be thrown out as
infants show these visual kinaesthetic matching behaviours while surrounded by
groups of peers, and on their own.

Mitchell’s theory, is one
of the few that give an explanation of non-human pretend play. (i.e. Apes.)
Apes have been known to show examples of pre-symbolic play. In previous
clinical studies, it has been seen that an infant ape watching their
mother/elders hold or carry a baby, will be known to break logs to carry and
imitate the behaviour. The theory of semantic play gives the idea that, the
process of pretend play has developed as humans have evolved. Children no
longer only imitate behaviours, but along-side this also learn their own ideas
about how their ‘abilities’ (i.e. with play fighting) may harm another person
or think that another person may have the ability to harm them. If a child gets
hurt during a play fight, they will usually get upset and tell an authority
figure. The hurt child being upset, more often than not, will mean that the
other child becomes upset also. This shows that there are levels of remorse/
guilt within these interactions.

In a home observational
study conducted by Height and Miller (1993) looking into rates of pretend play,
they found that children at 12-14 months old had a rate of pretend play at 0.6
minutes/hour (m/hr). At 24 months, the rates of play were 3.3m/hr and children
at 48 months used 20% of their observational time engaged in pretend play,
12.4m/hr. Field (1994), found that children in preschool spent around 10-17% of
their school time in pretend play. He also found that kindergartners spend
around 33% engaged in pretend play. However, Humphreys and smith (1986) saw
that these numbers exponentially decrease as the infants age. 5% engaged play
time in 7 year olds and 1% in 9-11 year olds. This presents the idea that children
often use pretend play as a way to strengthen their development; that the ages
of 12 months- 6 years are the most critical stages of infantile development.

From these rates of
pretend play, it can be inferred that the two most crucial milestones in
relation to development, are at the ages of 48mths and kindergarten age. At
48mths the rates of play jump from 3.3m/hr (at 24mths) to 12.4m/hr. Another
large jump is from preschool age (10-17% of school time) to kindergarten (33%).
A reason for this gap between preschool and kindergartner, could be that the
language abilities of the children are expanding. Making it easier for them to
interact with peers and other. Along with this their ability of self-awareness
has developed, as well as their awareness of other people.

In terms of improving
children’s socio-emotional development, I believe that this can be aided with
the help of pretend play. Pretend play may also help to improve a child’s
language, their ability to process guilt, remorse, and awareness. However, socio-emotional
development of children cannot be purely dependant on pretend play.




Smith, P. K. (2010). Children and play.


emotional development is built into the architecture of their brains. (2004). Waltham, MA: National Scientific Council
on the Developing Child.


Mitchell, R. W. (n.d.). Exploring pretense in animals and
children. Pretending and Imagination in Animals and Children,307-316.


Miller . (1993). New Directions for Child and Adolescent
Development,1993(59). doi:10.1002/cd.v1993:59


Miller, J. M. (1993). The development and validation of a manual
of child psychoanalysis. University of London.



Gottfried, A. W., & Brown, C. C. (1986). Play interactions:
the contribution of play materials and parental involvement to childrens
development: proceedings of the Eleventh Johnson & Johnson Pediatric Round
Table. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.