As Good As the Real Thing? A Mixed Methods Study of the Perceived Impact of Pretend Play on Children's Self-Efficacy and Competence

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Taggart, Jessica, Psychology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Lillard, Angeline, AS-Psychology, University of Virginia

Pretend play is a signature activity of early childhood, and one that many parents believe is important to healthy development (Parmar et al., 2004; Roopnarine, 2011). Yet, American preschoolers prefer real activities to pretend ones, and their parents recognize this (Taggart, Becker, et al., 2020; Taggart, Heise, & Lillard, 2018). Children and parents alike believe pretending is well suited to activities that children cannot really do due to fear or a lack of ability or permission. Does this mean that children and parents believe that pretend play will develop children’s self-efficacy and competence for real activities, and do they believe that pretending is as good as the real thing for doing so? Study 1 explored 72 five- and six-year-old children’s (M = 73.04 months, SD = 6.24 months) perceptions using a set of vignettes and a learning choice task. Children rated characters’ efficacy and competence differently based on how they learned a skill; children believed really doing an activity to be significantly better for developing efficacy and competence than both pretending and watching, which did not differ. However, to learn 10 activities themselves, children were ambivalent about really doing or pretending. Study 2 explored parents’ perceptions using a survey (n = 101) and in-depth interviews (n = 12) in a mixed-methods sequential explanatory design. Parents considered pretend play important to development and a viable way to develop children’s self-efficacy and competence, but some were hesitant about the extent to which pretend play could do so. Both children and parents valued pretend play for providing safe practice. These studies revealed that children and parents do not perceive pretending to be as good as real activities for developing children’s self-efficacy and competence, but they do believe it plays a useful role in learning and development.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
pretend play, self-efficacy, competence, mixed methods, children, parents
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